The country pleasure of keeping a few backyard chooks turned to heartbreak for Mt Pleasant resident John Weber and his partner Kat, when they awoke on AFL grand final morning to find European red foxes had slaughtered their entire brood.
Their chickens, individually Shirl, Red and Greg, or collectively the Skychooks, were initially thought to have been the victim of a local cat, but gruesome, half-completed attempts to bury one of the former band members pointed to a vulpine offender - a skulk of foxes.
Foxes are common in the inner parts of all Australia's capital cities. Ballarat, with extensive parks full of rabbits and open drains, provides ample habitat for the introduced pest.
CEO of the Invasive Species Council Andrew Cox says he sympathises with the loss of the Skychooks, and says it's important to realise how much damage foxes and other introduced predators do to Australian native species as well as their impact on farming stock.
"Foxes, together with cats, have caused the most damage to mammals and continue to threaten mammals in Australia," Mr Cox said.
"Foxes and cats together are responsible for most of the mammal extinctions in Australia. Small-to-medium sized mammals are really vulnerable, and birds are particularly vulnerable too, ground nesting birds and birds that are roosting."
Mr Cox says the damp wetlands and prolific birdlife around Lake Wendouree are ideal for foxes.
"They like to hang around and pick off those birds that aren't on an island," he says.
"They are extremely intelligent and yes, they are cunning."
Foxes, together with cats, have caused the most damage to mammals and continue to threaten mammals in AustraliaAndrew Cox, CEO, Invasive Species Council
John Weber now has firsthand experience of fox determination. The predators, says Mr Weber, dug under a concrete fence to get at the chickens. His neighbour, who also had three chickens, had protected his fowls with what he thought was a fox-proof fence.
Sadly, it was not.
"We've got a bit of a fence in the front of our yard, which we thought was pretty pest-proof because we've managed to stop our cat being able to get into the backyard," Mr Weber said.
"We'd just replanted the backyard, so we moved the chickens to stop them scratching up the new backyard. But because nothing could get in or out, we stopped locking them in overnight. They just would wander freely back into their coop and then wander around the garden.
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"This fox still managed to dig under the back fence and then under the middle fence again, an took them from the coops. But our next door neighbour had his birds locked away at night, and they still managed to get his. I'm not sure how they managed to do that."
There is hope for more effective control of feral pests like foxes and cats..
The federal Department of Agriculture says the CSIRO is involved in international research into the genetic biocontrol of invasive rodents, and is investigating the use of those technologies to control pests more broadly.
"Feral cats and European red foxes have long been recognised as threats to Australia's native wildlife," a spokesperson for the department said.
"They are listed as a 'Key Threatening Process' under national environmental law and plans have been developed to guide and coordinate Australia's response to the impacts of feral cats on biodiversity."
The Australian Government is investing in projects to combat the effects of invasive species, the spokesperson said
"Since 2014, more than $32 million has been invested in on-ground action and research to reduce the impacts of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife.
"This includes undertaking cat control activities in high conservation value areas, eradicating feral cats from islands, creating fenced invasive predator free safe havens and the developing new control tools such as the Curiosity bait for feral cats and Felixer Grooming Trap.
"These actions are helping to deliver on the Threatened Species Strategy, which includes targets for managing feral cats.
"The Australian Government is also supporting fox control. For example, $7 million has been provided to Natural Resource Management groups in bushfire affected areas for emergency interventions and initial wildlife recovery efforts, which includes the control of feral predators like foxes."
An Agriculture Victoria spokesperson reminded landholders it was their job to control vermin on their properties.
"Foxes are well established across the state and are beyond eradication, meaning ongoing management is required to mitigate their impacts," they said.
"Foxes are an established pest throughout Victoria and thrive in urban areas as there is plenty of available food and shelter. Fox numbers can fluctuate from season to season based on weather conditions, diseases and parasites, access to food and shelter, and effectiveness of control programs."