Predator Free 2050: Ambitious target gains widespread support

35 million possums in New Zealand are in the crosshairs
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35 million possums in New Zealand are in the crosshairs

It's a truly audacious plan - ridding the country of rats, stoats and possums - but proponents hope the reward will be a chorus of songbirds.

New Zealand has been described as a cathedral without a choir, said Next Foundation chief executive Bill Kermode - a scenic wonderland where mountains climb like spires and thousand-year-old forests are reflected in mirror lakes.

But beneath the boughs, our native fauna struggle to be heard. In Kermode's cathedral, the choir stalls are all but empty.

Next Foundation chief executive Bill Kermode

Next Foundation chief executive Bill Kermode

"The choir that was here before we introduced rats, stoats and possums - a cacophony of birdsong that existed from our native birds," Kermode said. "The whole predator-free movement, in our mind, is about restoring that choir, that birdsong to the country."

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That song can be heard in such sanctuaries as Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf, Kapiti Island near Wellington and Maungatautari's Sanctuary Mountain in Waikato.

A bellbird fledgling in Cambridge - a result of the Maungatautari "halo effect".
CHRIS SMUTS-KENNEDY

A bellbird fledgling in Cambridge - a result of the Maungatautari "halo effect".

The government predator free target by 2050 could extend those varied and isolated places to a million hectares of mainland forest.

To accomplish that, the government has pledged an additional $28 million over four years and an extra $7m each year following, over and above the $70 million already spent annually on predator control.

But how to accomplish that eradication is yet to be decided.

Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis.
MARK TAYLOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis.

Genetic solutions - male only births - have been touted and work is under way on initiatives like the Next Foundation funded 400-hectare Zero Invasive Predator (Zip) trial at Bottle Rock Peninsula, Marlborough Sounds.

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The aim, Kermode said, is to rid the headland of rats, stoats and possums, isolate the area with a non-fenced boundary and defend it against pest reintroduction.

"If that sort of technology and tools become successful, then the prospect of being able to start cutting off peninsulas becomes a real prospect," Kermode said.

Stoats, rats and possums are targeted in the government's Predator Free 2050 strategy.

Stoats, rats and possums are targeted in the government's Predator Free 2050 strategy.

It's ambitious.

That's how many describe the government target.

Aspirational is another word being used. So too is idealistic - a polite way of saying yeah right, perhaps

Woolyarns managing director and fur council chairman Neil Mackie
BLAKE CRAYTON-BROWN/FAIRFAX NZ

Woolyarns managing director and fur council chairman Neil Mackie

Though everybody, it seems, from the environmentalists to farmers to the hunting fraternity to the fur traders want to see a predator-free New Zealand and are keen to plan bit parts in getting there. 

The 4300-hectare stand of native forest at Maungatautari, ringed by a 47-kilometre predator-proof fence was ambitious, too, said Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust general manager John Simmons.

The sanctuary is now so successful that it can provide populations for other protected areas.

Rats feed on eggs in a song thush nest at the Nga Manu Nature Reserve.

Rats feed on eggs in a song thush nest at the Nga Manu Nature Reserve.

"It's got enough size that it is self-sustaining in terms of species. If we put kokako or kakapo or takahe - any sort of species that's at risk or threatened in mainland New Zealand - if it goes in there, they can establish a population that can sustain itself," Simmons said.

"You can get enough founder birds to give enough genetics so that the population is genetically diverse enough to be self-perpetuating. That's the big plus for Waikato, because it provides a breeding ground for the population to spread out to the likes of Pirongia, to the likes of Te Maungakawa and so on."

But Simmons is calling for a new tune, an even more ambitious goal that would see Waikato become the first pest-free region in the country.

Here's how.

Take a 50-kilometre radius from Hamilton, capture the mountains where pest control work has already been done - Maungatautari, Pirongia, Te Tapui, Maungakawa, Te Miro, Pukemokemoke and the Kaimai Range, Hakarimata, Hauhungaroa and Rangitoto Ranges - and bridge them with stands of forest, maybe 50 metres wide, along the streams and rivers.

That creates a corridor for short-hopping birds to make their way from mountain to mountain.

"Pretty aspirational," Simmons said. And it can be done in 20 years.

"We've got such potential in Waikato. These are all forming really significant pockets to build on and if we can get some connectivity to them across farmland and the rivers and particularly the Waikato River, I think we are really well placed to chase that objective of a predator free region by 2050 and maybe before that."

Urban settings would also come under the target, said Landcare Research wildlife ecologist John Innes, who calls Predator Free 2050 "an encouraging pat on the back" for initiatives like Hamilton's Project Halo.

"It's a vote of support, it's a push from the government, who is clearly a key player, for pest control in general and especially non-DOC environments," Innes said. "It is a national tick for projects such as Halo."

