Walk in the wild

22:17, Feb 24 2013
Stephen Leitch
Southern Water Engineering manager Stephen Leitch from Blenheim is joined by Solid Energy geoglist Cara McDonald on a volunteer predator-trapping programme at Coal Island, Fiordland.

Great food, great company, no stress, no cell phones . . . Blenheim man Stephen Leitch has found his dream-holiday location.

For five days during December, the manager and principal consultant of Southern Water Engineering joined five other people on an expedition to Coal Island in Fiordland. Nights were comfortably spent at Preservation Lodge, Kisbee Bay on the mainland, and each morning they put on waterproof clothing, sturdy boots and headed into the bush for a day's work.

A runabout boat took them to Coal Island where the volunteers trekked along 19 kilometres of forest tracks to check stoat traps and re-load them with fresh eggs. The old ones had not been touched, a reassuring sign the island's conservation programme, launched in 2005, is a success.

To ensure it stays that way, the volunteers also worked on the mainland, hauling dead stoats from traps set along its coastline and re-setting them with fresh eggs.

Stoats swim, Stephen explains, so the mainland traps hopefully nab the animals before they can paddle across to the island.

Stoats were freed in New Zealand to control introduced rabbits and hares. Native birds proved easy prey for the predators, however, so in recent years stoat-trapping programmes have been developed in conservation reserves around the country.


The South West New Zealand Endangered Species Trust, formed in 2004 by the Department of Conservation, iwi, a helicopter operator and members of the public, runs the Coal Island programme.

The first volunteer team spent five days on the island in 2005, cutting and marking 19 kilometres of tracks, then setting 132 stoat traps. That year, 21 stoats were caught.

Deer and mice are two other pest species on the island. The former is controlled by regular culling, the latter with aerial poison-bait drops.

Stoat-trapping groups are sent to the island three times a year. The volunteers must get themselves to Tuatapere in Southland, then pay for a half-hour helicopter flight to Preservation Lodge. There are no reimbursements for lost wages but freshly-caught blue cod and crayfish make delicious supplements to the food provisions they must bring.

Stephen doesn't regret any of the expenses.

"If I said: ‘I'm going to take you to the best place in the world: with great food, great company, no stress, no cell phone . . . All you have to do is walk through the bush, clean out a couple of scuzzy traps' . . . how could you turn that down?

"If you love the outdoors and you love that sort of environment, I can't think of a better thing to do."

He learned about the programme from Marlborough winemaker Marcel Giesen, who did two former Coal Island expeditions. Stephen, who used to do bird counts for the former New Zealand Forest Service a "long, long time ago" knew he wanted to do it, too.

"I have always had an interest in wildlife and birds," he says.

Tramping and other outdoor recreation remains a passion so five days away from work pressures, internet and cell phones were pure bliss.

If he heads south again he might volunteer for a similar project near Te Anau. Closer to home, Stephen is looking at the Royal Forest and Bird Society's Pelorus Sound bat recovery programme as something he could support.