The large and bushy cat

After more than 14 years, the old dog still has a few tricks.

One morning last month after climbing out of bed she made a bee line for the back room and started doing somersaults.

“Woof, woof, woof.” She pranced from one corner of the room to the other, stopping regularly at the fire place to sniff at the grate.

‘What’s going on here?’ I wondered as I unlocked the door that opens onto the back verandah. She was immediately between my legs and outside, tearing down the slope into the crisp July morning air at a great pace and barking into space fit to wake up the neighbourhood. As I came out after her I was just in time to see something ginger and bushy shoot out from under the timber deck of the old verandah and vanish into the trees shaded by the pale morning light.

‘That was a very large, bushy cat,’ I thought to myself as I tried in vain to call the dog back. ‘How did our venerable, short sighted and hearing impaired hound know something was under the verandah from her comfortable tartan bed, inside the house?’

“Dogs are like that, aren’t they?”

Dogs are like that, aren’t they? The next morning it was on again. This time it was my wife who was looking from a window looking out onto the same verandah when, in response to another commotion from the dog, she clearly saw something shoot out from under the deck and take off down the slope for a second time. Moggy indeed my good lady! Have you ever seen a fox trot?

“Oh, but he was so cute,” she said as she went on to describe to me the fox she had seen from her window.

Cute maybe, but the Fantastic Mr Fox is an introduced pest in Australia and has been held responsible for the extinction of several of our native species across the mainland since settlement. Foxes are common in urban areas and they are widespread across a country where it has been estimated that there are now over 7 million of the blighters. That’s nearly two foxes for every pet dog in the country. My only sainted aunt, the said venerable hound must be feeling like a member of some sort of Yallambie social minority.

Hunt Club meeting outside the Old England Hotel, Heidelberg. (Source: Old England Hotel)
Melbourne Hunting Club meeting at Heidelberg, from “The Illustrated Australian News”, 1895. The prominent building in this picture is possibly Wragge’s Heidelberg Recreation Hall. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Foxes were imported for sport to Port Phillip in the early days and Heidelberg to the north east of Melbourne was to become a favourite meeting place for the Melbourne hunting clubs that formed, particularly towards the end of the 19th century. The Old England Hotel in Heidelberg opposite the recreation hall owned by Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge in Lower Heidelberg Rd was for nearly half a century the favoured venue for many of these hunting club ventures. The course generally involved the release of a fox on one of the larger local estates followed by a chase over the fields and a subsequent return to the Hotel for refreshments. The Old England as a staging post provided purpose built kennels and horse stalls for the hunt while local children, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes earned a shilling holding the reins of unstabled horses as the riders took their tea inside.

Oaklands Hunt Club meeting at Viewbank,1958. (Source: Picture Victoria, ©Heidelberg Historical Society)

For a while the hunts proved to be important social occasions in the district and the events were even occasionally patronized by Victoria’s vice regal society. At one occasion in 1874 it was recorded that the Lieutenant Governor and his wife, Sir George and Lady Bowen followed a hunt all the way from Heidelberg to Eltham in their four horse carriage, a route that would almost certainly have taken them past the southern fields of Yallambie itself.

Sanitary style wallpapersof the Hunt from an upstairs sub floor area at Yallambie Homestead.

While Thomas Wragge’s youngest son Harry is known to have hunted in the Pink on a visit to England (Calder: Classing the Wool, p145), it remains unclear now whether the Wragges on the whole followed any of these local gatherings on a regular basis. Their love of the equestrian has been documented elsewhere and, perhaps tellingly, a set of oleographs of the Hunt are remembered as hanging over the dining room fireplace at the Wragge family’s Riverina country property, Tulla Homestead and wall papers of hunting scenes have been found behind the skirting boards of the original billiards room at Yallambie Homestead.

Thomas Wragge’s second Tulla Homestead located on the Wakool River, NSW, c1900. (Source: Betty Lush Collection).