Innes worked on the science for the Waikato Regional Council's Project Halo, its target area stretching about 20 kilometres around the city.

Launched in 2007, it aims to bring tui back to Hamilton and annual pest control has seen the number of birds increase.

Under the right conditions, urban environments could home other species, like kereru, kokako and kiwi.

"You could have kiwi all through Hamilton," Innes said. "They live on farms, basically. They can curl up in a bit of grass and feed on earthworms and invertebrates in pasture, but what is stopping kiwi in Hamilton? Dogs and cars."

Take possums out of the system and farmers would breathe a sigh of relief, said Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis

But 1080 poisons and trapping have been used for decades with no end in sight. He calls the target "idealistic".

"At the moment, the biggest thing they use is 1080 and they've been using it for generation now and while we are making big gains, that is probably not the silver bullet," Lewis said.

Lewis's dairy farm at Pukeatua, Waikato, neighbours the Maungatautari sanctuary.

Extending it across the region with no expensive fencing would require a "truly innovative" solution, he said.

And he wants to see more detail from the government - do we have the right new technology, what is the science, are products available to to help us achieve the target and is the government willing to pay for it?

Possums and stoats have been in New Zealand since the mid-1800s and without a real solution, they're not going anywhere.

"For us to get anywhere near achieving this, we need a new silver bullet."

An estimated 35 million possums live in New Zealand and eradicating them would sign the death warrant for the $130 million possum fur trade.

"If we ever get to that state, we won't have an industry. But that's a long, long way off," said New Zealand Fur Council chairman Neil Mackie.

Fur from 20,000 possums is recovered each week, but demand for the fibre - about 90 percent of possum products is sold through the tourist market - means 40,000 possums each week need to be harvested.

So it makes economic sense to keep possums in New Zealand. The raw product comes out of the regions - Bay of Plenty, Whanganui and Northland - where people are screaming for economic growth opportunities.

"It's commendable and aspirational," said Mackie of the pest-free goal, but there is a great conundrum.

In April 2015, a memorandum of understanding with the Conservation Department made it easier for possum hunters to get access to conservation land. Now it wants no possums at all.

Still, the industry wants to seek constructive ways to work with the government, even though it will be working towards its own demise.

"It's always cautious. You are always monitoring what's in front of you, but you can't always determine what is going to happen in four or five or ten years' time.

"There will be changes in government, there will be different initiatives, different reasons for what we do. Who knows what climate change is going to do?

"Who knows? There could be a silver bullet. I don't know, but we've still got a business to run."

A shift has occurred in public perception over killing pest species, said Don Hammond, chairman of the New Zealand Game Animal Council (GAC) tasked with representing the game hunting fraternity.

"I'll tell you what's really interesting," Hammond said. "You are seeing the urban population getting behind some of these things.

"Ten years ago, if you said you were going to go kill these little critters, be it stoats or rats or cats or possums, there would be, oh, nah, you can't kill things even if it going to save a native bird. Whereas now they are saying, kill the buggers."

Hammond grew up hunting in the Tararua Ranges, hearing tales from older hunters about how the bush wasn't like it used to be.

Even then, the call of the forest was a relative murmur. Painfully, Hammond is now telling the same tale to the next generation of hunter.

"I now hear myself saying that. The bush robins and all those species you used to see around just aren't around now. I've seen it in my lifetime and the last thing I want is for my kids to not experience that as well."

Hunters feel a connection to the bush, he said, one that's hard to quantify, but it's good for the soul.

And when they see animals killed by 1080 poison, find green poison baits in streams and in the environment, and tests show toxins in trout flesh, hunters are get mad.

But it's about finding a balance. Poisons are a vital tool, but the future will see an evolution of technology and monitoring programmes to help limit the amount of toxins spread on the hills.

"We are realistic that this is something that needs to happen," Hammond said. "We need to use science to ensure we are using the best technology we can and mitigating the impact on those who want to use the outdoors."

A DOC campaign in June to blitz rats across 800,000 hectares of South Island public land, Battle for Our Birds, is one example.

Areas tagged for aerial treatment were scaled back after monitoring found lower-than-predicted rat numbers. Surveys in other areas found the rat population had exploded and the poisoning programme was moved to suit.

It's a big change in strategy. No more willy-nilly poison dumps and it's vital for in the management of game animal herds - deer, chamois, thar and pigs - a legislated requirement under the Game Animal Act.

Still, a predator-free New Zealand is a mammoth task. The GAC backs it in what Hammond said was a "defining point" for New Zealand.

"I see exciting things ahead," Hammond said. "I think if we work together, we can achieve some really exciting things."

 - Stuff

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