Drive along any country road at night and you will almost inevitably catch a possum in your headlights.
Some drivers try to avoid them, while others take aim.
But drive around Tapora on the Okahukura Peninsula west of Wellsford, and you will find possums are strangely absent.
Rather than an anomaly, this is the result of seven years hard work by a group of local farmers.
"There used to be so much possum road kill the hawks could hardly get off the ground after feeding on them, " says Tapora Land and Coast Care Group founder and chairman, beef farmer Wally McConnell.
"After catching two possums a night for three weeks around my wife’s newly planted rose bushes, I decided enough was enough too," says treasurer and sheep and beef farmer John Lane. They applied for funding from the New Zealand Lotteries and the ASB Community Trust.
Possum hunter Bill Pikea trapped at least 16,000 possums, plucking the fur. Here it took 24 -26 possums to get one kilogram of fur, but in the South Island the fur is thicker and it only takes 18 possums, he says.
The group aim is to turn the peninsula into a mainland island. They have been endlessly trapping and laying bait stations for possums, stoats, weasels, feral cats and rats. Their aim is to reduce the population of all of these pests to the point where native birds like kiwi and weka can be reintroduced.
While it may seem like a lofty notion, this 10,000 hectare peninsula is only connected to the mainland by a strip of land 500 metres wide.
It is close to this point that a buffer zone of particularly intense trapping is also carried out. The peninsula is the site of the new Atiu Regional Park, generously donated by locals Pierre and Jackie Chatelanat, who are also patrons to the group.
New Zealand Kiwi Foundation trapper Kerry Johnson of Whangarei is contracted to maintain the mustelid traps. He travels down once a month to clear and relay bait in 120 stations at various points. There are still 50 more traps to be placed.
"When I started doing this two years ago I caught 30 ferrets in the first traps," he says. "This time there were none."
While complete eradication of the pests would be desirable, it probably wouldn’t be possible or necessary, he says.
A native ground bird population can be re-established and will increase in numbers, providing there is adequate control of the pest population, he says. Stoats are a particular problem as they are long distance travellers and good swimmers – able to swim 4km or more.
The work on the peninsula is also a model – along with another of 25,000 to 30,000 hectares in the Bay of Islands – by the foundation to study the possibility of making Northland pest-free.
Deer, beef and sheep farmer Bryan Bingley says keeping mallard duck populations down is also seeing native brown teal ducks reappearing on his farm’s lake. He recently counted 30 on the water.
South Kaipara residents have very low numbers of possums, a carrier of bovine tuberculosis, after they had been extensively trapped to eradicate the disease. Residents approached the Auckland Regional Council to keep the numbers low, and this sees an extra $13 a year added to each rate bill in the south Kaipara area to pay for continued trapping of possums.
The Okahukura group’s funds run out in June, but regional councillor Christine Rose says the council "is keen to implement, enhanced and integrated pest control on the Okahukura Peninsula, as it is the next obvious peninsula in the region that we should target".
Fairy terns feed and roost there so might also nest successfully if the pest problems can be solved or reduced, Mrs Rose says.
"As a Tapora programme might well be cheaper than most other peninsula programmes we are currently funding, possum and extra trapping to include mustelids should be able to come out of present funding without the need for extra rating.
"Local landowners are our greatest resource, and it is heartening to see this group of farmers taking the initiative."
While the prospect of having kiwi roaming free again appeals to everyone in the group, John Lane is uncertain about weka.
"They’re like naughty little children," he says. "If they got loose in your house you’d have to steam-clean the entire place."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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