Almost 20,000 feral pigs culled in seven months across NSW amid foot-and-mouth disease fears

Source: ABC.Net

The New South Wales government says close to 20,000 feral pigs have been culled in seven months through aerial shooting operations, equating to one every 15 minutes.

NSW Agricultural Minister Dugald Saunders said controlling feral pigs was more critical than ever because of the threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

“There is a definite concern that if FMD was to enter our country, it could be spread through feral pig populations across NSW,” Mr Saunders said.

“Protecting ourselves from biosecurity threats is a shared responsibility, and pest animal management is something every rural landholder can do to play their part.”

He said last year coordinated pest control activities were carried out on more than 40 million hectares of land across NSW.

Threat of FMD spurs action

Up to 45 per cent of Australia’s land mass is inhabited by feral pigs, but actual populations are unknown.

Pest specialist Darren Marshall is on the implementation committee of the National Feral Pig Action Plan.

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Feral pig surveillance by the Western Riverina Pest Project in 2016

He said the threat of foot-and-mouth disease and African Swine Fever was “spurring people into action” when it came to feral pig control.

“Feral pigs are difficult because you have to take out 75 per cent of the population in a short period of time to have any impact, and that’s because they breed so fast,” Mr Marshall said.

“I would be really worried, that if [foot-and-mouth disease] did get into the feral pig population, I don’t think we would get it out.”

Pig numbers have risen in last two years

In western NSW a coordinated public and private landholder program has seen success in controlling feral pig populations, but numbers have risen in recent years.

The Western Riverina Pest Project was started back in 2016, initiated by the local NSW Farmers branch who were concerned by the increase in feral pig numbers.

The project, run by Local Land Services, is now the largest feral pig control program in Australia, covering an area of 1.4 million hectares.

Pigs in a green swamp
Feral pigs’ core breeding areas are often swampy, wetland areas that are hard to reach. (Supplied: The Western Riverina Pest Project)

Project coordinator and Local Land Services senior biosecurity officer Suzie Holbery said they had removed 46,000 pigs from the landscape since 2016.

This had seen the population drop from more than 11 to 0.8 pigs per square kilometre in 2020.

However, the latest survey saw the population density rise to 2.4 pigs per square kilometre.

Ms Holbery said COVID restrictions had reduced control efforts and the wet seasons had led to prolific breeding.

“We’ll be implementing the next round of control strategies to drive that number back down again,” she said.

Since its conception the project has been involved in numerous research projects, including a DNA sampling pilot with the CSIRO to assess the interbreeding between feral pig populations.

“It looked at how in the event of a disease outbreak you could strategically control a population,” Ms Holbery said.

A waterway snakes around dense bushland
Aerial shooting is seen as the only effective tool to control feral pigs in some wetland areas. (Supplied: The Western Riverina Pest Project)

She said aerial shooting was a crucial tool in feral pig control, given their preferred habitat was swampy, wetland environments that are hard to access from the ground.

“In those landscapes aerial shooting is really the only effective tool that we have to penetrate those areas and drive those populations down.”