At Tulla the spread of vermin foxes had reached the vicinity of the nearby Barham by 1895, but with the coming of the motor car on the family’s up country Riverina properties, a more pragmatic mount seems to have been favoured for the hunt in the 20th century.

Thomas Wragge’s grand-daughter Lady Betty Lush recalled a thrilling fox hunt that took place at Chowar in the station Chevrolet when a fox led them on a long dance through the paddocks, the car driving through swamps and tussock grass, wire net fences and fallen timber before finally being run to ground in a haystack. With Betty’s sister Molly behind the wheel of the lurching car, their mother crouching on the floor in abject terror, their father stood to attention on the back seat, swinging the loaded shot gun wildly around in every direction in search of the target.

“(The fox) was aware of us when father who was standing up in the back of the car with the gun, the hood of the car was down of course, called out to Molly, ‘Let her go’. Molly misunderstood and jammed on the brakes where upon father fell onto the back seat and both barrels fortunately discharged into the air.” (Calder, ibid, quoting Lush)

Thomas Wragge (bearded, behind left) with children at Yallambie. Youngest son Harry is in the front holding up a shot gun while another son, Syd is lying behind him also with a shot gun. (Source: Bill Bush collection)

From this story and from photographic evidence in the Bush Collection, it is obvious that guns were important to the Wragges, both as a recreation and as tools of the trade on a working farm where not all targets came in the size of the proverbial haystack. The fact is the record shows that the Wragge’s had something of a prior history with the Fox and the story of the cavalier attitudes towards firearms described by Betty at Chowar is perhaps to be wondered at upon reflection.

William Wragge, 1875-1906 (Source: Anne Hill collection)

The inherent danger associated with firearms is nowhere better illustrated than in the following tale of the sad demise of Will Wragge at Yallambie in 1906. William, the second youngest son of Thomas, met a premature end after going out with a gun under his arm in the early morning air, calling after his sister Jessie as he did so that he had seen a fox from his window. His sister wrote afterwards that:

“Willie while dressing – morning saw from his bedroom window a fox in the orchard. He hurried threw on a raincoat & taking a pea-rifle followed the fox. When he did not come into breakfast, after a reasonable time, someone went in search and found his body beside a stile shot dead. They think that in crossing on the stile he must have stepped on his raincoat, blundered and the loaded rifle killed him.”

Will was just 30 years old when this happened, a life cut short. The Coroner, Dr Cole delivered an open verdict due to an insufficient evidence to show how or by what means the gun had exploded but there is no doubt Will’s tragic death left a hole in the lives of all those around him.

“Oryctolagus cuniculus”, the bunny who wandered in from the cold and stayed on at Yallambie as a pet. She was once lost inside a chimney of the house for several days but survived that adventure to enjoy many more carrots.

The Fox won that one but although feral foxes have been a problem on rural properties across Australia for many years, their presence did help in a small way to keep a check on another introduced species whose presence was to wreak even greater general damage to the Australian mainland environment. Oryctolagus cuniculus, better known to us as that ever so cute wild bunny rabbit is said to have been introduced to Australia in 1859 by Thomas Austin, whose money after his death founded locally Heidelberg’s Austin Hospital.

Wood engraving from “The Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers”, 1867 after an original by Nicholas Chevalier showing a rabbit hunt at Barwon Park. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Thomas Austin was a keen sportsman and wanted a few bunnies to hunt around his Western District property, Barwon Park at Winchelsea. It’s said that he stated at the time that, “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home.” Like the American Civil War general who said, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” they were to prove to be famous last words. Australia didn’t get elephants running wild at the bottom of the garden, but we did get rabbits. Loads of them. Rabbits adapted so well to local conditions that Austin soon found, keen sportsman though he was, that his rabbits were breeding faster than he could ever possibly manage to shoot them down.

