Woylie Breeding

A woylie is a brush tailed bettong, scientific name: Bettongia penicillata. Woylies are a small brown kangaroo-like animal that weighs up to 1.8kg. They live in eucalypt forests and eat fungi as well as other plant material, digging shallow holes and moving more than 5 tonnes of soil per year. ‘Woylie’ comes from the Noongar language, meaning ‘stick-carrier’ as they carry sticks in their tails to make nests.

Woylies are part of Kanyana’s long history of caring for orphaned, injured and sick native WA wildlife.  For more than 40 years, orphaned animals have been reared to independence and released under the guidance of DPaW, formerly the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and earlier, the Department for Conservation and Land Management (CALM).

Kanyana founder, June Butcher, raised many woylies during the 1980s and 1990s for CALM and DEC.  These young were usually orphaned during trapping events when their mothers would eject them from the pouch as an instinctive survival response to stress.

Why is there a woylie breeding program?

During the early 2000s, DEC noticed a decline in the wild woylie population with many individuals suffering from an unknown disease. This and a rise in predation from feral foxes and cats were deemed to be the main causes of the decline. By 2007/2008, there was such considerable concern for the rapid rate of disease transmission throughout the southwest and its impact on woylie survival, that DEC ceased all translocations of woylies.  At that time, Kanyana had two orphaned woylies (one male and one female) which were being reared on DEC’s behalf.  These animals were not returned to the wild due to DEC’s policy change.  The policy was expected to be short term but unfortunately was not. Kanyana had limited enclosure space for mature independent woylies which resulted in its two woylies being housed together where they began to breed.  Their first offspring was a female (Claire).

Also during this time, Kanyana received another orphaned male woylie from DEC resulting from a trapping event. DEC requested that Kanyana also raise this woylie (Blur) to independence.  Again, due to enclosure space limitations and an understanding that DECs translocation policy would be short term, Claire and Blur were housed together, began to breed and produce healthy offspring. Woylies, when content, are happy and prolific breeders. Kanyana population quickly moves beyond 20 youngsters.

Kanyana kept records on all woylie pregnancies and the offsprings’ genetic lineage. Despite regular messages to DEC about Kanyana’s growing woylie colony (and the rising costs of housing and feeding), DEC was firm in its decision not to allow any translocations for fear of spreading disease. The cause of the woylie decline in the wild remained unknown and the population was continuing to crash.

Meanwhile, in early 2008, June Butcher identified Mike and Mary McCall’s property (Heron’s Brook, Margaret River) as an ideal site for woylie releases.  The McCall’s property won a DEC Land for Wildlife Award in 2009 which helped DEC decide to allow Kanyana’s woylies to head south.   Kanyana volunteers caught up 27 animals, checked them, microchipped them, weighed them, took blood samples and sent them to Margaret River for a wonderful new life in March 2010. This colony has now become an “insurance population”.

Kanyana was given permission to retain Blur and Claire for its education programs, with their five offspring (so far) having all been released  to Whiteman Park which has a 150ha enclosure and a smaller enclosure (2ha) for breeding.

How is the breeding program conducted?

Kanyana limits human contact with its woylies to ensure the animals retain the survival instincts required of them when their back in the wild. Significant time and effort goes into ‘enrichment’ of the woylie enclosures at Kanyana. Recently, Kanyana was commended by the national Zoo and Aquarium Association for its ‘enrichment’ programs.

Enrichment was particularly to the fore in regard to the Tutanning woylies. Tutanning is a small reserve east of Pingelly in the south-west. Its woylies have a distinct genetic identity. When the population crashed by over 95% in 2009/2010, DEC moved the remaining animals to Perth Zoo to create a colony that would be released into the Perup Sanctuary near Manjimup, then under construction. Perth Zoo was given four females and three males but there was no breeding success at the Zoo over the following three years. An attempt was made to relocate the Zoo’s woylies to Dryandra but that experiment only lasted a week. The larger male killed two smaller males and DEC (now called DPaW) immediately trapped the remaining four females and one male and brought them to Kanyana.  DPaW also conducted another trapping program at Tutanning that resulted in Kanyana receiving a small, young female.

Kanyana now had five females and one male from Tutanning for breeding. Two of these females were old, hadn’t been bred in years and it was unclear whether they could breed again.  To optimise the genetic diversity of the Kanyana’s Tutanning woylies, DPaW transferred the remaining male Perth Zoo woylie (Brian) up to Lesmurdie.  The colony at Kanyana then consisted of five females and two males

The effort spent on enrichment, limiting human contact and close observation of the colony led to immediate and sustained breeding success. The use of infra-red cameras allowed carers to record behaviours without intruding on the woylies’ night-time activities.

Kanyana’s Tutanning Woylie Breeding Colony to Date

The offspring from this Tutanning colony are raised by their parents and taught to build nests and forage. Once independence is reached, they are caught, tagged and released into Perup Sanctuary which comprises 420 hectares of forest surrounded by predator proof-fencing. At last count 400 woylies are now part of that insurance colony.

At present, Kanyana is breeding, raising and releasing four to six offspring every year.

All West Australian woylies fall under the guiding hand of Adrian Wayne, DPaW’s woylie expert. Adrian coordinates research, conservation activities and the work of Kanyana’s woylie team.

Who looks after the woylies?

Kanyana’s woylies are successful breeders due to the work of the team that supports them. Lauren Riendeau, a long-term volunteer, set up daily procedures and documentation processes which put Kanyana’s breeding program on a sound scientific base. The program is now coordinated by volunteer Sandy Tomas. Snake-proofing the enclosures was a major undertaking by the team after several pouched young mysteriously disappeared in 2013. Breeding colonies in snake-prone territories may find it advisable to strengthen their snake defences.

Who funds the program?

Kanyana relies solely on donations to continue to fund the program and gratefully acknowledges the support of WWF, Zanthorrea Nursery, Domus Nursery, Department of Parks and Wildlife, and Marty and Connie Winch-Buist of WA Sandalwood Nuts of York.

Can I see Kanyana woylies?

Yes, Kanyana holds regular Nocturnal Tours. Most people will never be lucky enough to see a woylie in the wild, and a Kanyana Nocturnal Tour provides a unique opportunity to see these fascinating animals at night while they are active.