Rewriting history

September 16, 2018 5:00 pm

If we can do it on Waiheke, we can do it anywhere.

That’s why we are contributing $2.6 million to an ambitious community-led project to rid the island of rats and stoats.
Waiheke is a microcosm of the country.

It celebrates diversity and is proudly independent. It’s outspoken on the issues it cares about and has flown the flag for many freedoms: Nuclear Free Waiheke and GM Free Waiheke.

It’s often bucked against authority, but in this case Auckland Council is also backing a new community trust, more than matching our funding through its newly created natural environment targeted rate.

Waiheke’s story mirrors the mainland’s.

The first, canoe-born settlers embraced the bounty of new lands, named the plants and animals they found, and forged a new identity and economy from their riches.

More accessible wildlife slipped to the edges, some beyond; names like moa, pouakai (a giant eagle) and tutukiwi (snipe) drifting into collective memory. Forest was cleared and burned to make way for gardens.

By the time a second wave of settlers arrived by sailing ship Waiheke had become a mix of bracken fern, manuka and kanuka with kauri in the east. These tall trees begin to fall in 1826 with Europeans and Ngati Paoa working together to supply timber markets in Auckland, Sydney and Chile.

Cut tea tree found use as firewood, puriri as house foundations and fence posts, tanekaha bark for tanning and pohutukawa for boatbuilding. By 1880 Waiheke’s hills had been stripped bare for sheep farming with their soils flooding into harbours.

The birds, reptiles and insects that survived this onslaught in gully remnants and around rocky headlands faced other threats.

DNA testing shows that rats on Waiheke arrived early as stowaways from Auckland, quickly building to plague proportions to turn native wildlife – evolved over millions of years without carnivorous mammals – into rodent protein.

Sometime in the first half of last century they were joined by another, even-more-efficient predator, a long-distance swimming stoat.

The carnage that followed has left Waiheke’s wildlife hanging by threads, populations of bush and seabirds now disjointed, tiny fractions of what they once were.

The island is now exporting stoats and rats, with castaways threatening predator-free Rotoroa, Rangitoto-Motutapu and Motuihe just a few kilometres away.
Yet, Waiheke also sits centre stage in a remarkable national comeback story.

In 1960 conservation pioneer Don Merton and birding enthusiasts were called to investigate a killing on Maria Island, a 1 ha speck of the Noises islands, just across the channel from Waiheke.

Recently introduced rats – perhaps brought on debris or a boat servicing its lighthouse – had run amok killing 900 white-faced storm petrels. Merton left warfarin rat poison on the island and departed to fight bigger battles.

Around the same time rats invaded 939 ha Big South Cape Island off Stewart Island, driving three birds and a bat species to extinction. Only a last-minute transfer to a nearby islet saved the South Island saddleback.

New Zealand’s iconic wildlife was being pushed to tiny, isolated sanctuaries, their gene pools dwindling.

When bird surveyors returned to Maria they found no rats and a recovering seabird population, creating a template for removal of rats from progressively bigger islands. Fiordland’s 170 ha Breaksea in 1998, 2000 ha Kapiti in 1996 and 11,000 ha Subantarctic Campbell Island in 2001.

Today rodents have now been removed from over 90 islands, including Tiritiri Matangi, Motuihe, Rangitoto-Motutapu and others in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, using both ground and helicopter operations.

Any visitor to Tiri can see the rewards of replanting and the removal of predators. Wildlife is soon in your face and knocking at the door ready to reclaim new territory.

Waiheke is starting to feel the love. Kaka are visiting from Hauturu/ Little Barrier and recently bred in Onetangi Reserve and kakariki (red-crowned parakeets) have been spotted on its shores following recent releases on neighbouring Motuihe.

Populations of kereru, tui, bellbirds, fantails, grey-faced petrels, NZ dotterels and little blue penguins are all benefiting from current trapping efforts across a quarter of the island.

Now a newly-constituted community trust wants to go all the way to remove rats and stoats across the 9,300 ha island.

The Te Korowai o Waiheke: Towards Predator-Free Waiheke project has support from Ngāti Pāoa, agencies, community and business leaders.

It plans a co-ordinated ground operation across townships, lifestyle blocks, vineyards, farms and reserves, using traps and enclosed bait stations, tailored to different landscapes, situations and land owners.

With a budget of $11 million and a seven-year horizon Waiheke has the opportunity to rewrite history.

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