26 Jul 2016

Predator-free drive: 'Game changer' or ecological blunder?

12:17 pm on 26 July 2016

The government's goal to rid New Zealand of possums, stoats and rats by 2050 will be a game changer, says a key figure in developing the policy.

Ship rat eating a kereru egg

Ship rat eating a kereru egg Photo: CC BY NC 3.0 NZ Nga Manu Images

Under the plan the government will invest $28 million in a joint venture company, Predator Free New Zealand Limited, which will identify predator control projects and attract private capital. The government will contribute $1 for every $2 invested by councils and private groups.

"This is the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world," said Prime Minister John Key yesterday, announcing the predator-free drive.

The pests collectively killed 25 million native birds a year, he said. "We want our native wildlife to be able to flourish and for New Zealand to show the world what sort of conservation gains are possible when there is the will and the way to make that happen."

"By 2050 every single part of New Zealand will be completely free of rats, stoats and possums."

Sir Rob Fenwick, conservationist and founder of the National Party's environmental arm the Blue Greens, also chairs the Predator Free New Zealand charitable trust and was involved in developing the policy.

"I think it's going to be a game-changer," he told Morning Report.

"This is a war we're trying to wage on these predators and it needs the resources of the government and the private sector from communities to be a lot more strategic than we've been in the past,"

"For the first time we're seeing the pulling together of these various organisations that have been doing this work for decades."

Ministers at the predator free announcement: Nick Smith, Nathan Guy, Maggie Barry, Steven Joyce, John Key.

Ministers at the announcement of the predator-free drive, from left, Nick Smith, Nathan Guy, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, Steven Joyce and PM John Key. Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Green Party conservation spokesperson Kevin Hague is delighted the government wants New Zealand to be predator free but said it would have to "completely reverse" its present direction on conservation in order to achieve the target.

"Their track-record to date has been to starve the Department of Conservation and actually cut funding to a whole bunch of predator control programmes in the time that they've been the government."

But New Zealand First's biosecurity spokesperson, Richard Prosser, warned the government will have to tread carefully so it did not upset the "uneasy equilibrium" between pests and native wildlife.

"It comes back to this basic fact that no one talks about: we've had these animals in this country for a very long time now, they have existed alongside native species, and we still have native species. And they have existed in the bush and we still have the bush."

Mr Prosser said the predator-free policy had the potential to become the worst ecological blunder of modern times.

Possum and a ship rat photographed at night eating thrush chicks

Ship rats and brushtail possums are two of the biggest killers in the New Zealand forest. This exceptional shot shows a possum and a rat feeding side-by-side on thrush chicks. Photo: CC BY NC 3.0 NZ Nga Manu Images

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said ridding the country of the pests was a noble goal. "No harm in aiming big, these are pests they are a major problem. I know there are some great community efforts going into pest eradication, if it sustains and supports those efforts (and) the people who know what they are doing then that's a good thing."

In February, ACT Party leader David Seymour proposed selling the state-farmer Landcorp to set up a nationwide network of wildlife sanctuaries - a policy he says National has taken.

"All of the elements of this policy were present in ACT's sanctuary trust policy - just with fewer specifics about how they'd fund it, who exactly would do it and how they would measure the success in the long run."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs