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Conserving the Bird Song

Posted by Iain on Dec. 8, 2017, 6:22 p.m. in Environment

A few months ago I wrote that my family along with some friends had bought a block of steep, Northland rainforest complete with two streams and several impressive waterfalls. Our reason for buying this 22 hectares was primarily to create a conservancy; give this land back to nature. It's our intention to offer the helping hand all our forests need these days to recreate the conditions that existed in pre-human times when there was an absence of introduced predators including rats, mice, weasels, stoats, ferrets, cats and that king of local forest destruction, the Australian Brush Tailed possum.

All will attack live birds and those that can climb trees eat nesting birds' eggs and their chicks. Our native bird species stand no chance.

For those of you unaware, in New Zealand, we only historically had two species of native land mammal: the short tailed and long tailed bats. Both are now rare but recent reports suggest they are back thanks to similar predator control programmes around Auckland.

In the absence of native land mammals, every niche in our forests were filled with birds and the lack of predators, the savings in energy (flight uses, relatively, far more energy than walking) and the safety of the ground meant many birds became flightless. If you'll forgive the intended pun, they became sitting ducks for these predators. Our mainland forests now are usually depressingly silent.

More and more people, however, are getting together to do what we are. Make New Zealand predator free.

It was our intent to go to war on behalf of the remaining birds and less sexy but no less important vertebrate and invertebrate communities that are also nutritious snacks for rats and possums.

We took possession in July and have since put out half a dozen traps and around 30 bait stations which dispense poisoned food pellets. 

I know our forests are crawling with these vermin but I have been shocked at the results in a little over two months, especially when for much of the time we only had 12 bait stations out.

Possums trapped or shot - 13

Rats trapped - 24

Cats - 1 (much to my wife's horror but we also have hungry feral cats in these forests)

We don't know how many other possums or rats and mice have been killed through poisoned baits but the pellets we put out every week or two into each station are usually consumed within 24 hours. So far I estimate these critters have eaten around 10kg of the stuff! It shows the huge numbers of them in a relatively small area. I'd wager for every one that we have instantly dispatched by trap another three or four have likely died through ingesting the poison bait pellets. That's a lot of pests for only 22 hectares. Something like 100 perhaps in very short order.

Some people have a problem with this killing. I don't. While the ecological horse has well and truly bolted and New Zealand can never return to its pre-human state we can get the numbers of these foreign invaders down to levels where our native birds have a chance to breed and recover.

Once we have 'nuked' the forest for a year or two we can effectively move to a perimeter defence to stop re-invasion.

Being in a New Zealand forest where the predators are controlled is like no forest you've ever been in. The bird song is constant, varied and loud. If a canary makes a fine soloist, our native birds form the choir with accompanying bells in our forests. It is both unforgettable, and, very much worth fighting the alien invaders for.

For those of you in or coming to Auckland, you can see what happens when you control these pests by taking a day trip by ferry to Tiritiri island or visiting Tawharanui Regional Park. Both are easy day trips.

With much of New Zealand heading into drought again with summer well and truly upon us and temperatures now back in the humid, high twenty degrees, the forest is starting to dry out after a typically wet winter. That heavy dank smell of rotting vegetation is giving way to the crunching underfoot of layer upon layer of brown and brittle leaves. I'm looking forward to taking a few dips over the summer break in the fresh water pools and under those waterfalls as we tend the traps and rebait the stations.

And, in time, hopefully, we will get to enjoy the chorus of this beautiful forest once again when it is filled with birds and their precious song.

Till next time...

Iain MacLeod, Southern Man

What does New Zealand & Mauritius have in common?

Posted by Iain on May 13, 2016, 11:39 a.m. in Environment

I have in my time voted for the Green Party, Labour (liberal and left of centre), National (conservative and right of centre) ACT (a mix of the previous two). I am never sure whether upon self-analysis that makes me balanced, confused or a lunatic.

I’ll go with balanced.

I think what it demonstrates is that I recognise trees are very important to life yet money doesn’t grow on them.

The more I travel the more concerned I become about what we are doing to this planet of ours. It doesn’t need us but we sure as hell need it.

I have long been concerned about what we are doing to New Zealand – our oft quoted (and globally marketed) ‘clean and green’ country is in my view not only an inaccurate representation, but misleading. Yes, at first glance or when you are lying on a beach it appears very clean and very green. But scratch the surface, analyse a river water sample, venture into a forest of towering endemic trees and you will be confronted by...silence. The birds are gone. Seedlings are absent, eaten by introduced predators and grazers.

The past two weeks I was holed up in Mauritius with my wife in order to catch my breath after three very busy weeks of non-stop consulting with over 100 families in South Africa.

One of the reasons for returning there was the chance to do some scuba diving in the little down time I have had.

The diving websites boasted of 'sights never seen anywhere' and while a dive has to be pretty bad for me not to enjoy it, I'd give Mauritius diving a '5 out of 10' after completing four. I wouldn't hurry back for the underwater sights.

