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Pukaha keeps predator control in play

A new kiwi in safe hands at Pukaha. PHOTOS/FILE

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In a move that may help to prevent another lockdown tragedy, the Department of Conservation has granted Pukaha National Wildlife Centre permission to continue its predator control operations.

Most predator control across New Zealand had to stop at alert level 4 to minimise the risk of transmission of covid-19.

This time, DOC had allowed Pukaha to keep trapping during alert level 4, although the approval came with strict health and safety conditions.

Pukaha general manager Emily Court said the decision had taken into account the effect of last year’s lockdown on Pukaha’s kiwi population.

In May 2020, after weeks of reduced trapping, Pukaha staff found five kiwi that had been killed by predators.

In the first few months of 2020, the centre had invested in specialised predator control work, but trapping had come to a halt at the beginning of the lockdown.

“Our population of wild kiwi was so badly affected last year,” Court said. “It couldn’t tolerate another incursion.”

Court said DOC’s decision during the latest lockdown came as a result of the Pukaha’s specific circumstances.

“This is a particular emergency response to address the rabbit population and possible associated ferret incursions as opposed to maintenance trapping,” Court said.

Contractors were allowed to continue working under strict hygiene and social distancing measures, such as travelling to work in separate vehicles.

Court said under the alert level restrictions, work would be limited to the minimum possible for predator control.

Trappers would also need to avoid the most dangerous areas of the reserve, including around bluffs and cliffs.

“We’re okay with that, because those areas had been trapped not long ago,” Court said.

“We understand the need to balance public safety and the safety of the wildlife. We also understand that the local community was devastated when kiwi were lost to ferret attacks last lockdown. It hit us all hard.”

Backblocks Environmental Management director John Bissell, who had the contract for predator control at Pukaha, said amateur conservationists were very concerned about the effects of lockdown.

“These people are really passionate about what they do and really invested in it, but they’re also the sort of people who don’t sit still for long,” Bissell said. “When they can’t get out and do what they want to do, and they’re really connected to what they do, it’s pretty tough on people, there ’s no doubt about that.”

Bissell spent much of this time planning for the conservation work he would undertake after the lockdown.

“I’m making sure that everything I’ve got, whether it be my traps or my processes, are the best they can be so that I’m ready to roll as soon as we come out of lockdown.”

He said the timing of this lockdown was fortunate as it was the time of year that often had the lowest catch rates for mustelids including ferrets and stoats.

Rabbits are a major problem in the area around Pukaha.

However, there was a large rabbit population in the area surrounding Pukaha.

As rabbits were a common food for ferrets, the more rabbits in the vicinity, the greater the chance of ferrets invading the reserve.

A hui for Pukaha’s neighbouring farmers scheduled for August 20 was postponed due to the lockdown.

The hui was planned to discuss rabbit control in the 2700 hectare buffer zone around Pukaha.

A new date for the hui would be arranged when alert level restrictions allowed gatherings to take place.

At alert levels 3 and 4, Pukaha’s rangers, also deemed essential workers, would continue to care for the other birds in Pukaha’s aviaries.

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