OPINION: New Zealand's clean green brand is important to our great lifestyle, our tourism industry and our exports.
Most international environmental measures rank us well - seventh for protected areas, eighth for renewable energy, and 14th for air quality. We have work to do on water quality at 43rd. Our Achilles' heel is our rock bottom ranking of 193rd for having the highest proportion of native species at risk of extinction.
The problem today is pests. Rats, stoats and possums kill an estimated 25 million native birds each year. It is like having a Rena disaster, which killed 2000 birds, every hour. All our native birds are in decline. We are losing 3 per cent a year of our kiwi and they will not exist in the wild for our grandchildren unless we go after these pests.
This problem is even more acute this year with a beech mast. This is where about once every 10 to 15 years our beech trees seed on a large scale. An expected million tonne of seed will drop in autumn triggering a plague of mice, rats and stoats.
The rat population will explode by 30 million and stoats by tens of thousands. The food runs out in spring and these predators turn to annihilating our native birds.
The only effective response is pest control including using aerial 1080.
Numerous programmes show it works. Only 10 per cent of endangered mohua (yellowheads) in the Dart Valley survived the last beech mast without 1080, but in those areas treated with aerial 1080, 80 per cent survived. Other programmes for kiwi in Tongariro and kea at Okarito show the same sort of success.
Any use of poison triggers strong views but the scientific evidence on 1080 being effective and safe is now overwhelming. Its use has been pivotal in reducing the number of herds infected with Tb from 1700 in 1994 to just 73 last year. The Environmental Protection Authority thoroughly reassessed aerial 1080 in 2007 and concluded it was safe provided it was used in accordance with tight rules. Its five-year report in December 2013 shows much improved compliance and a drop in complaints from 43 to 10 a year.
The game changer has been the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's major inquiry in 2011 and follow-up report in 2013. Dr Wright concluded that the only way we can control rats, stoats and possums is to use aerial 1080 and that we are lucky to have it. Other strong supporters of 1080 include the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, Federated Farmers, the Federated Mountain Clubs, Landcare Research, and the New Zealand Conservation Authority.
The 1080 controversy over the past decade has helped drive big improvements in its use. These include pre-feeding, improving bait quality to avoid crumbs attractive to birds, helicopter rather than fixed-wing distribution, the development of repellents for non-target species, and a 90 per cent reduction in the rate of bait application from 30 kilograms a hectare to one kilogram a hectare.
'Battle for Our Birds' is DOC's largest ever species protection programme in response to these recent reports and the 2014 beech mast. It is targeted at forests where a dozen endangered species still survive - the great spotted, brown and tokoeka kiwi, kaka, kea, kakariki, whio, mohua and rock wren, as well as long and short tail bats, and giant snails. It will also save millions of other native birds in these forests like fantails, robins, tui, kereru, riflemen, bellbirds, tomtits and warbles as well as reptiles like geckos, insects like weta, trees like rata, and plants like mistletoe.
These 35 forests are mainly in the South Island. In Otago and Southland they include the Waitutu, Resolution, Eglington, Clinton, Arthur and Hollyford forests in Fiordland; the Dart, Matukituki and Makarora forests in the Mt Aspiring National Park; Waikaia in Central Otago; and the Catlins in coastal Otago.
This programme increases the area of control of these pests by 500,000 hectares in this mast year. This more than doubles control on our public conservation land from 5 per cent last year to 12 per cent in this mast year. DOC is also increasing its on-going control by 50,000 hectares a year over the next five years to maintain these gains.
There is much work to be done in the months ahead to successfully implement this programme. DOC needs to engage with affected communities explaining what we are doing and why. They also need to monitor the beech mast and resulting rat and stoat plague to refine the area, timing and the right mix of pest control tools to maximise the benefit for our native species.
Science and reason must trump prejudice over poisons on this important issue of ensuring the survival of the species that define our country. It's about backing our kiwi, kaka and kea over rats, stoats and possums.
Dr Nick Smith is Minister of Conservation.
- The Southland Times
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