Treating Wombats with Mange

Wombats with mange in Tasmania has been an ongoing problem for a very long time. In fact, at a meeting in June 2011 with the Wildlife Management Branch from the DPIPWE we were informed that there has been a ‘huge problem’ of mange on Flinders Island and that ‘it has been a problem for the past 20 years’. Other areas reported to have wombats with mange are, north-east Tasmania and north-west Tasmania, Primrose Sands, Copping, Bothwell, Central Highlands, Jericho, Colebrook, Narawntapu National Park and a recent report from Lake St Clair as well as Ben Lomond.

The meeting was initiated by the now three Tasmanian Directors from the Wombat Protection Society of Australia (WPSA) with regard to:

·         mange treatments for wild wombats as well as wombats in care;

·         responses to existing treatments;

·         new treatments;

·         legalities ;

·         the ‘unofficial policy’ by DPIPWE to euthanaise wombats with mange; and

·         mange mapping for Tasmania.

All parties concerned agreed that this was and is an animal welfare issue, but the three Directors expressed their concern regarding DPIPWE’s ‘unofficial policy’ to euthanase wombats with mange, stating that the infestation is treatable and that was the initial reason for the meeting.  Reference was made to Lee Skerratt’s 2001 PhD thesis ‘Sarcoptic Mange in the Common Wombat’ and the successful results that were achieved, as well as the success Brigitte Stevens from the Wombat Awareness Organisation (WAO) in SA is having even on a larger scale. There is also further evidence of success by wildlife carers in NSW who in turn support private landowners who are asking for help to treat the wombats rather than have the wombats shot. Of course some wombats are too far gone and the only humane solution is to euthanase them as it can be a slow and painful death. But euthanasia is not the only answer for all wombats with mange.  Each case should be assessed separately and a management plan put in place for those wombats that can and should be treated.  The outcome of the meeting was that as there had been no resolution of the infestation in Tasmania, or alternatives to the ‘unofficial policy’, despite the results of the 2001 thesis and mainland carers achievements, it was proposed that research be conducted in Tasmania in order to seek approaches to the eradication of sarcoptic mange in wombats in Tasmania.

Discussion for such research:

·         the necessity of seeking funding;

·         the necessity of support by Parks & Wildlife Service;

·         investigation as to ‘stressors’ in the wombats’ environment;

·         that any resulting field work be on a small scale, e.g. around the Ranger’s Hut at Narawntapu;

·         a trial of treatment for mange in a wild population of wombats be the goal;

·         monitoring of individual wombats in areas reported with mange;

·         controlled monitoring, e.g. using technology such as the use of GPS and night cameras; and

·         submit an application for approval to ‘Animal Ethics Committee ‘(AEC).

We are pleased to say that we have been successful in securing a grant of $3,000 to purchase six remote cameras that will assist us with the monitoring of free living wombats as well as wombats in care, all in all a good start.

Wombats with mange is treatable even in free living wombats. Stopping mange has to start by getting people to know enough and care enough to take action. A very small number of wildlife rehabilitators know about mange and its devastating impact on wombats. Solutions to the problem are not simple and they are complicated by the animals’ behaviour and our lack of interaction with this animal. Some of these obstacles can be overcome by reproducing information on mange and targeting this information to a wider audience than the wildlife rehabilitation fraternity.  In saying that, it is the wildlife rehabilitation community to which the project owes its existence and indeed, most of the information which suggests how mange could be treated in free living wombats comes from those who have raised and rehabilitated wombats through these groups. 

How to begin

Wombats suffering from severe infestations may be seen during the day and some members treat these wombats by simply walking up behind and downwind of them and pouring on a solution directly. This method only works for a month or so because when the wombat’s ears and eyes clear up, they will bolt before they can be reached because they are hearing and seeing better.  Eventually, as they recover, they return to nocturnal behaviour as their eyes heal, which means they are no longer seen during the day. By following a wombat to its burrow means you can ensure a longer period of effective treatment. Tracking and mapping burrows in an area is the next best approach, and in areas where there are many burrows, working out which burrows are active and treating those would be the best approach.

Some burrows are very obvious and easy to locate, others are more discrete. If you can not locate the particular burrow a wombat is using, you may need to locate and ‘treat’ all the burrows in an area.  This is necessary anyway if you see a large number of wombats with mange using an area.  Wombats use pathways that have overhangs, often going under logs and branches. If you are following a track and have to jump over or duck under trees and logs, you are likely to be following a wombat track. Burrows are often downward towards gullies and very often near to creeks. Wallabies and kangaroos tend to use clear pathways. Wombats will have scat sites and scratching places nearby. They become very thirsty as their skin ‘leaks’ so they are likely to be close to a water source. This is a good tip too for those treating wombats: make sure they have access to easy water.

