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Keywords:

  • demography;
  • grazing;
  • rangeland;
  • RCD;
  • recruitment;
  • survival analysis

Abstract  Recruitment in many shrub and tree species in arid Australia is limited by domestic and feral animal grazing. The outbreak of Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD or RHD) in late 1995 at Kinchega National Park (NP) in arid western NSW, Australia, coincided with intensified warren ripping and other rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) control efforts. We monitored changes in rabbit numbers in response to these factors using spotlight counts and dung-pellet counts. Rabbit populations declined initially, and were low for the remainder of the study. To assess the impact of rabbit control on vegetation, we examined whether recruitment of seedlings or vegetative suckers was occurring at Kinchega NP, following the arrival of RCD; how long such recruits were likely to survive under current grazing pressures; and whether the magnitude of current seedling and vegetative sucker recruitment and survival is greater than available data prior to RCD and extensive warren control. We followed the survival of individual seedlings and newly emerged suckers of six shrub or tree species, most of which are considered to be at risk of local decline. Three levels of caging were used to exclude all mammalian grazers; all mammalian grazers except rabbits; and no mammalian grazers. Pooled cohorts of seedlings and suckers were analysed using failure-time analyses. During the course of the study, suckering was observed in four species (Acacia carneorum, Alectryon oleifolius, Casuarina pauper and Santalum acuminatum), with seedlings observed in the other two species (Dodonaea viscosa and Acacia ligulata). Survival of suckers of some species was slightly greater than pre-RCD estimates, but in general, a pattern of little or nil recruitment is likely in suckers exposed to rabbits or to all grazing mammals. Seedling survival was particularly low regardless of the level of exclusion, largely due to desiccation. Reduction of grazing impacts may only allow recruitment into populations of species reliant on seedlings under more favourable climatic circumstances than experienced in this study, while the probability of successful recruitment into populations of suckering species in western NSW continues to be low even at very low rabbit densities.