Pacific
30 May 2016

Battle against expected rat explosion funded by New Zealand Goverment but core conservation funding cut

Female rock wren. Photo: Department of Conservation
By Mike Britton

The Department of Conservation in New Zealand (DOC) has been allocated an extra $20.7 million to help fight back against an expected pest population boom caused by a heavy forest seeding, or mast.  This autumn around a million tonnes of beech seed will drop to the forest floor, providing a bonanza of food for rats and causing their population to boom.   As rats increase due to the readily-available food source, so will the number of stoats which feed on rats. Once the seeds germinate and the food source disappears in early spring, the plague of millions of starving rats and tens of thousands of hungry stoats will turn on native wildlife, bringing disaster if nothing is done.  This is the second mast year in a row and places whole populations of endangered species at risk.

This occurrence is a worldwide phenomenon but in New Zealand it is particularly significant given the ability of the invasive predators to prey on New Zealand’s indigenous species.  Previous mast years have led to massive decreases in populations of previously widespread birds like mōhua.

The so called `Battle for our Birds’ this year will see DOC ramp up pest control by 500,000 hectares, to cover more than 800,000 hectares of land. Aerial 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) operations will be backed by on-going trapping and ground control programmes. Pilot projects will also be run to test the effectiveness of using self-resetting traps to keep pests permanently out of an area following a 1080 operation.

Priority will be to vulnerable great spotted, brown and tokoeka kiwi, kaka, kea, whio/blue duck, mohua/yellowhead, kakariki/orange-fronted parakeet, rock wren, long and short tailed bats and giant snails.  Research from DOC’s 2014 Battle for our Birds programme showed breeding success rates in areas treated with 1080 were far greater than in areas with no control.  An example is the rock wren which raised three times more chicks than birds in an untreated area in 2014-15 and five times more chicks when the birds bred again a year later,

This is a victory for the advocacy of BirdLife New Zealand partner, Forest & Bird, which predicted this threat last year and advocated strongly for the response which has now been agreed.

But regrettably the hand that gives has also taken away.  In the New Zealand budget announced this week, the allocation to the Department of Conservation, which looks after almost a third of the land area of New Zealand, has been cut - up to 9% according to some commentators. 

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Since its establishment DOC has faced a number of restructurings and significant budget cuts - and it is badly stretched.  Large areas of the protected lands and national parks are receiving no pest or weed control and all the time people pressure on New Zealand’s natural areas is increasing.  Tourism is growing exponentially and is now New Zealand’s biggest industry.  And they all come to enjoy the beauty and nature of the country.  Trying to cope with visitors is further reducing the Department’s ability to adequately look after the plants and animals and special places that so define New Zealand. 

Forest & Bird is at the front line of advocating for the proper management and protection of nature in New Zealand.