G.P.S. Systems are helpful if you plan to monitor a large number of burrows, however some people report that in dense bush with accuracy restricted to a couple of metres, you may need to develop some other marker system to ensure you find the burrow again. Hang a coloured bit of fabric nearby, or a description on your treatment sheet. Some people use maps and mark and describe where they are, adding burrows as they find more. Once you have found your burrow, the burrow flap is arranged in the most suitable manner depending on the burrow entrance shape.

While burrow flaps placed at the entrance provide the best direct treatment, there may be occasions where it is more practical to use a track or a pathway that is being used by wombats, even under fences where they have pushed through, or on access points under a house or sheds, if a wombat is living there. The issues to consider are whether you will treat a particular wombat you are targeting as effectively. Wombats are known to share their burrows with other wombats and even use a couple of burrows in one night.  Some ‘burrows’ are just short bolt holes or ‘test dig’ burrows made by younger wombats. So you will not need to flap all the active burrows you find. Some farmers mistakenly think there is one wombat per burrow, when there could be as many as 40 burrows, 20 active and only 6 wombats! One wombat can do up to 100 scats in a night, which helps the myth of there being many more wombats than there actually are.

Flaps over burrows are more likely to treat a particular wombat. Wombat tracks are frequently used by more than one wombat and may also be used by other animals, hence the likelihood of treating a particular animal on a track is lower than directly in front of a burrow. While the work of monitoring large areas where wombats are being treated is relatively new, one large treatment area reported that wombats may move from their burrow if a flap is left in place. A number of people have reported no issues and wombats continued to use burrows, throughout the treatment schedule, with flaps left in place all the time, empty or filled.  Bare-nosed wombats move burrows periodically, following feed, water or breeding cycles.  Bare-nosed wombats also are reported to enjoy sunning themselves at the entrance to their burrows, so large flaps which block sun could potentially interfere with their afternoon sunning.  If flaps can be checked the following day and lifted up/off out of the way until the next treatment, any concerns about the flap interfering with the burrow entrance are addressed. 

Flaps can be plywood, small ice cream lids, or milk bottle sides or just caps, hot glued to string or wire.  If using a small ice cream lid or a milk bottle side you can cut the slot out using craft knives, scissors or a soldering iron to burn the slots out. The lid fits in and is held in place without the need for glue by the remaining plastic ‘tongues’. If using plywood, a jigsaw or hole saw will be necessary and the lid is glued in position. A hot glue gun works well with all ply and plastics and you need to use a reasonable amount of glue.  If necessary, use a ‘roof’ to stop the lids filling with rain water. In the plastic flap model this is a slot into which a suitable sized piece of plastic from the container or another lid is placed. In the plywood model a small piece of plywood is inserted into a slot to perform the same function. Do round off any sharp points on roofs or shelves. Corrugated cardboard can also be used but is less durable.  And there have been reported cases of ‘flap rage’, so it may be necessary to either replace the flap or put the flap in a different location.

Record keeping

A treatment record can be kept, keeping a record of usage of burrow, whether the treatment dosage was emptied, along with the date and description. This will give you a picture of what is happening with your burrows.  Dated photos are also a great help, when you can get them.

Wombat Facts :   

  • If the current local resident wombat is removed, younger wombats will divide up the area and move in. The younger wombats are more likely to make test runs at burrow digging and abandon them than older adults.
  •  Wombats live in 6 or more burrows, some having two entrances and do 80 to 100 scats each per night, so burrow or scat counting will not be a good indication of how many wombats are actually around.
  • A single wombat may own a number of generational burrows, often centuries old.
  •  Wombats may abandon partly dug burrows, so there will appear to be more burrows than there are wombats. These are often only used as a temporary shelter in an emergency.
  • Wombats can have a home range of 5 hectares in good conditions and up to 23ha in poor conditions and can range as far as 3 kilometres in a single night.
  •  In good conditions bare-nosed wombats breed every two to three years and have only one young. If there is not enough territory or conditions are poor, wombats do not breed.  A pair of wombats will only produce the equivalent of one female every 4 years.  A baby wombat stays with mum for 2 years and they live about 10 to 12 years in good conditions in the wild.
  • Wombats have the lowest known food intake of all Australian marsupials.  It is less than half that of a koala.
  • Wombats are quite intelligent and train well to electric fences and can climb.