Why? Sadly this nation, which is a microcosm of the planet, is on a one way trip to ecological collapse. Where our ecosystems go, so too go we. Mauritius it seems on the surface is wonderful but beneath the surface it is one sick puppy.

Outwardly beautiful this tropical ‘paradise’ that gave us the Dodo before we took it away forever is in a severe state of ecological meltdown.

Overcrowded and reliant on sugar cane and tourism this island has possibly the most modified natural environment I have ever seen. It should scare us all to witness what is going on there as it simply reflects on a very small scale (but therefore on a scale able to be comprehended) what modified environments can look like and what they signal about our future prosperity or lack of. There is a whole lot of ‘living for today...’ (which when you are poor you have little choice other than to do).

In the context of my love of all things underwater I went there, in part to dive. Mauritius is the lucky owner of the third biggest continuous tropical reef in the world, yet like it’s terrestrial environment, it is busy degrading to to the point of collapse and the nation doesn't seem to do anything much to protect it. 

Only one bay has been declared a marine reserve. Everywhere else subsistence and other fishing goes on to the point where the lagoon that encircles the island is largely barren of coral and the marine life this ecosystem used to amply support.

On the open ocean side there are fish but compared to other places I have dived, depressingly few. The reef is under incredible pressure through over fishing, collection of shellfish and none of this is helped by the seeming insatiable demand by tourists for large shiny shells to put on their mantle pieces back in Paris, Berlin or London.

These beautiful shells which seem to be for sale absolutely everywhere once housed molluscs which are predatory and feed on - among other things - sea urchins. Sea urchins in turn feed on the coral. So where the predatory molluscs have all been removed (which is virtually everywhere) the urchins have exploded in numbers. The coral is being eaten. The reef is. if not dying, certainly under enormous pressure. 

All of which diminishes the scuba experience.

Yet this beautiful country relies so heavily on tourists and I for one won’t be hurrying back.

I just don't get it.

Ban the selling of shells (or at least in hotels like the one I was in, discourage guests from buying them but explain why). Interestingly here in NZ, our Government bans the importation of them so if you do come and live here (or already do) and fancy buying a nice ‘Nautilus’ shell or some coral when overseas you have to declare it on arrival or risk heavy penalties and either way it will be taken off you. Bravo I say. Leave the shells in the ocean where they belong.

Diving in Mauritius is not cheap and I suspect I paid more for four dives than your average fisherman would make in a month. While I am 100% sympathetic to the need to feed his family but it seems for so many, the only way he can do it is, to coin a phrase, by pooing in his own (marine) nest. 

If only 20% of the reef from island to ocean were made off limits these systems would soon recover. I read recently in as little as five years based on NZ experience when total bans were put in place here. 

A healthy reef is not only going to provide better diving and snorkelling but also more fish for the fisherman as these healthy populations spill over to adjacent areas. Setting aside even 10% of their reef can only be good economically if the ecological benefit is not deemed worthy.

I am not feeling smug about this. Our story in New Zealand is in many ways very similar to Mauritius only on a far bigger scale. It is equally as depressing in some ways.

Tourism is our top export earner. Last year we welcomed around 3.2 million tourists. This number is expected to top 5 million by 2020. Over 400,000 Kiwis are directly or indirectly employed in tourism so it is of critical importance to the economy. Only yesterday it was announced by Tourism New Zealand they are going to stop marketing the country for peak time visits and now start to promote shoulder periods of spring and autumn/fall. There are cities like Queenstown where there is literally not a bed available for three months over summer. Our hospitality and tourism infrastructure is groaning under the pressure.

People come to NZ for similar reasons I went to Mauritius. The outdoors, the 'untouched' places (without anything wilder than an Australian marsupial, midges or rat in our case) and a wilderness experience or two. Our limited wild places and National Parks are under pressure from all these people. 

Along our coasts we do not have enough marine reserves despite having one of the longest contiguous shorelines of any country in the world.

The reserves (marine and terrestrial) we do have are generally free for everyone and increasingly that true wilderness experience is being spoiled by thousands of chattering, litter producing and ecologically ignorant visitors. 

Countries like Mauritius and New Zealand should not only preserve but expand these zones. Let nature recover. And then trade off that genuine ‘untouched’ and pristine experience. People, like me, will pay big bucks for it – but it has to be worth the money.

How about a conservation levy in Mauritius and NZ to help pay for these parks and reserves? Travellers are increasingly ‘green’ and conservation conscious.

When the local tax paying base is not big enough to maintain predator control programmes or expand our ecologically sensitive zones I'd happily pay a levy or fee to enter these areas if I thought it would be directed at conservation. Add it to my hotel or accommodation bill.

Most countries I visit have what amounts to a tourism tax levied on tourists and collected by hotels. NZ doesn't but in my view should.  Or even better why not a conservation levy? 

It’s a win-win. We preserve or even enhance the very environment we not only wish to enjoy but which provides the foundation for our own economic survival.

