OPINION: It would be easy for Wellingtonians to get the wrong idea about native birds. We are now so used to seeing them all around us that we might start thinking native birds are safe. They are not. They are dying in droves and the only way we can prevent the extinction of more species is by the use of 1080 poison.
So Conservation Minister Nick Smith is right to launch his "battle for our birds", a new and much wider-ranging campaign of 1080 poisoning in our native forests. The need is urgent, because we are now entering a "mast year", when a massive seed fall will launch a plague of rats, stoats and possums. These in turn will kill millions of native birds – unless something is done to stop them.
The public is never comfortable with poisons and overseas visitors are sometimes amazed that in New Zealand 1080 is regarded as an eco-friendly device. The dislike of 1080 is natural.
We have learned that spraying chemicals across the landscape can be not only dangerous but mad and ecologically disastrous. So it is natural that a self-confessed green country like ours should be suspicious of 1080 and require its use to be justified.
The case for 1080, however, has been made as well as any such case can be made. The crucial event here was the 2011 report, followed up with another last year, by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright. She showed that, when used properly, 1080 poses little threat to the environment but is the only effective means of controlling the pests that threaten our birds and forests.
The hunting lobby and its political friends continue to campaign against 1080 but their cause has lost all scientific respectability. Does that mean the argument will die out? Not at all.
Political arguments are not like that.
If one pet dog dies as a result of a 1080 operation, opponents of 1080 will see it as proof of the hideous perils of the poison.
There is, however, a genuine argument to be had about the scale of the 1080 campaign. Dr Smith boasts that a further $21 million a year will be spent, a sum which comes out of the existing Conservation budget.
The Government claims the battle for the birds can be funded out of savings the department has made.
But Dr Smith himself concedes that the enlarged 1080 campaign will still cover only 12 per cent of public conservation land. This is a big improvement on the present situation, where 1080 operations extend to only 5 per cent of the estate. But in a sense this just shows how inadequate the campaign still is.
There would be a good argument for spending a lot more on 1080, and not just from the department's heavily constrained existing budget. The threat to our bird populations is, after all, our greatest ecological battle. New Zealand already has a shameful record in this area. Many beautiful birds have been lost forever from our forests and many more are likely to follow.
The question then is: are we prepared to put our money where our mouths are? It is not a bad question to put in an election year.
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