New Zealanders identify strongly with the land. Even those who have never spent a night in a back-country hut or gone to sleep to the sound of rain falling on a tent like to think they could if they wanted to. New Zealanders consider access to the outdoors a birthright, even if many never actually take it up.
For all that it is fashionable to say New Zealand is not as green as its citizens like to think it is – and like to portray abroad – vast tracts of native forests still remain, and 30% of New Zealand lies within the conservation estate. That sounds good in theory, but in practice there is far too much land for the Department of Conservation and other agencies to adequately cover and far too many pests at work in the forests. As a result, New Zealand’s native bush is being eaten alive, and so are the endemic species, particularly birds, that live in them.
These species, some of which grew fat and flightless during their long period of evolution in the absence of mammalian predators, have been unable to cope with the onslaught of such introduced pests as rats, possums and stoats. The birds are largely defenceless – sitting ducks, if you like – for the predators that make meals out of them. New Zealand has one of the highest extinction rates of native species in the world. You won’t find that statistic in the tourism brochures. Nor, probably, the statistic that there are 30 million possums that every night eat our forests, birds and chicks. Or that 60% of kiwi chicks are eaten by stoats.
It is against this backdrop that Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright released her report this week on the use of 1080 poison. Wright has made a cogent case for more, not less use of 1080, drawing on what has been learnt about the best use of it to minimise by-kill and maximise pest eradication. What’s more, Wright makes a strong appeal for urgency. A single helicopter, using GPS and mechanised loading, can cover thousands of hectares of inaccessible terrain in a day. “Without active management, many of our iconic species are in danger of extinction,” she says. In areas with no pest control, kiwi are declining at 2-6% a year. At 6%, they will likely be gone within a generation.
The message is clear, but do we want to hear it? As Rebecca Macfie reports, opposition to 1080 is vociferous. DoC staff have been assaulted by 1080 protestors. Local bodies on the West Coast and in Taupo have voted to ban the poison, and it appears in some places intimidation is causing DoC to stop using it. United Future leader Peter Dunne, a critic of 1080, describes the new focus as “an urban beat-up” and says if 1080 hasn’t worked in the past 50 years, why would we want to use more of it?
The answer may be we have not been using enough to keep up with the explosion in pest numbers. Only an eighth of the public conservation estate has any pest control operating on it. There is none in Kahurangi National Park. Wright concedes controlled scientific trials have not been done, but argues there is sufficient evidence that when used strategically, 1080 is the most cost-effective tool available in the current arsenal, it significantly knocks back pest numbers and, most importantly, it allows native species populations to increase. No other available toxin measures up as well.
Wright’s report should be accepted and acted upon by the Government and its agencies as well as local authorities, the Animal Health Board and landowners. If it is shelved, the greatest price will be paid by those bird species with the fewest numbers and the least time left. As a starting point, all agencies with an interest in conservation should read the report thoroughly. That would provide the basis for a well-informed debate although, as Wright has made clear, it is action, not talk, that is required.