Environment & Conservation > Out of the Burrow: The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat Returns

Out of the Burrow: The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat Returns

By GREGG CALLOW
Published: March 29, 2009

Most of Australia's native animals are either loved or hated. Just because they were here first doesn't allow them to win the hearts of Australians. Wombats get a bad rap. They are burrowing animals and dig deep down to build a comfortable home with a constant temperature and to be protected. This choice of housing means they randomly dig where ever the soil is loose. Sometimes this means digging under homes and destroying the footings. Fences tend to cop a lot of destruction and cause land to collapse when cattle walk over it. This means the wombat is usually hated in general.

One type of wombat, the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat has a big band of supporters. Twenty years ago this breed had a population of only 35 wombats. This triggered a massive research and breeding program in the Epping Forest National Park in north Queensland. Today the population has reached over 115. The team of researches have fenced the national park to remove threats like dingoes. The number is still very low and there is little genetic variation, so in breeding is very common. The hairy nosed wombats are still at a fragile number. Any disaster such as a bush fire, disease could kill a large number and send the species back years. This was evident when severe floods washed through north Queensland. "Although the wombats survived the flood it highlights their vulnerability that this single population has to cataclysmic events," said Andrew Dunwoodie from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Two people on the wombats side are Bill and Leslie waterhouse. They drive out late at night to rescue injured common wombats on the side of roads. They say over 250 wombats are hit by cars yearly. So many people drive big cars in the town of Majors Creek, so when they hit the wombat no damage is done to the vehicle. The couple check the pouches of dead mothers for young. If they are early enough they will get there in time before the feral cats get to the babies.

Bob Cleaver and his wife Jan run a home called Wombat Rise Sanctuary, it is a home for injured wild life North East of Adelaide. The pair are very interested in the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat and are trying to find out all they can about them. "We think by the time of European Settlement that the species may have already become uncommon. We assume that drought and grazing pressure from cattle and sheep have accelerated the species decline," Bob said. "By 1908 the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat was extinct in the western Queensland town of St George and Deneliquin," he added.

Epping Forest National Park covers 3150 hectares, but the Hairy Nosed Wombats only inhabit 500 hectares. Burrowing is very hard work so they prefer sandy soil which limits their territory and there fore their access to food. Bob said they prefer the soft soil which is found in an ancient water course found in the area. The location is often drought affected and now have to compete with food from introduced species like rabbits, sheep and cattle. Dingoes were a major enemy before the fences went up in 1970.

A research Centre has been set up in with the Wombat Foundation and University of Queensland. They are working to find out about breeding patterns, pasture improvements controlling predators and establishing new populations. Research so far has included hair samples in search of DNA. This information shows the number of individuals and their sex. They have found that the population is made up of 70% males which is also making breeding difficult. The research centre also has 12 captive wombats kept in an artificial burrow system where they can study their interactions.

There is also the Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat, the Northern's cousin which may be able to help out. The Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat is found in South Australia and is very close in appearance but are slightly smaller than the northern cousins. These similarities allow researchers to experiment with cross fostering. They take a joey from the pouch of a northen wombat and transfer it to the pouch of a Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat. This increases reproduction by leaving the pouch empty for another joey in a Northern Hairy nosed Wombat. The young can remain in the pouch from 6 to 9 months. "Weaning usually begins at 12 months," Bob said. "The breeding season is related to the Summer rainfall. The young are born in the wet season when there is more food."

Future plans are to increase the population and create another colony of Northern Hairy Nosed Wombats to decrease the vulnerability of being a single colony population.

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