Pest problem put on the table

Federated Farmers of New Zealand president Bruce Wills.
Federated Farmers of New Zealand president Bruce Wills.

In making Time Magazine, Hell Pizza has achieved what New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme has so far struggled to get; global attention.

In a brilliant feat of marketing, since I am writing about it post-Easter, the chain has used waste rabbit skins on a billboard to plug its new rabbit pizza.

To farmers in the South Island especially, whose hills are alive to the movement of this pest, it doesn't represent a silver bullet but it is one heck of a good reason to buy Hell Pizza.

The challenges for pest management in New Zealand was highlighted by the Royal Society last month and the direct cost can be counted in the billions of dollars but the threat to our native biodiversity makes the real cost incalculable.

Following recent tangles with wasps, the New Zealand Science Review kindly sent us a copy of The outlook for control of New Zealand's most abundant, widespread and damaging invertebrate pests: social wasps.

I can tell the authors it has genuinely pricked our interest.

Do you know that the combined biomass of introduced social wasps was as great as, or greater than, the combined biomass of birds, rodents and stoats in our beech forests? That is a stunning conclusion.

What's more, during peak wasp periods, our vulnerable native caterpillars have almost no chance of survival while the chances of an orb web spider surviving until the end of a wasp season is virtually nil.

In addition, common wasps have been observed killing bird chicks, so we are talking a massive problem that sails under the radar.

We hear a lot from the environmental lobby about turning off tourists but it must pale into insignificance compared to the unchecked wasp plague we have.

Tramping in a beech forest in high summer must be unpleasant with wasps around.

Maybe Gareth Morgan would be better to shift his foundation's attention off cats and onto wasps because, as the paper notes, no-one owns the wasp problem. It is hard not to disagree with the authors when they write, "could the lack of drive from primary industries to find a solution for wasps be reflecting a general disbelief that one can be found?" In fact this paper outlines chemical and biological controls but some of these tools are restricted.

I can promise you that we are keen to find a way forward because it is a problem for the primary industries, from apiculture to viticulture. Wasps are also a genuine health and safety concern too.

While no-one would mourn the passing of introduced social wasps, it seems Hell Pizza has offended the sensibilities of some in Auckland's vegetarian and animal rights movement.

Full marks to the Parnell Community Committee chairman, Luke Nuie, who told that the billboard was creative, before reminding everyone that rabbits are pests.

But as the Royal Society noted in its paper on the wider pest management problem, "changes in the use of pest management tools have been made in response to public concerns and trade issues around the environment, humaneness standards and food safety". While no-one can deny the importance of those factors, we are losing tools and I hate to say, increasingly, the fight.

I can tell you Federated Farmers supports the Royal Society's call for urgent action to develop new approaches while improving the tools we have. It is no good talking when we are losing species from our forests and billions of dollars from lost farm production, money which could greatly aid the development of new tools.

The Royal Society's recommendations make sense when you consider just how little scientifically we understand problem species. Given we have a unique environment here, you cannot assume what they do overseas will be the same here. Social wasps, that curse of farming and picnics alike, graphically demonstrate how a problem can spiral because here it is at the apex.

That's replicated by pest weeds and at the last count there were 300 weeds of conservation concern, costing the conservation estate the equivalent of $1.3 billion.

Meanwhile pastoral weeds are costing farmers $1.2b every year and we haven't factored in the cost of animal pests.

While Hell may only be scratching the surface with the provocative marketing of its new rabbit pizza, at least it reminds a new audience that rabbits are a problem here in New Zealand.

That's an unconventional start to getting the wider public on board because if we embrace the notion of being progressive, it starts by how we respond to pest incursions.

* Bruce Wills is president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand.