Critically Endangered Capricorn Yellow Cat Has a Fighting Chance Thanks to Breeders’ Gentle Touch

Shoalwater Bay in central Queensland may be best known as a military training ground for human conflict, but nearby ranchers and conservationists are fighting for the survival of a unique species.

The Capricorn Yellow Cat is a critically endangered flycatcher unique to the region, including Near the Bay, best known for its military training and war games involving soldiers from around the world.

Birdlife Capricornia Secretary Allan Briggs said the endangered species survives in a flat environment that is also attractive for grazing livestock.

“Wherever we find them, they’re in what we call a sea-plain environment which is basically a treeless environment, it’s right on the [coastal] edge and experiences tidal flooding,” he said.

“That’s one of the reasons people don’t see yellow cats because they’re in very harsh environments and they’re hard to get to.”

The sea plains are treeless, flood plains with some tidal inundation.(Provided: Craig Mace)

Grazier Craig Mace lives in Toorilla Plains and has approximately 4,000 hectares of marine plains on his property.

Rather than seeing this as a loss of productivity, he said preserving the yellow cat’s habitat as a healthy environment benefits his business.

“If you take care of the environment, it takes care of you and the birds, that’s the environment they love,” he said.

“It’s just an aviary for birds and waterfowl. There are a lot of them right now.”

He said his livestock and the natural ecosystem worked effectively side by side.

“Birds fit in perfectly with livestock,” he said.

“I think the cattle maintain the grass to some degree and you just have to make sure you don’t overgraze the country.”

Cattle in the water.
In the event of heavy rains, herders must round up the cattle from the sea plains to the heights.(Provided: Lawson Geddes)

Down the road, Lawson Geddes also has sea plains on his Couti-Outi property.

He said it was a simple matter of healthy environment, healthy livestock.

“They’re all animals,” he said.

“I think it’s all part of the environment, right? They’re all part of the ecosystem and I think they seem to get along well.”

The habitat worked so well that Mr Geddes was surprised to learn the bird was endangered.

“Until a few years ago I didn’t know they were endangered,” he said.

“A conservationist came back very excited one day because he had found a bird that they thought was apparently extinct elsewhere.

“He showed us a picture and it was this yellow cat and we just said ‘Oh, we see this all the time’.”

Bird on the edge

Mr Briggs said the yellow cat population is on a knife edge and any loss of population or habitat could have a detrimental impact.

“There are only 250 left in the wild,” he said.

“That means the bird is critically endangered and you can well imagine that if we had a major environmental event, like a cyclone or a huge fire, we could end up reducing the population to a level that is not not viable and it would end up going extinct.”

Mr Briggs said this made management of the sea plains by landowners essential to the survival of the species.

“These land managers are doing a really good job,” he said.

“There are, for example, invasive weed species and wild animals that affect the habitat of the yellow cat and landowners, ranchers, control these issues.

A windmill, cattle and a flat plain.
Craig Mace said his cattle have been living alongside endangered Capricorn yellow cats for years. (Rural ABC: Pat Heagney)

“Livestock too, they graze grass and weeds to a manageable level in order to effectively control the risk of fire.

“Without them there is no management, and I don’t think the habitat would last very long if left in the wild.”

Conservation cooperation

Mr Geddes said their work with the yellow Capricorn cat was an example of farmers working with the land and how agriculture and the natural environment can co-exist.

“This bird has been here for as long as I can remember, the cattle don’t worry him at all,” he said.

“You can see the cows lying down and the bird on their back doing its job.”

A very green pasture.
Ranchers say the sea plains are home to a unique ecosystem and livestock feed almost year-round.(Provided: Craig Mace)

Mr Mace agreed and said it was rewarding to challenge negative perceptions of farming, but they needed to present more examples.

“I think the only thing you can do is get people out there and watch them,” he said.

“You can tell people anything you like, but they have to see it for themselves.

“That’s why we have a lot of environmental groups coming to inspect the place and count the birds”

Mr Briggs said without the cooperation and management of breeders it would be a very different story for the yellow Capricorn cat.

“I want to commend the landowners we work with,” he said.

“It’s a really delicate balance in these complex environmental scenarios and it really needs the cooperation of everyone – land managers, conservationists – all working together to sustain this population into the future.”

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