New Zealand is facing an explosion of rats and stoats and, as a result, an extraordinary threat to our native bird population.
“A plague of biblical proportions” is how Conservation Minister Nick Smith has colourfully put it. A million tonnes of beech seeds have fallen throughout the country in a “mast” event – a prolific seeding that last happened in 2000. All that is grist for the pests.
The rat population has ballooned from 3 million to 15m. Stoats, even worse predators, are eating the rats and multiplying exponentially too.
Both species will eventually decline, but not before gorging on native birds.
Smith is doing his best Pied Piper impression. He has announced extensive new poisoning measures, including large aerial drops of 1080, mostly in South Island forest patches.
This is timely and commendable. The problem has threatened to batter such bird populations as the mohua and orange-fronted parakeet to the brink of extinction, and savage many others.
Smith has not been swayed by anti-1080 campaigners, who refuse to bow to the evidence and accept that the poison is our best weapon for preserving New Zealand’s unique birdlife.
1080 has some nasty unintended side-affects. But they are minor compared to the devastation caused by stoats, rats and possums.
He clearly cares about the issue. Earlier this year, he gave a detailed, passionate speech where he described rat and stoat breeding patterns in frightening detail and compared native bird losses to “having a Rena disaster every single hour”. (The ship’s grounding killed 2000 birds).
Yep the bird loss from the Rena was tiny compared to the loss from predators.
He also responded to 1080 critics, pointing out that the poison does not affect the water supply, has not killed kiwis, breaks down naturally and poses no real threat to human health. It has killed tiny numbers of dogs, but in sum, it is more efficient, affordable and humane than other options.
This view is backed up by two hefty official reports. First, in 2007, the Environmental Risk Management Authority undertook a major reassessment of 1080, approving the poison’s ongoing use under new rules.
Then, in 2011, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright concluded emphatically that “not only should the use of 1080 continue (including in aerial operations) to protect our forests, but that we should use more of it”.
I’d like to see a stoat and possum free New Zealand. It would take 20 years or so, but can be done.