Of fire and ferals

Life’s tough when you’re a fox. Bandicoots don’t just sit around waiting for you to catch them. And when you finally sniff one out, all that dense understorey gets in the way of a speedy chase.

But what happens if there’s no understorey in the way? Does the fox’s job become easier? And do things become a lot tougher for bandicoots?

In a land that is increasingly fire-prone, the interactions between predators, fire and native mammals in forest ecosystems is an important knowledge gap for land managers aiming to conserve native fauna. Both planned (or prescribed) fires and wildfires tend to remove a lot of understorey vegetation cover, at least temporarily.


A fox checks out recently-burnt forest in the Otway Ranges (photo: B. Hradsky)

During my PhD with the Fire Ecology and Biodiversity group at the University of Melbourne, I worked with an Honours student, Craig Mildwaters, and land management agencies, to determine how foxes, feral cats and their native prey responded to a prescribed burn.  Our work was recently published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

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Talking to strangers

‘Are your fox collars brown with a big black lump on one side?’ asked the woman on the phone.

‘Yup, sounds like them. Why?’

‘Umm, I’ve got one here. My friend found it on a dead fox on the road.’

Damn, damn. At that stage, I only had collars on two foxes and now I was back to one again.

I picked the collar up from her friend’s letterbox on my next field trip and sure enough it was Fern’s. Talk about a death-wish! The first fox I ever caught, she had been slightly too small to collar back in December, just an over-grown cub. Then I had re-caught her in late January and been so happy to find that she’d gained enough weight to fit with a GPS collar.

'Gully' - the other fox I had collared at the time

‘Gully’ – the other fox I had collared at the time

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Technological musings

We decided to call him Gammy.

He was a feisty old fox, with worn teeth and a stiff ankle where a once-broken bone had healed. It was the second-last day of my field trip and I’d been debating whether to pull the traps in as I drove up the road. We had already checked them at dawn and caught nothing, but here was Gammy at 11 o’clock in the morning – my fourth fox of the week.

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

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It’s dark. It’s raining (it nearly always is – this area gets over two metres rainfall a year). The chunky 4WD tyres are slick with mud. And in front of us is a sign with huge red letters: NO TRESSPASSING. KEEP OUT. And a high barb-wired fence. Damn.

We’re looking for Rush. Rush is a young male fox I fitted with a GPS tracking collar a month ago. He used to live in a small patch of recently burnt forest, holing up in a tree-fern gully during the day and then scouting through the bush and nearby paddocks overnight. A concise home-range, only a kilometre across, which overlapped neatly with Cinnamon’s – I suspect they are siblings. But this morning his collar sent me an email from a completely new location, nearly 4 km from where he’s been before (very funky technology, this! Saves me an incredible amount of driving in circles looking for non-existent foxes).

Rush-the-fox waking up

Rush-the-fox, shortly after I fitted him with a tracking collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

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