Our lovely neighbour Cathy Campbell has a new project. It’s called “Managing Mange in the Mullion” (that’s the title of the Facebook group also) and involves counting wombats, working out how many of them are affected by sarcoptic mange and treating them using “burrow flaps” that deliver a dose of medicine automatically at the entry to their underground lairs.
She’s designed a detailed programme that could be really important for our local bare-nosed wombats (vombatus ursinus). She doesn’t like to call them Common Wombats. “Nobody should be labelled common” she says.
Little do they know what’s about to happen.
The wombats of Timbertop in Victoria were probably just as surprised when my brother Andrew decided to map their burrows as a school science project. He was the shrimpy kid who was sent down the hole to do the actual mapping, while his larger friends waited to dig him out if necessary.
Luckily it wasn’t necessary.
Andrew had no idea at the time that PJ Nicholson, another boy at his school, had done the same thing in 1960 and published the research, which still stands today. Nicholson’s adventures were detailed in the book “The Secret Life of Wombats”.
They’re a select group, those wombat burrow explorers.
Not everyone is as fascinated by the secret life of wombats. Although wombats are mostly hidden underground in the daytime, they tend to be unpopular with farmers around here because of the damage they do to fences as they wander about grazing at night. Wombats are very single minded, so when they decide to go in a particular direction, they go directly and bore through any barriers with their heavy-duty digging claws. Kangaroos often follow, widening the gap in a fence by kicking with their big feet rather than jumping over, which takes far more energy. Then sheep are likely to go through too, careering over the hills to play with the neighbour’s rams, transmit lice, or footrot or any number of other no-nos.
I’ve looked into wombat gates which allow only wombats through. However, they’re tricky to construct on hilly ground. A better solution was suggested by a fencer, to simply hang heavy chain mesh over the gaps, which wombats but not sheep will push past. If you really don’t want them, chicken poo works well to discourage them, for example from digging under your house. Might be smelly, though, and if you use it too much you’ll not only be unpopular in the neighbourhood, but it becomes less effective.
In my opinion, holes in the fences were a bigger issue back when rabbits were more problematic. The Pastures Protection Board required very expensive boundary fences with deeply buried wire netting to try and stop rabbits from moving about the landscape. Since the introduction of the calici virus, the rabbits have almost disappeared from the riverbank.
It’s hard now to believe the stories Mum tells of whole hillsides that were “grey and moving” as thousands of rabbits were herded into the corner of a paddock to be shot. She used to run trap lines and sell rabbit skins on her uncle’s farm near Hamilton in Victoria for pocket money. I found this an impressive skill as a child, up there with being able to roll a cigarette one-handed while riding a horse, which she’d also learned.
A lot of the older residents around here claim that there were few wombats back then, and the numbers have increased unnaturally in recent decades. I think the wombats in those days were probably suffering from a regular case of lead-poisoning (fired from shotguns). With the Wombat Range, around Mount Wombat, in our neighbourhood, I don’t believe that they were naturally uncommon.
It doesn’t add to their popularity that bare-nosed wombats will dig around five burrows each. Big burrows that can swallow unwary vehicles.
Craig drove the truck into a collapsed hole in sandy ground near the river and had to be winched out by our chortling neighbours. Luckily they brought along a glass of wine to soften the humiliation. Foolishly, we still haven’t remembered to put a star picket in the hole to stop us doing it again.
With all these crimes, a lot of locals were not too sorry to hear that wombats have been increasingly infected with sarcoptic mange, probably carried by foxes who often make use of wombat holes when the wombat’s at one of their alternate residences. I was not pleased at all when our Jack Russell terriers were expensively infected after going down a burrow to bark at the inhabitants (fox or wombat I’m not sure).
Anyway, it’s lucky that Cathy’s here to take the wombat point of view.
I’ll be particularly interested in what sort of numbers her survey produces, because the NSW government estimates of one wombat to 5-25 hectares suggests we could have anywhere from 30 to 170 wombats living near us. That’s a big difference.
Even better, Cathy’s taken a pile of our torn corflute tree guards and may be able to use them to make the burrow flaps to cure the mange. That’s a wonderful way to recycle them for a very worthy cause.
What will the wombats think about all this? It’s hard to read a wombat expression, but I think they’ll be glad in the long run.