Massive explosion leaves thousands of birds dead

Last updated 00:00 18/08/2007

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An orchardist who regularly mounts attacks on roosting starlings has allegedly left thousands of birds dead and dying after commissioning a bird bomb for his latest effort.

Greytown apple grower John Van Vliet arranged for a Palmerston North company to set off a massive explosion at Moroa, not far from the highway linking Greytown with Martinborough.

The trees in which the birds were roosting were momentarily engulfed by a fireball that left thousands of birds either killed or maimed, the Wairarapa Times-Age reported.

Yesterday the short-term survivors of the blast were trying to feed themselves in paddocks surrounding the area, unable to fly.

People in the area said they were shocked and outraged at the treatment meted out to the birds, mostly upset by the fact huge numbers of birds had been left wounded and helpless.

Mr van Vliet – whose JR Orchards is the region's biggest pipfruit grower and packhouse – has been waging war on starlings since 2003, when he claimed that bird damage to apples had cost him $300,000.

Mr van Vliet has previously complained that two full-time shooters who worked seven days a week during the picking season could not keep up with the starlings arrived to feed on his fruit.

In 2005, he tried an elaborate aerial attack, using a helicopter to saturate the starling roost at Taumata Island, in rural Carterton, with a molasses spray to make the birds fall to the ground where they could be killed.

It failed when the birds flew off when the helicopter approached, and since then he has resorted to explosions.

Greytown Fire Chief Chris Williams confirmed Mr Van Vliet had arranged for firefighters to be present when the bomb was exploded.

Wellington Regional Council's senior biosecurity officer Ray Clarey said it appeared Mr Van Vliet had not needed official consent to carry out the bombing.

"What this gentleman has done sort of sits between the cracks. I don't condone what he has done one little bit."

A local gallery owner, Narena Olliver, who runs a business in town called New Zealand Birds: The Greytown Gallery, said she was ashamed to think people in Wairarapa could possibly condone what had happened to the starlings.

"There is no need for it," said Ms Olliver, who complained to the SPCA. A former farmer, she said starlings did not cause widespread damage to orchard crops – but were actually hugely beneficial to pastoral farming.

"They help control army worm and grass grub," she said. Generations of pastoral farmers had actively encourage starling by building bird boxes to attract them.

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A neighbour living near the mangled roost said he had dying birds all over his property. "They are everywhere, under hedges, on the lawn and everywhere. It's just so cruel.

"Not so much the killing but the maiming of birds."

Mr Van Vliet was not available for comment as he left for the United States on Wednesday and will not return to Greytown until the end of the month.

Mr Clarey it was probably time, in view of the outrage over regular attacks on the birds, to have a meeting of council officials, the SPCA and the orchardist to try and reach a satisfactory solution for all parties.

Wairarapa SPCA president Val Ball said she was appalled at what she had seen in the aftermath of the explosions.

The SPCA is considering what it can do about the incident.

"Any animal has the right to die with dignity and these birds are suffering. They can't fly, they can't get up in the trees to roost and they are prey to predators."

- NZPA

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