The preda­tors behind NZ’s con­ser­va­tion

Marlborough Midweek - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS WOOTON - DOC RANGER

Stoats, fer­rets and weasels (and cats, for that mat­ter), were well re­garded by land or run hold­ers from the mid 1800s as a "nat­u­ral" rem­edy for the rab­bit menace.

We can now look back with the ben­e­fit of 150 years of hind­sight. It’s easy to shake your head, in the glib com­fort of 21st cen­tury knowl­edge and con­demn th­ese peo­ple as short-sighted.

The in­tro­duc­tion of stoats, fer­rets and weasels was part of a num­ber of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phes in early New Zealand his­tory. It set in mo­tion a wave of con­ser­va­tion sen­ti­ment, re­sult­ing in the re­serve ar­eas and pub­lic con­ser­va­tion land that we recog­nise to­day.

Oddly, stoats, fer­rets and weasels con­trib­uted to that out­come. Many lib­er­a­tions of th­ese an­i­mals were made by run hold­ers as part of an all-out war against the wave of rab­bits sweep­ing the coun­try.

Syn­di­cates of run hold­ers formed to im­port mustelids (stoats, fer­rets and weasels), which were care­fully nour­ished on a diet of bis­cuit, milk and a lit­tle meat, be­fore be­ing re­leased into the wild.

Opin­ion var­ied on the suit­abil­ity of dif­fer­ent mustelid species for dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. In Otago, the stoat and weasel were favoured and the ferret re­garded as a fail­ure. But in Can­ter­bury and Marl­bor­ough the ferret found favour.

There was on­go­ing de­bate about the suit­abil­ity of each species. In Kaik­oura, run holder Mr Bullen claimed ex­cel­lent suc­cess on Green Hills Sta­tion in the late 1800s, with rab­bits prac­ti­cally elim­i­nated (he claimed) by the use of weasels and fer­rets. St He­lens got its sheep car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity back up to 50,000, from a low of 20,000, af­ter the suc­cess­ful in­tro­duc­tion of mustelids. Molesworth and Tarn­dale also ben­e­fited, it was claimed, from a sim­i­lar re­lease.

The ap­par­ent suc­cess of mustelids in re­duc­ing rab­bits en­cour­aged a group of Can­ter­bury and Marl­bor­ough run hold­ers - Trelove, Mur­ray, Thomas, Ruther­ford and Par­sons - to fund fur­ther lib­er­a­tions, re­ported the Evening Post in 1905.

At the time there was doubt be­ing cast on the abil­ity, par­tic­u­larly of the ferret, to suc­cess­fully breed once re­leased into the wild. Con­ster­na­tion sur­rounded the great mor­tal­ity of fer­rets re­leased from cap­tiv­ity. Claims also were made of a per­son walk­ing on a prop­erty shortly af­ter the lib­er­a­tion of fer­rets, only to be surprised by some­thing clutch­ing at his boot, which turned out to be "a ferret in the last stage of star­va­tion, seek­ing for hu­man pity and suc­cour!"

There was con­sid­er­able money put into ob­tain­ing mustelids, so their suc­cess needed to be as­sured. One group spent £2500 im­port­ing a batch of fer­rets from Eng­land, with an equal amount stumped up by the Gov­ern­ment of the day, by way of a sub­sidy.

But by this time, there was al­ready a level of dis­quiet be­ing voiced about the wis­dom of re­leas­ing mustelids into the wild. Th­ese dis­senters were mainly set­tlers con­cerned about the im­pact of mustelids on their chick­ens, or sportsmen wor­ried about the im­pact on game hunt­ing.

Pres­sure was grow­ing to recog­nise the wider im­pacts of mustelids, plus change the le­gal pro­tec­tive sta­tus of th­ese an­i­mals. Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, such as the mem­ber for Waik­ouaiti, Mr Thomas McKen­zie, started voic­ing con­cerns about the ef­fects and im­pacts of mustelids on the wider en­vi­ron­ment. In this he proved prophetic.

In re­ply to a ques­tion from the Evening Post in 1905, he said, ‘‘one can­not but de­plore the ne­ces­sity for the lib­er­a­tion of such ver­min in this coun­try, and they may have been lib­er­ated in many in­stances where they are not re­quired at all. Years ago on the west­ern side of Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, where the coun­try will never be re­quired for sheep or cat­tle, but where at that time our choic­est and rarest na­tive game abounded, th­ese vile brutes were rowed across the lake and let loose. All our na­tive game, I think, will suf­fer; and if the Gov­ern­ment per­mit the shooting of our birds at the same time that the nat­u­ral en­emy is de­stroy­ing them, I fear within a short time all our most charm­ing birds will dis­ap­pear’’.

There was cer­tainly a re­al­i­sa­tion grow­ing in New Zealand at the time that our na­tive species were un­der se­ri­ous threat, one of th­ese threats be­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of preda­tors such as mustelids.

Con­ser­va­tion think­ing was not mainstream, but it was start­ing to gain trac­tion. Botanist Leonard Cock­ayne and politi­cian Harry Ell were prom­i­nent sup­port­ers of con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives at this time.

This shift in think­ing was slowly gain­ing re­sults with the for­ma­tion of re­serves from the late 1800s. Flora and fauna re­serves were cre­ated on off-shore is­lands such as Res­o­lu­tion Is­land (1891), Sec­re­tary Is­land (1893), Lit­tle Bar­rier Is­land (1895) and Kapiti Is­land (1897).

By 1903 the Scenery Preser­va­tion Act had been passed. This was New Zealand’s first leg­is­la­tion aimed at pro­tect­ing sites of scenic and his­toric in­ter­est.

This was par­tially in recog­ni­tion that tourism could po­ten­tially be­come a lu­cra­tive part of the NZ econ­omy. But the Act al­lowed scenic, sci­en­tific, his­toric and "nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity" val­ues to be the ba­sis of form­ing re­serves.

A Scenery Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion trav­elled the length of New Zealand, rec­om­mend­ing ar­eas to set aside as re­serves. The com­mis­sion strug­gled in the face of op­po­si­tion from pri­vate land owner in­ter­ests,but laid the path for the fu­ture of the New Zealand re­serve net­work.

Iron­i­cally then, the depre­da­tions of rab­bits, and in turn mustelids, ac­tu­ally helped stim­u­late a cli­mate for a bur­geon­ing move to­wards con­ser­va­tion in NZ by the late 1800s.

PHOTO: DOC

Pub­lic en­e­mies of the pest kind. A weasel, left, ferret, rear and stoat.

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