Barking up the wrong tree? Are livestock or rabbits the greater threat to rangeland biodiversity in southern Australia?
Increasing provision of permanent water points has put most Australian pastoral rangelands within grazing distance of sheep, cattle, kangaroos and large feral herbivores, and there is concern that grazing-sensitive native plants will be lost as a result. Proposals have been developed to conserve plant biodiversity by permanently excluding livestock from any areas that are remote from permanent water, or to buy back pastoral properties and remove existing water points to create large reserves. There is, however, little evidence that water-remote areas provide refuge for grazing-sensitive plants, nor consistent evidence of plant biodiversity loss along gradients of increasing livestock grazing pressure in proximity to water. One of the reasons why that evidence might be lacking is that most livestock studies have not considered the grazing impact of sympatric European rabbits, the most widespread and abundant wild herbivore in southern Australia. Numerous studies have shown that rabbit grazing has a major impact on rangeland vegetation and can prevent regeneration at densities which may be too low to be thought important. Plant biodiversity gradients are readily discernible along gradients of rabbit density in livestock-free reserves. Rabbits are therefore likely to be a significant confounding factor when assessing livestock impacts, or possibly the primary cause of observed patterns of plant diversity. If so, attempts to preserve plant biodiversity by removing livestock are destined to fail in rabbit-grazed areas. Public funds for biodiversity conservation in the pastoral zone might be better spent on co-investment with pastoralists for rabbit control on conservatively stocked properties, rather than on restricting pastoral use of land in livestock-free, rabbit-infested reserves.