Mainland Forgotten Fauna: Part 11 – Let’s revisit a time when the stony rises of western Victoria were teeming with eastern quolls

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to participate in a DELWP-hosted discussion about the future of quolls in Victoria. The discussion was prompted by several Indigenous groups around the state who are concerned about the loss of quoll species – and our native predators generally – from our landscapes.

While there are no immediate or easy solutions to this issue, considering the complex process of ecological “unravelling” that commenced in the 1890s and led us to this point, at least there are a number of passionate people that haven’t forgotten about our quolls, nor the missing role of native marsupial predators in southern Australian ecosystems.

As part of our work at NGT, I travel regularly across the western districts, where open plains and vast areas of former wetlands are interrupted regularly by stony rises of volcanic origin. This is a special landscape with its own peculiar character, and not like anything I have encountered elsewhere.

Eugene Von Guérard’s 1857 painting of Indigenous people (and their companion dingoes) living in the Stony Rise country in Western Victoria, near Lake Corangamite. On display at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Today it is a vastly changed landscape, despite being a place where eastern quolls once roamed in great abundance – utilising that rocky habitat to great effect. This included natural outcrops of course but, post-European arrival, also led to dry stone walls made by human hands quickly becoming suitable habitat as well.

Let’s go way back in time and relive the memories of “F.R”, whose account of his experiences in this landscape were published in the Australasian, on Saturday 20th May 1905…

THE NATIVE CAT MYSTERY

One of the most puzzling mysteries connected with the fauna of Victoria, and more particularly with the Western district, is the almost total disappearance of the Dasyure family—known popularly as native cats. When the writer was a lad, in the early eighties (1880s), native cats (aka eastern quolls) were extremely numerous all around Camperdown and Terang; and they were particularly plentiful in the rough, stony, volcanic rises. At that time the rabbit was just taking possession of the district; a rabbit-preserving factory was in full swing at Camperdown; and we lads used to earn pocket-money by trapping rabbits, which were bought by travelling rabbit-carters. And it was rare, indeed, that the night’s catch did not include a native cat, or, at least, one of its paws.

There were two kinds of the species, one—by far the prettiest—was black, with white spots; and the other greyish-yellow, with white spots. The latter were considerably more numerous than the former. But all the rough stone walls with which the country then, as now, abounded, were full of native cats; and even the flat, open country had its quota, while along the banks of the creeks scores were to be found.

Although the skins were saleable, we boys were not particularly pleased at finding a cat in a trap, as the skinning process was not nearly so easy as in the case of the rabbit, and, moreover, the skins, which were very oily, were hard to get reasonably dry. As a rule, we skinned them like rabbits, beginning at the hind legs, and drawing the skin over the body and head, and then stretching the skins on wires. Properly, they should have been pegged out, like opossum-skins.

Now and then what seemed to us an abnormally large member of the yellow and white variety, but which was probably a third description, was caught. These were called tiger-cats (aka spot-tailed quoll). One that I caught had pulled the trap a way, and had got into a tree, giving me considerable trouble to despatch it. I remember often wondering why the two different sorts did not interbreed.

Tiger Cat (aka Spot-tailed Quoll)

But my most vivid recollection is in connection with the excessively sharp teeth which they possess, and know how to use. One night, when going round my traps, I heard a rustling amongst some ferns, against which I had set a trap. Assuming that it was a rabbit, I carelessly felt round for it, when there was a smart jump, and a native cat had hold of my thumb. It was some weeks before the thumb recovered. On another occasion, I was digging out a rabbit-burrow, and, as was our rather foolish custom, at intervals I put my hand up the burrow in search of the occupants. This time, after two or three explorations, I was unexpectedly successful, a native cat fastened onto my finger. I got a great fright at first, thinking it was a snake. It was fairly common to find cats in rabbit-burrows. I had a little English terrier who had many tough fights with native cats. A good big cat was about a match for the dog, and often l had to come to the rescue.

And now the cats have disappeared. There is still any amount of cover, the stone walls, or most of them, remain; but one can walk along them at night for miles and never once hear the hoarse, guttural “stit” and grunt which were so characteristic of them.

The now silent stone walls of the Western District, once teeming with quolls, still remain over a century later…

The disappearance of the kangaroo, the native bear, and the growing scarcity of the opossum can be easily understood. Population has increased greatly that these members of our fauna are naturally doomed whenever the land became thoroughly settled. But the native cat was, one would have thought, protected by his small size, smaller value, and unobtrusive habits.

The disappearance of the native cat has by no means been general. While it has vanished from most districts of Victoria, it is occasionally reported from others, while in New South Wales and Tasmania it is, I believe, still to be found. At any rate, no later than 1902, some 19,000 skins were sold in the London fur market. As the native cat, particularly the black and white variety, was an interesting and characteristic member of our rather scanty fauna, his disappearance is to be regretted.

Mark Bachmann
Mark Bachmann
mark.bachmann@natureglenelg.org.au