(This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
I remember the first time I visited my parents after they emigrated to New Zealand; as we started our descent into Auckland the pilot came on and as part of his introduction to ‘God’s own’ country he said, “…welcome to New Zealand, a country with a population of Forty-six million; Forty-three million of whom are sheep”.
As a recent BBC TV documentary amply showcased New Zealand has a unique fauna due to its separation from Gondwanaland millions of years before mammals appeared on the planet. For the most part the ecological niches occupied by them elsewhere are, or were, occupied by birds instead. Before man turned up seven or eight centuries ago the world’s biggest birds (fourteen species of Moa) roamed the land and were preyed upon by the New Zealand Eagle… the world’s biggest ever raptor, more the size of a small aircraft than a bird!
Even although man wiped out Moas, letting the eagles starve, NZ still has many unique birds and a range of unique invertebrates, fish, amphibians and reptiles including the sole representative of a complete animal order the Tuatara, a mini dinosaur.
Bats made it by themselves but man has accidentally or deliberately introduced many mammals and other species many of which have caused the extinction of native bird species, with almost all the others under threat.
There are more Brushtail Possum in New Zealand than in their native Australia. The good old British Hedgehog thrives there better than here, and is free of fleas apparently lost on the voyage from Blighty. Both out-compete native birds and prey upon their eggs and young. The worst pest of all are mustelids – stoats are the bane of birds everywhere. Rats, mice, cats, hares, goats, feral pigs and deer abound too. Each seems to threaten some poor local. For example, one species of bird the Kakapo eat fruits from the Rimu and Kahikatea trees, the shoots of certain shrubs, and the seeds of Manuka wood and leather wood… now so well browsed by deer than there was no food for these flightless parrots! Ground nesting Kea’s are pushed further and further back in Fjiordland as stoats find their nests and eat the young.
The response has been some of the best conservation projects in the world. For decades the kiwis have been eradicating rats and other predators from off shore islands (and even some in the middle of large lakes) and culling goats, pigs and deer. Left to their own devices remnant populations of some stunning birds like Saddlebacks, Kiwis, Stichbird, and even Kokako and Kakapo have thrived.
These successes led to more ambitious schemes whereby birds were re-introduced to other islands that were predator and competitor free such as the wonderful Tiri Tiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. The next brave step was to establish mainland ‘islands’ of forest where predators and other invasives are constantly kept at bay and rare breeders like kiwis are monitored.
But here’s the thing – a lesson for the whole world surely – their Prime Minister recently announced a thirty-year programme to eliminate ALL the invasive mammals from New Zealand. This will be done by using a poison that only effects mammals. Using baits that will be ignored by ruminants (those 43 million sheep etc.,) and harmless to birds and reptiles, every part of the country will eliminate the problem species.
This is done in the face of some scary opposition. Not the cat owners (he is one himself and emphasises that indoor cats will be safe), but the hunting lobby. They want to keep the deer and wild boar for sport. This is not a timid lobby – a scheme to cull deer undertaken in a National Park saw the warden’s hut and car torched!
Such courage shames UK ministers who issue buzzard-killing licences and fail to prosecute grouse moor owners where Hen Harriers are shot.
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