9 Apr 2020

Covid-19 lockdown puts pause on large-scale predator control efforts

5:32 pm on 9 April 2020

Predator control is yet another activity to be halted by the Covid-19 lockdown and that will increase the risk of native animals being killed.

The 1080 drop in the Russell State Forest began over the weekend.

A 1080 drop in the Russell State Forest. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Large scale work like the Department of Conservation's (DOC) Tiakina Ngā Manu aerial 1080 predator control operations have been put on hold.

Other aerial 1080 operations in places like Fiordland and the West Coast in the coming months have also been postponed.

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Meanwhile, trap checks for trapping programmes in conservation areas have also been delayed, DOC information said.

"DOC is reviewing its predator control programme for 2020/2021 in light of Covid-19 with some predator control operations for 2020 likely to be delayed until 2021.

"Delaying predator control operations at some sites will increase the risk of predation on native species, particularly stoat predation of kiwi chicks, but is not expected to have a critical impact on species' populations."

Not all bad news

However, DOC also said it was fortunate it had almost finished its "largest-ever predator control programme in response to the 2019 forest mega mast, protecting our most at-risk populations of threatened species such as orange-fronted kākāriki, kiwi, kākā, whio and bats".

That programme, which aimed to cover 900,000 hectares, had seen predator control conducted over almost 850,000ha of "priority conservation areas".

It included aerial 1080 operations over about 780,000ha and trapping and other ground control over about 66,000ha.

Other work that's paused

DOC aren't the only ones who have paused predator control.

ZIP, the company that carried out a massive pest control operation in South Westland's Perth Valley last year, has paused its work.

"Almost all biosecurity and conservation work has ceased on public conservation land (with the exception of some offshore islands)," an update on its website said.

A programme aiming to make Taranaki the first predator-free region in New Zealand said on its website "Due to the Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown we're encouraging people to stay home".

Volunteer and small-scale pest trapping have been put on hold in many cases, too - Predator Free NZ - which has helped support over 66 predator free communities across New Zealand - says you cannot check traps or bait lines on public land.

Conservation Volunteers New Zealand, which organises pest trapping, has paused all in-person work.

Impact on native species

Forest and Bird regional manager Debs Martin said animals that could be worst hit by a halt in pest control would be birds that had not fully fledged and weren't able to fend for themselves, those that didn't have effective defence mechanisms and those already threatened.

"Although the bulk of the breeding has passed (thankfully), there are still species that are nurturing their young, and they will be vulnerable at this time. Especially the species that rely on their parents for a longer time, e.g. kiwi chicks need to get up to 1kg weight before they're big enough to fight off a stoat," Martin said.

"Every rat, every stoat, every possum taken out of the system is one less that is preying upon our native birds, bats, snails, wētā, etcetera."

But she said the impact of the hold on predator control would be hard to measure.

"So although it is probably not 'critical' to species survival, it may well have localised impact or some setback in a population. That would be hard to quantify and would vary across sites."

When asked if the recent large-scale predator programmes put the country's native species in a good position going into lockdown, she said "yes and no".

"Obviously in some places the aerial 1080 had done an incredibly good job, and of course, that work isn't always all year round anyway. However, most of our precious places where our native animals live, [do] not receive landscape scale predator control, and some of those places were targeted to get it now - as the next steps in the aerial 1080 drops of last year and early this year."

Not all pest control has stopped

Predator Free NZ said on its website when it comes to predator control in your back yard, it's all on.

Predator Free Wellington's (PFW) Kylie Reeves said the Miramar Peninsula pest eradication project had been put on hold, while Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council's efforts were also paused.

But PFW had put a call out to Wellington residents to increase their backyard trapping efforts and share with us what they are seeing in the backyards and local community, Reeves said.

"We're calling the campaign #LockDownKnockDown…

"Autumn is generally the time when we see an increase in rat activity as rats become more mobile and seek food and warm shelter in people's backyards and homes."

There was usually a spike in rat activity in April, she said.

"We're asking the community to help us flatten the 'rat curve'."

Reeves said about two thirds of Wellington residents were involved in predator free activities and PFW had handed out an extra 1057 traps in the past couple of months.

"We think backyard trapping is the ideal home isolation activity - people are at home already, they are noticing nature more, the birds sound louder without the noise of traffic, and nature (and trapping) makes people feel better.

"Trapping is also a great distraction, you feel you are doing something worthwhile, knowing every rat caught is enabling our native biodiversity to thrive. The bounce back of wildlife is happening relatively quickly in Wellington as we reduce rats, stoats, weasels and possums."

For those wanting to help out, Reeves said anyone who hadn't been actively trapping recently should dust off old traps and get stuck in.

People could also buy traps and rat poison from a supermarket.

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