Pest Control and Social Licence

Lately I’ve had some issues with getting out tramping, mostly with life having been usurped by a couple of bundles of life experience. I expect the hiatus will end in time.

Last Thursday 28th September, however, I went to a Royal Society hosted expert panel discussion on the topic of gene editing and potential applications for New Zealand’s predator free 2050 goals. The resulting discussion isn’t up yet, but was being recorded by Radio NZ. It will be available sooner or later.

It was a fab discussion to attend. It inevitably steered towards the realisation that getting a social licence from NZ’s population is very important if the predator free goals are to be met. Enough people who live in New Zealand need to be comfortable with what’s done, why it’s done and how it’s done, or it’ll never happen.

Attending this panel discussion is just one of the divergent things I’ve ended up doing with my lack of free time, which doesn’t fit well with being away for longer than a few hours at a time. It’s not the only thing, though. Last year I found a track-cutting community, and got involved in helping to re-cut one of the local tracks in Ngaio, near to where I’m presently living. For a year now, I’ve also been helping to walk trap-lines near home. I’m still a relative novice the whole thing, but it’s been a worthwhile learning experience. Even more recently I’ve been using my NatureWatch account and trying to contribute to the Great Kereru Count.

All of these, and especially the latter two, have helped me to develop a real appreciation of Wellington’s inner and outer town belts, and how brilliant they are as a corridor for the native fauna to get around. Much of it is pushing out from Zealandia, formerly known as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Go back roughly 20 years and the number of known pairs of Tui around Wellington were in the single digits. Now they’re everywhere. Meanwhile, gangs of kakas routinely patrolling around Wellington’s northern, western and southern suburbs (all within reach of Zealandia), and occasionally parts of the CBD. For several years in a row, kakas have been breeding in the small Huntleigh Park reserve within a few minute’s walk of where I live. That was unheard of just a handful of years ago, and the breeding was only discovered when an off-leash dog sadly found and ate a fledgling kaka. Now there’s much stronger monitoring of what’s happening in there.

A few months ago, we met a pair of Kereru in our back yard for the first time I can think of, although they’ve been significant visitors through the general area for a while. In 2014, suburbs outside Zealandia had confirmed nesting of Tieke (aka Saddlebacks), probably for the first time since being declared extinct on the mainland in 1910.

Generally, native fauna around here has been improving.

There are several reasons why. In 1999, the Karori Sanctuary, now Zealandia, eradicated the likes of rats, stoats and a variety of other recognised pests from within its newly constructed predator-exclusion fence. From then on, it’s been fostering the breeding of many native birds which finally have an opportunity to thrive in a pest-free environment.

Obviously a fence doesn’t keep the birds inside it. It gives them a chance to breed and thrive, though, and it’s been doing so well that they’ve been pushing outwards. About the same time as the sanctuary became best free, the Wellington City Council really stepped up its pest control and planting programmes in surrounding reserves, with the help of a bunch of community groups. The corridors of reserves through the town belt, with adequate monitoring and pest control, has given all these birds opportunities to spread outwards.

The next big step in this situation might have been 2014, when Kelvin Hastie saw a weasel on the road in the middle of the day. It inspired him to get funding to for a back-yard trapping programme. The programme’s managed to get a rat trap into roughly 1/3 of the households in his (and my) Wellington suburb of Crofton Downs. People can see the change and the results of the sanctuary and the pest control manifesting itself in their back gardens, and they want to take steps to encourage that change even more.

The success of the original Crofton Downs project is now being copied by enthusiastic advocates in other suburbs both nearby, but also in the wider Wellington region. What was previously just a pest control programme in the connected lines and splatterings of council reserves is becoming a strong community-driven pest control programme which also covers the blankets of private residences between those reserves. The council’s encouraging this, too. Just a few weeks ago, we collected some free Kereru-attracting plants being given away by Kereru Discovery, but provided by the council, for residents to plant in gardens with the intent of increasing the bird’s food sources. I’m not aware of comparable types of projects spreading outside Wellington to the same degree, but if it’s not happened yet then I hope it will soon.

Native flora and fauna has been improving around Wellington. It’s been improving so much that, ironically, it might be giving a false impression of what’s really happening out there. Despite some residents now appreciating able to wake up to bird-song that simply couldn’t live in the area until recently, it’s not wholly representative of what’s happening in much of the conservation estate where fewer people, or no people, live. It’s not just birds (think flora and insects and aquatic life and amphibians and lizards) but using birds as a metric there are a large number of species that are listed as critical, endangered or vulnerable.

The Northern Rock Wren, for example, most likely won’t be directly helped by residents putting traps in their gardens. It doesn’t live in people’s gardens, and those traps won’t affect the stoats that create mayhem in the Rock Wren’s preferred habitat of the higher elevations within the Southern Alps.

This, however, brings me back to the panel discussion I referred to at the start of this post. Of real importance to a goal like Predator Free 2050, or any large scale pest control or eradication programme, are the public discussions and social licence. People need to care about the outcome before they can give a social licence, and so when people can be steered towards understanding what might be at stake, in part through the enthusiasm for and engagement with some of these more local projects, it’s a crucial thing for goals like Predator Free 2050.

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