The Situation with the Pests

Lake Wakitipu, South Island New Zealand

Over the last several months I have learnt a lot about the introduced pest species that we have in New Zealand. The reasons why we took them there, the impact that they had on early agricultural settlers, what the situation is today in 2019 and where we hope to see ourselves heading in terms of control and eradication.

Pest species are a controversial subject. There are always going to be people on both sides of any fence but one thing everyone can agree on is that we need to protect our native lands and its inhabitants. We want future generations to grow up experiencing the same ecological diversity that we have known and to hear the beautiful native bird songs that ring throughout the trees in both bush and cityscapes across the country.

Considering we unleashed these rapidly multiplying predators on unsuspecting native creatures I believe it is indeed our responsibility to do our best in reversing the impact and restoring the former native ecological balance that the lush green lands of New Zealand once knew.

It is also important to do this in the most ethical way possible. This means to do it in such a way that we inflict the least harm possible on these creatures and the environment they live in, including the native inhabitants, and to make use of their beautiful furs. Considering an international fur trade was the primary reason they were introduced in the first place.

The key pest species in New Zealand fall into four main groups, possums, mustelids (ferrets/stoats/weasels), rabbits and rats. Between them they predate everything from grubs to leaves to birds and everything in between. Cats also pose a significant threat to the more urban dwelling bird life.

Mustelids, being a natural predator of possums and rabbits, were brought in to contain the problem but by the year 1900 there were thriving populations of all the above. “Stoats are implicated in the extinction of some of NZ’s native species, including the bush wren and laughing owl” (predatorfreenz.org, 2018).

The laughing owl, or whēkau, was extinct by 1914

Rabbits are primarily an agricultural pest, with ten eating as much grass as one ewe. Their impact on early farming was significant and I found the statistics to be baffling. I’m originally from Southland, my family were sheep farmers and I have a good understanding of farming regions in the South Island. One article I read stated that around 1.3 million acres of farmland in the Otago region had been abandoned by the 1900’s. This was due to a decrease in flock numbers, in some cases up to 70% reduction over 2 decades. This was caused by 1) land becoming very erosion prone from rabbit burrows and 2) rabbits eating out the stock feed. In summary, hard to grow grass and the grass that does grow the rabbits eat.

Ten rabbits eat as much grass as one ewe

In 1997 a group of rogue farmers introduced a rabbit virus which has done a good job at knocking their numbers back for the last couple of decades. This combined with farmers ensuring they keep on top of their populations by poisoning and shooting means that New Zealand has nowhere near the rabbit problem it did in the late 1800’s. In 1999 rabbits were estimated to cause an annual 50 million dollars in agricultural industry losses and 25 million dollars in control.

Possums on the other hand are primarily an ecological pest, they do have some impact on farming, such as being carriers of bovine tuberculosis but for the most part they are busy devouring bushland and native creatures. Today there are around 30 million possums residing across the country, this number is down from a previous estimate of 70 million. Currently they cost an estimated 110 million dollars per year to control. The below image illustrates their rapid spread throughout the country between 1870 and 2000.

Pink colour indicates spread of possums throughout NZ between 1870-2000

These furry critters have a hefty appetite consuming a whopping 21000 tonnes of bushland per night. Wowzah! They devour complete lifecycles of birds, lizards, plants and bugs. This makes it hard for species to recover quickly. They also contribute to canopy collapse.

The most heartbreaking aspect of their predation is that they gobble up 25 million native bird eggs per year. They don’t stop at the eggs though, they eat chicks and even adult birds. Species include kiwis, keas, kākās, robins, honeyeaters and the kōkako. They have been implicated in the extinction of the South Island kōkako.

Possums eat 25 million native NZ bird eggs per year

In 1993 videos of kōkako nests being raided and chicks eaten was captured by the Department of Conservation (DoC). The footage shocked kiwi’s nationwide and the devastating reality of these predators started to change the way people viewed these furry critters.

In 2010 DoC captured footage of possums eating keas, with some chicks seen tortured over enduring periods, taking up to 40 hours to die. “The YouTube footage is unpleasant stuff to watch, but it shows what’s going on in places where predators are not controlled. We are all relieved that the effort is worth it, but saddened by the graphic nature of what we have found,” (Brent Barrett 2010 DoC).

The Kea, NZ’s bird of the year in 2017, is the only alpine parrot in the world and with a population of 3000-7000 is endangered

The possum population isn’t all bad though (debatable), the New Zealand Fur Council say that the possum pelt industry generates 130 million dollars in revenue per year through the sale of fur and pet meat products. Currently 1500 New Zealanders are employed in the industry that sells a plethora of high-quality boutique items such as possum merino wool blend gloves. Possum is a beautiful thick warm fur and is often sold labelled as ethical. This is a fair statement considering they are “one of the greatest threats to our natural environment” (Doc.govt.nz, 2018).

New Zealand has really made the best of a bad situation in terms of using pest furs, turning them into beautiful sustainable products. This was what they were introduced for in the first place so despite their devastating impacts on the natural environment they are in fact serving their intended purpose. I personally do not think the pros outweigh the cons though and support full eradication.

The Department of Conservation have an ambitious (their words) initiative to be predator free by the year 2050 (PF2050). For the sake of our environment it would be great to see this happen. I think this conservation initiative is something that all New Zealanders should be aware of and take an active part in so that we can hear our native birdsong sing long into the future.

DoC have an initiative for NZ to be predator free by 2050

This topic has served as the concept for my latest capsule collection of women’s street apparel. It features a selection of New Zealand sheepskins, rabbit and possum furs, alongside a graphic textile print collection.

A big thank you to Classic Sheepskins in Napier New Zealand, who without, this project would not have been possible.

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I highly recommend them if you are looking for beautiful NZ sheepskin products, they have a lovely range of high-quality home furnishings and footwear, among other items.

https://classicsheepskins.com

Keep an eye out for my upcoming blog article about designing and producing the Winter 2019 collection Infestation Decoration.

Photo Credits: Kit Haselden Photography. Model: Kate Moore. HMUA: Lucie Stauff.

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