1979: The harvesting of possum, wallaby and kangaroo

— an initial contribution to domestication

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, August 1978. Edition: 1979, Autumn/Winter.

IN TRIBAL Aboriginal areas and in forests and permacutture systems designed for complex yield, wallaby and other Australian native species have a place. All those listed in the title yield furs, meat and sinew products. All have a role in forests for fire control (as 'marsupial lawn' browsers), weed control (especially for the fireweeds such as Ericthtites), thinning of seediings after fire and as natural components of the total system.

In today's forests they are poisoned or fenced out and few farmers, gardeners or public authorities have a positive management policy towards marsupials.

Some notes on their usefulness are therefore in order, as the marsupials have been banished from the European-oriented ecosystems and the forests of the pulp companies.

The value of native animals

First, graziers such as Ian Swan of Birralee, Tasmania, who is also a qualified forester, have analysed the economics of wallaby versus sheep.

Needing neither improved pasture, machine tilling, complex buildings and no drenching etc, wallaby can be managed by fewer men on worse country and for greater energy gain than sheep. The situation is analagous to the African savannah analyses, where clearing, 'improvement' and fencing plus monoculture of sheep and beef reduced the animal protein available to 1/80th of its 'unimproved' yield.

Population dynamics of native herbivores

Antelope (the dik-dik is under investigation) and the wallaby are quickly tamed by feeding, are efficient in utilising low-quality browse, and have a variety of management potential. For instance, males are 67 percent, 47 percent and 18 percent of the tertiary (adult) sex ratios in mature populations of brush possum, Tasmanian pademelon and the rednecked wallaby respectively. These are part-arboreal, dense scrub and scrub edge species, in that order.

Plains or mob species of kangaroo may have even fewer males in association with breeding females. The 'mobbing' or social gathering size, and the social structure (familial, undifferentiated group and differentiated 'family', plus male mobs) is influenced by the sex ratio. The more males, the less the species can gather or split social functions. Analogies can be made with seals, swans, etc.

In every case, it is the number of mature females that keep the population size up, and the number of immature animals (both male and female) plus surplus males that can be harvested without affecting populations.

Where no harvest occurs, overgrazing, seasonal drought, disease and crowding stress will do the harvesting, sometimes in a catastrophic way. All bushmen have seen the crash of native cat, possum and wallaby populations in such crowded conditions, sometimes taking years to replace themselves. As Aborigines undoubtedly knew and practiced wise management of marsupials (by a system of taboos) it is doubtful whether managed populations ever reached disaster numbers in tribal areas.

Most species of marsupial breed regularly where rainfall is sufficient to maintain steady forage. In cooler areas there is usually an Autumn (May) oestrus with a smaller Spring (November) oestrus, so that 100 percent, and then (say) 15 percent of mature females breed in these seasons, weaning August-September and April-May.

Dryland species may breed opportunistically following rain, and tropical species more irregularly as befits the continuous and steady plant growth in the tropics.

There is little doubt that we could manage or select for double breeding in many species much as one selects for twinning in sheep flocks.

The cultivation of wallabies

The forest wallabies are of special interest as they thrive in dark understorey, feeding on moss sporangia, fungi and the rare shrubs under canopy and along forest edges. They occupy niches no

domestic species can fill. Similarly, plains species select coarse browse left untouched by sheep, geese, or other domestic livestock. All species become very tame after a few days of supplementary feeding if not hunted by men or dogs. All are easily trapped in solid wooden traps, easily handled in bags and can be selectively culled.

Bran, pollard, calf food and like feeds are readily accepted by all species as are waste materials such as vegetable peelings and culls and food scraps.

Wallaby — a plus for polycultural farmers

Free of fat, with useful furs, subject to crashes of overpopulation, good-natured, useful in a variety of ecologies and in the management of forest and pasture, the marsupial has a valuable but as yet underdeveloped and neglected part to play in every sane ecology as does the water buffalo, the forest bison of Poland, the Canadian beaver, the African dik-dik, the hare and the deer. All need management (as do all domestic species) but all have unique values.

In short, the wallaby is a plus in any ecology and should be encouraged by all polycultural farmers. Trapping, handling and culling data and some yield estimates should be available from reports to the Division of Wildlife Research, CSIRO, Gungahlin, ACT.

We have wasted and mismanaged our wildlife resources (bird and mammal) by unthinking and often harvesting, taking valuable adult females and the selected (by survival) adult males. No species can stand the harassment and senseless culling, the poisons and monoculture philosophy currently practised.

It is long past time we set up study groups and management systems to include such species in an integrated colony.

Why look at pine forests as pulp? Why not sow Mitchellia repens below the canopy and raise partridge or pigeon?

A new diversity

I point out, in conclusion, that all I am proposing is a commonsense and controlled approach to a new diversity. I am not advocating the release of unmanageable species in unregulated lands. Large species, being visible, can always be regulated and slow-breeding small species (eg. hares) are the same. Predatory and fast-breeding species (eg. rabbits) are a danger  and should be closely regulated.

Both our managed ecologies and our nutrition would improve by wise inclusion of useful species.

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