Damage caused by low-density exotic herbivore populations: the impact of introduced European rabbits on marsupial herbivores and Allocasuarina and Bursaria seedling survival in Australian coastal shrubland.
The impact of over-abundant exotic herbivores is well recognised, but their impact at low population densities is poorly understood. This study examined interactions between European rabbits and native herbivores, and their impact on seedling recruitment in coastal South Australia, 2 years after rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) had reduced rabbit density to 4.48 rabbits ha-1. Rabbit density was further reduced to 0.44 rabbits ha-1 in replicated experimental treatments. Rabbit control reduced total grazing pressure by 39% despite compensatory grazing increases of >100% for both western grey kangaroos and common wombats. Rabbit control slowed the rate of grazing and mortality for planted drooping sheoak and sweet bursaria seedlings, but few survived for 12 months: 0 and 3% of sheoak, in untreated areas and rabbit control treatments, respectively, and 3 and 11% of bursaria, respectively. Planted sheoaks survived well if protected by rabbit-proof netting (60%). Within treatments, seedling grazing and survival rates were negatively correlated with rabbit density but kangaroo and wombat density had no measurable effect. We conclude that RHD may briefly have reduced rabbit densities enough to allow recruitment of bursaria but that sheoak require much lower rabbit densities than those provided by existing biological control agents. If left unaddressed, rabbit grazing could ultimately lead to the loss of sheoaks throughout most of their current range, irrespective of other attempts to conserve them. More generally, these data show how species-specific damage caused by low-density exotic herbivore populations may occur in the presence of more abundant but less-damaging native herbivores.