the bush is not dying – it is being killed

In a dark alcove of the Te Papa national museum in Wellington, a lament plays on. Across
the walls of this semi-hidden corner runs a list of unfamiliar names: huia; moa; kairuku. As you sound out the words in your head, the lament music builds and fills the alcove. This is the tribute to the extinct animals of New Zealand – and the list goes on.

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Many of the birds – and it is mostly birds because, apart from bats and seals, there are no native mammals in New Zealand – who now fill extinction tables with their names rather than canopies with their calls, have humans to blame for their demise. When the first British colonisers arrived on these shores, they wrote home of being ‘deafened’ by the birdsong throughout the native bush that covered the islands. Nowadays, you can walk for many hours through the bush in relative quiet – fantails, bellbirds, tui and robin call out to
each other around you, but it is far from deafening to be amongst them.

The moa, perhaps New Zealand’s most famous extinct bird, a huge flightless ostrich-type creature, was hunted to extinction by the first Maori settlers of the islands. However, over-hunting has not been the only reason the native birdlife is suffering. There is a
much larger threat present in the bush – and it is not only killing the birds.

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In 1837, the British colonisers of New Zealand decided that the island’s economy would benefit from developing a fur trade, and the possum was introduced to the country. In the almost two centuries since, the possum has become one of the world’s most serious disaster stories regarding the consequences of the unthinking introduction of a non-native species to a delicate ecosystem. The damage the possum has wreaked on the bush is obvious wherever you go in the country: trees stand scarred and dying after their new-growth leaves have been entirely consumed, native birds have their nests disturbed and their eggs eaten, and the possum drives other natives out from their habitat as they make the bush their own.

The possum is probably the most famous pest story in New Zealand, but the colonisers brought many more that have all but destroyed the bush today: stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, deer… the list goes on and the bush continues to retreat.

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The native bush in New Zealand is now so fragile that it requires extensive human intervention simply to keep it alive. I stayed with a family who managed a 90-hectare piece of coastal bush in the Bay of Plenty and had the opportunity to witness just how much care and time keeping the bush intact required. Every other day, a few hours was
spent walking the length and breadth of the forest, checking and re-setting traps for possums and rats. More time was spent caring for young saplings, especially after a deer had got into the forest and left a trail of destruction in its wake, and checking on the health of older trees, such as a the phenomenal 1000-year-old puiri and its 700-year-old younger siblings.

This sort of care takes an incredible amount of time and effort – and the result is simply to keep the bush alive; the native bush which should by all rights flourish in the location and climate it has evolved to be in. Unfortunately there is simply not enough time or willpower for the sort of care Wayne in the Bay of Plenty dedicates to his bush to be the standard throughout New Zealand. The Department of Conservation have come up with alternative plans – and some of them are seriously controversial.

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1080 is a pesticide used in New Zealand to target the ever-increasing possum population. The Department of Conservation drops the deadly poison from helicopter over large tracts of bush, with the intention being that the possums consume the 1080 pellets and, as a result, are killed. In many countries, such as the USA, the use of 1080 is banned or heavily regulated – however, DOC contend that this is because there are many native land mammals in such countries, compared to none in New Zealand, and therefore 1080 is the ideal poison to use.

Others, however, claim a different and darker story. Whilst DOC may argue that 1080 targets only unwanted invasive species, it cannot be denied that the poison kills anything that consumes it. This means native species as well as pests. After all, how can you be sure, when air-dropping huge amounts of deadly pesticide across a large area of dense forest, what exactly is going to consume the poison? The program may be designed to protect native birds, but the very same birds have been found dead due to 1080 poisoning. One case in point is the famously curious kea, which will seek out with and eat or play
with anything new and exciting to it. 1080 fits the bill (literally) – and the kea dies.

We had the opportunity to stay with some of the founding and most prolific members of the anti-1080 campaign on the West Coast of South Island, and heard first-hand about the ongoing campaign that is spreading throughout New Zealand against the use of the poison to control invasive mammalian species. We also heard their vision for alternatives.

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Hunting plays a central role in New Zealand rural life, and in years gone by a bounty was offered for possums caught. Campaigners against 1080 believe that reintroducing the bounty in place of 1080 usage would not only save DOC money, but also encourage young New Zealanders to continue the country’s tradition of hunting and trapping – organic
pest-control methods that also develop life skills such as self-sufficiency. The people we stayed with hunted using long bows and guns, and between their own catches and their community, were kept in deer and wild goat all year round. It’s a very obvious and
efficient practice to hunt your own meat, especially when the meat hunted is doing more damage to the native ecosystem alive than dead. Possum-hunting is a natural counterpart to hunting for sustenance. It is clear that protecting New Zealand’s delicate and unique ecosystem, and undoing the damage caused primarily by white colonisers who unthinkingly brought in species that have wreaked havoc across the land, is an ongoing project, and not one that is going to be solved by a single-pronged approach. The bush needs protection more than ever as it faces the impact of climate change alongside pests and invasives both flora and fauna. Luckily, amongst all the doom and gloom, we have been privileged enough to meet and stay with people at the forefront of native bush regeneration and protection projects, trying to undo the damage, one tract of bush at a time.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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