Feral pigs & deer in the Otways

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Feral pigs in the Otways

Feral pigs have been sighted in the Otways for decades, however in the past 5 years a marked increase in feral pig activity had been observed, including both sightings and damage to farms and National Parks.

The presence of feral pigs in the Otways presents a real threat to these ecosystems and the threatened species that call the Otways home. However, as they are an emerging threat, we don’t have a good understanding of how widespread they are, and how they are using the ecosystems in the Otways.

In 2018, the Conservation Ecology Centre began working with Parks Victoria on a monitoring and control program as reported here, and with funding secured through the Wild Otway Initiative in 2020 we were able to expand this work.

Gaining a better understanding of how feral pigs use the Otways

We’re using GPS collars to better understand feral pig movements and how they use the landscape. In 2021, we began collecting data from GPS collars on four individual feral pigs (two adult male and two adult female). Detailed movement data over 4 months was collected from an individual boar (Bruce) until October 2021.

Through the use of these GPS collars we confirmed very different behavior between the male and female pigs, observing that mobs of sows tended to remain in one location, while breeding boars like Bruce travelled much further across the landscape, in one instance up to 10km per day. Some of these initial results were presented at the Otways Ecological Research Forum in 2021 and you can view a video of that presentation here.

We have now collared a total of 6 pigs across the Otways.

The next deployment of GPS collars will be targeted towards individuals living in close proximity of each other. This will help better understand how these animals are interacting with each other in the landscape.

In addition to the collars, we’ve also deployed grids of monitoring cameras at 3 different locations across the Otways. The data from these camera grids is providing us with information about how pigs use the landscape and can also be used to study population dynamics as we are able to identify individual pigs in the photos. We’re also collecting additional data on the locations where feral pigs occur via environmental DNA sampling in waterways as well. 

Finally, we’re encouraging the community to report pig sighting and damage via the FeralScan app, which is providing us with important information about the types of habitat pigs are using, as well as where pigs are located.

Feral deer in the Otways

Unlike feral pigs, which are an emerging pest, feral deer populations are quite well established in the Otways and deer cause significant destruction to native vegetation and the habitat of many threatened species.

Red deer are common in the central wet forests, and fallow deer tend to occur in the east and west, which are predominantly drier landscapes. During the monitoring undertaken as a part of the Wild Otways Initiative, the Conservation Ecology Centre has also received reports of both hog and samba deer in the Otways.

Our main focus on this project is developing ongoing and sustainable ways of managing the number of deer in the Otways to minimize the impact on native ecosystems.

Controlling feral pigs in the Otways

The total number of feral pigs dispatched since the start of the project is 198 (to June 2022).

Although we’re only just starting to get a full understanding of how many pigs there are in the Otways and where they are located it’s important that we act quickly to get on top of the problem.

Pigs are fast breeders, and a sow can have 20 piglets in a year, so if there are 10 sows in a group, that’s 200 additional pigs being added to a population per year, making management at a landscape scale challenging.

Rather than elimination across the entirety of the region, we are focused on asset protection around our main priority in this work – whether that is of pasture and productive farmland, or our natural assets like water courses, cultural heritage and threatened species.

As a part of the Wild Otways Initiative, the Conservation Ecology Centre are working with Parks Victoria, DELWP, Landcare and private landholders to control feral pigs across the Otways as the landscape is a patchwork of land ownership.

The project involves the use of the HogEye Remote Camera Trap system, sodium nitrite HogGone feral pig baits in remote bait stations, ground shooting and more recently we’ve been trialing Pig Brig net traps to catch pigs who are shy of the traps and baiting stations.

Parks Victoria staff are now maintaining a number of feral pig monitoring sites within the National Park and we’ll work closely with them to provide further training and support as we progress towards control. Several new control sites have also been identified in the Eastern Otways after reports from FFM Vic staff and we’ve held briefing sessions for those further afield (e.g East Gippsland) to share learnings.

This multi-faceted approach, which includes community education and close working relationships between multiple stakeholders, is a great model that can be applied elsewhere across the state.

Engaging the community in feral pest control

Community engagement was identified early on as being crucial to the success of feral pig and deer control in the Otways.

We were interested in ensuring the community were informed about the threats these feral animals pose to our unique ecosystems, but also empowered to identify and report sightings, to help build our understanding of their activities in the Otways. This has been facilitated by the active promotion of the FeralScan app, and our encouraging the community to use it to report pig and deer sightings.

Additionally, due to the high proportion of private land in the Otways, there were also many landowners in the community who we wanted to engage with directly, to provide them with the knowledge, skills and contacts they needed to effectively control these pest animals on their land.

We’ve noticed feral pigs prefer areas with open paddocks, next to a forested areas which they use for cover. They love to eat pasture and in the Otways we find them coming on to famers pastures over the winter months when the ground is soft, and the pigs can dig up cockchafers and other insects in these open areas. In summer, they tend to stick more to the cool forests, so we really notice the reports of pig damage from landholders increasing over winter.

Receiving notifications about pig activity from community and other stakeholders via FeralScan, paired with the detailed insights we are collecting from the cameras and collars, puts us in a much better position to successfully manage these pests.

FeralScan reports continue to be entered by landholders and community members, and community engagement sessions are being facilitated through the local Landcare networks – the Southern Otway Landcare Network, Central Otway Landcare Network and Upper Barwon Landcare Network.

This information is already improving management techniques and taking effect on the ground.

Collaborations with field game harvesters

The control of deer in the Otways is likely to be an ongoing activity and as such needs to be sustainable, from practical and economic as well as environmental perspectives. 

As part of the Wild Otways Initiative, the Conservation Ecology Centre has been facilitating engagement between Wild Game Field Harvesters (WGFH) and landholders in the Southern Otways to increase deer control on private land. The hope is that we can turn local venison into a commercially viable product as a way of facilitating the ongoing control of deer in the Otways.

A Wild Game Field Harvester has begun harvesting deer across private properties in the Southern Otways after engagement took place between the Conservation Ecology Centre, landholders and the Wild Game Field Harvester.

We continue to engage with local hunters and Wild Game Field Harvesters to encourage uptake of WGFH qualifications and improve deer control on private properties. One local hunter, who we engaged with in July, has gone on to trap 20 feral pigs, enrolled into his WGFH course and is near completion

Another two WGFH’s are now set up to start harvesting deer in the new year. We have passed their details onto Landcare Networks, to pass onto their members. We also plan on linking them in with multiple landholders in the same area to help improve the effectiveness of their control across the landscape.