I couldn't believe when we recently spent time in the Abel Tasman National Park in the South Island you could use all the camping and ablution facilities for about $5 per day. Ridiculously cheap. And little meaningful predator control as a result. The forests while beautiful were eerily silent. No birds. None can survive the introduced predators that are rampant in our forests.

Pour this money primarily into preserving what is left, expand reserves, keep people out of some and carefully monitor and regulate activity in others. In Mauritius make some of these reefs off limits to humans. 

Jobs would follow. Tourists would return and people like me wouldn't write blogs like this.

Healthy reefs equal more fish.

More fish creates more fishing jobs.

Healthier reefs attract more high value water integrated tourism like diving and big game fishing.

It's the same on the land. Mauritius like NZ did its best (and wildly succeeded) in modifying its environment to the point of it not being recognisable from its pre-human days.

Tourist numbers swell as incomes rise around the world. This is an opportunity for countries like Mauritius and NZ to create many new jobs while at the same time giving poor old Mother Nature a break.

She is sick. I see it everywhere I go.

I'd love to go back to Mauritius again but will probably go somewhere where the locals haven't pretty much destroyed the very reason I wanted to visit in the first place.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man – Letter from New Zealand

P.S. We're on Instagram. Follow IMMagine on @IMMagineNZAU and my "This is my Auckland" photo stream on @Southern_ManNZ

Massive New Marine Reserve

Posted by Iain on Oct. 2, 2015, 11:45 a.m. in Environment

In what might just be one of the biggest achievements of our Government it announced earlier this week that it was creating a marine reserve around the Kermadec Islands which results in 620,000 square kilometers of islands, ocean and ocean floor being closed off to all fishing and potential mining.

The Kermadec Islands stretch over 200km some 800-1000km north of New Zealand’s North Island and because they have never been part of any landmass the many isles of this volcanic group are home to some unique species of land and sea animals.

As New Zealanders we feel a deep attachment to our oceans and seas but it has to be said we havent done a particularly good job of looking after them despite their economic and spiritual importance to us.

More than 150 years of exploitation has lead to a highly degraded coastline, shellfish and pelagic fisheries but we are starting to do more to rectify it.

In keeping with the broad philosophy of clean and green and perhaps a little more prosaically, sharing our world with everything that has as much right to be here as we do, our Government has determined to turn at least 10% of our coasts and seas into hands off reserves. Thats potentially a lot of water when you consider we have one of the largest economic zones in the world and many times the land mass of the country.

To give you some idea of the scale of this new marine reserve it covers twice the land area of all of the rest of New Zealand put together. If that doesnt mean much, consider that NZ is the size of the UK, Japan or Italy. So take those countries and double it.

It is 50 times as large as our next biggest terrestrial reserve. It is huge by any standards.

Home to whales, dolphins, five of the worlds seven species of sea turtles and millions of sea birds, I for one hope it is the start of much greater things to come around our extensive coastline.

As someone who is lucky enough to own a beach house I often ponder how different this country and our oceans might be if we saw through setting aside even 10% of our coasts as no take areas.

Where it has happened the change has been both fast and astounding. At the Goat Island Marine reserve an hours drive north of Auckland, snorkelling there gives a glimpse of what our shorelines must have been like before humans arrived 600 hundred or so years ago. Large schools of fish, sea urchins, crayfish and lobster, turtles and the odd shark can be seen when standing knee deep in the water.

It also has positive benefits in terms of the recreational and Id presume commercial fishing outside the area where fish sizes and densities are greater.

Sadly we don’t see much of this in other parts of mainland New Zealand although there have been much smaller reserves recently gazetted even closer to Auckland harbour. It took years of wrangling and argument but a relatively large reserve now exists off Great Barrier Island and smaller ones at Tawharanui, some 45 minutes north of Auckland (encompassing both land and sea habitats).

The fishing industry is strong (and important) to the nation and although we have an excellent fishery Quota Management system I can tell you as a keen fisherman and diver that things have changed significantly in terms of abundance and diversity of fish species, in particular within 1-5 km of land over the past 25 years. Commercial fishing is controlled and regulated but we are still, it seems, taking too much.

The creation of this massive reserve was, I suspect, an easy win for a Government not perceived as being very green in meeting its own lofty goal of 10% of our coastlines and inshore marine areas protected by 2020 as there are no people living on the Kermadecs (setting foot there is banned without a permit) and there is little to no commercial fishing there. The 12 nautical miles off each of the islands has been a marine reserve since 1990. This change pushes the boundaries out to 200 nautical miles.

A challenge to protect but surveillance plans are firmly in place.

It is so easy to get depressed about what humanity is doing to the world. Every now and again countries like ours, which it has to be said, have the luxury of being wealthy enough to set aside and patrol these areas, make these grand but meaningful gestures.

It makes me proud that we will do it and equally fills me with hope that the Government will continue down this path and will set aside more areas of the main islands of New Zealand for nature to do its thing - both above and below the waterline.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod


Southern Man

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