Little information is available on relationships between pest animal density and damage in natural ecosystems. Introduced European rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, cause severe damage to Australian native vegetation but density–damage relationships are largely unexplored. There are no recognized simple methods to estimate their impacts on native pastures, due in part to confusion with grazing impact of other herbivores. We tested simple quantitative sampling methods using multiple small quadrats to detect site differences in pasture cover, pasture species richness and dung pellet density of herbivores, from which rabbit density and relative abundance of larger herbivores were estimated. Native pasture cover and species richness declined exponentially with increasing rabbit density, within the range of 0–5 rabbits ha-1, while cover of unpalatable exotic pasture species increased. By contrast, kangaroo abundance was positively related to palatable native pasture cover and negatively related to cover of unpalatable weeds, and had no negative effect on native pasture cover or species richness that was discernable against a background of low to moderate rabbit densities. Perennial native forbs and perennial grasses replaced invasive Wards weed as the dominant ground cover at low rabbit densities. We conclude that, regardless of previous grazing history, contemporary kangaroo grazing pressure and weed invasion, the severely degraded state of native pastures was perpetuated by rabbits. The effect of rabbits on native pasture can be recorded in a simple manner that is suitable for identifying density–damage relationships in the presence of other herbivores and changes over time. This method is seen as particularly useful in setting target densities below which rabbits must be managed to maintain native plant communities and ecosystem function in southern Australia. It may also be useful to demonstrate rabbits’ impacts in other regions, including optimum densities for plant biodiversity benefits in their native European range.
Mutze, G., Cooke, B., & Jennings, S. (2016). Density-dependent grazing impacts of introduced European rabbits and sympatric kangaroos on Australian native pastures. Biological Invasions, 18(8), 2365-2376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-016-1168-4