“Loads of them…”

All sorts of programmes were developed to try to control the spread of the species, from dynamiting and poisoning their burrows and erecting rabbit proof fences to the cruel biological controls of the 20th century, but still the damage continued. Rabbits were first mentioned in the Tulla diaries of 1883, the year in which the Rabbit Nuisance Act of Parliament was passed, but the threat seemed to have been regarded of small consequence by the Wragges at that time. 10 years later measures were being taken at Tulla to control their numbers, with Thomas Wragge purchasing wire net fencing from England to replace the brush fences which harboured the pests, and Aboriginal middens that had been developed by Australia’s first people over a presence of tens of thousands of years, ploughed over to remove established warrens – a great loss to the Aboriginal record.

The poison wagon at Tulla used to fumigate rabbit warrens. (Source: Betty Lush collection)

Winty Calder’s conservative estimate in “Classing the Wool” was that, at its height, there was a plague of well over a million rabbits at Tulla – probably several millions. By the depression years of the 1930s a “rabbit man” had been employed to fight the rabbit problem with the agreed arrangement being that he should take measures to keep numbers down, the supposed incentive being that he should pay any nominal fines imposed on the property by the government for rabbit outbreaks.

Piling up dead rabbits at Tulla. (Source: Betty Lush collection)

George Flight proved to be a rabbit man with a singularly good mind for business. The Tulla trustees paid him £1000 per annum for the responsibility of fighting their rabbit problem and he subcontracted to gangs of other rabbiters who made camps all over the station, trapping the rabbits and sending the meat and skins down to Melbourne to market. It was only after a year or two of this activity and after rabbit numbers had exploded to astronomical proportions that it became apparent just what a good businessman George really was. He and his rabbiting pals had been trapping rabbits, dispatching the bucks but releasing the does and young back into the paddocks to breed. In effect Tulla had become Flight’s very own personal rabbit farm, a rabbit farm of over a hundred thousand acres and he profited handsomely from the exercise. When it became obvious what was going on, the team of about 70 so called rabbiters was summarily sacked but by then the matter was totally out of hand, a situation that was not brought back under control again until the drought years later in the decade.

As we have seen, foxes and rabbits have been an environmental problem for 150 years in this country with the two animals going sort of hand in hand in a sort of uneasy Br’er Fox, Br’er Rabbit, hunter and its prey exotic coexistence. With the challenges presented by climate change however, the threats to our environment in the future have never seemed clearer. With this in mind it’s worth finishing up here with another sometimes overlooked, feral animal familiar to us all but which some experts hold is arguably the single most destructive of all the introduced predator species present in Australia.

Scientists have cited the humble pussy cat as the “main threat to Australia’s biodiversity” with an estimated 23 million feral cats running wild in this country, or more than three times the number of foxes, and these cats manage to destroy 75 million native animals every single night. That’s more than 20 billion mammals, reptiles, birds and insects killed by cats Australia wide, every year. It’s a sobering thought when you look at that fluffy ball of fur pushing its way between your legs in the kitchen at tea time to know that his pals are out there all the time and that they are responsible for the destruction of many of our most threatened species, notwithstanding the fluffy balls of fur themselves all so often irresponsibly let out at night by their owners in suburban river side locations.

The truth is that feral cats are harder to eradicate in practice than those other traditional problem animals, the wild fox and the rabbit with all the evidence indicating that cats do not respond to conventional control methods such as baiting. In those places where fox numbers and rabbit populations have been reduced by baiting, it has been shown that there is inevitably a corresponding explosion in feral cat numbers leading experts to state that one cannot be controlled without reference to the other.

When it comes down to it then “the large and bushy cat” seen here last month, although exposed as a fox, might just as well have been a cat as judged by their comparative potentially destructive values. An interesting proposition I’m sure, but I’m afraid that’s probably not much consolation to the doomed native bird or animal as it slips down the throat of one or the other while contemplating the relative merits of the killer’s respective bushy tail.

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