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Feral cats pose risk to native wildlife

Alan Wilde, left, and Neil Hayes say feral cats shouldn’t be the landowner’s problem to deal with. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE


They’re your loveable, cuddly companions at home. But when they’re wild and their population balloons out of control, they’re a threat to native wildlife and on farm activities.

Two rural Wairarapa residents are concerned after noticing another spike in the number of feral cats they’re catching in traps around their properties.

Neil Hayes, based in Carterton, has been trapping pests for close to 30 years. In that time, he estimates he has trapped nearly 1000 feral cats around his property.

In just the past six weeks, he had caught eight feral cats roaming near Gretel Lagoons, a wetland restoration project close to where he lives.

It’s a similar story for Greytown farmer Alan Wilde. He’s caught five cats on his 5.26ha property in the past four weeks.

“Though I trap some rats, the occasional ferret and stoat, by far the most hunters that wind up in my traps are feral cats,” he said.

They are concerned that not enough was being done to address the growing feral cat population and that native wildlife and birds were at risk.

Their own forays into trapping and conservation work stemmed from a love of hunting.

“We’ve got similar backgrounds in that we’re both shooters,” Wilde said.

“People think if you are shooters there’s some sort of blood thirst [for birds]. The reverse is the case,” he said.

He said shooting was more of a support, and one which relied on keeping bird population levels up.

“It’s a love of birds really.”

As they’ve gotten older, they’ve found the desire to shoot had dwindled. Now, they simply enjoyed watching the birdlife.

Wilde has spent time in the bush as a keen deer hunter and said people would be surprised to learn how many feral cats there were a long way from any human settlement.

Many of these cats were larger than their domestic counterparts.

“It just shows how easy it is for them to get food.”

He said there was no way New Zealand could become predator free by 2050 if the issue of stray cats was not addressed.

He said it should not be a problem the landowners had to deal with.

“Living rurally, you are made more aware of the issue. I think a lot of people have no idea how much vermin there is in their backyard.”

On his property, which borders the Ruamahanga River, he has about 14 traps which he checks on a weekly basis but getting around to them as he’s gotten older is more difficult though.

Hayes said a large part of the problem was people dumping unwanted cats on the roadside.

“It used to be very common around the school holidays. People would go away, but they wouldn’t want to care for the cats.”

They were not opposed to domestic cats as they had their own when their children were younger.

Certainly, they’re a far cry from those, such as wealthy businessman Gareth Morgan, who think New Zealand should do away with cats entirely.

“Cats are lovable creatures,” said Hayes.

But both want more to be done and for cat lovers to take more responsibility.

“It’s unfair to expect a landowner to do all the work, or to expect a busy sheep and beef, or dairy farmer, to either,” he said.

Keeping a lid on feral cat numbers could be as easy as cat owners keeping their pets in at night, Wilde said.

They suggested a registration system similar to that used on dogs should be instituted so domestic cats were  better accounted for and could not be abandoned easily.

Feral cats were a problem for native birdlife and conservation efforts, Wairarapa Department of Conservation [DOC] ranger Jim Flack said.

“Feral cats are spread far and wide across Wairarapa and are chewing on wildlife in seemingly inhospitable places such as Onoke Spit right up to Pukaha Forest.”

Feral cats were a big problem for ground-nesting birds around the coast, on river systems, and around Wairarapa Moana. Their impact on birds such as banded dotterel, little blue penguins and the rare matuku [Australasian bittern] was huge.

“Cats are talented hunters and excellent climbers, so few nests are safe from them.

“If they can’t catch adult birds, then they will clean nests of eggs and chicks.”

DOC and the regional council were involved with trapping projects at Wairarapa Moana to protect matuku and other ground nesting birds in the area.

He said feral cats were also a big threat to the only population of Caspian terns in Wairarapa at Onoke Spit, with cats travelling right down to the 2km strip of sand to raid the nests.

Local volunteers spent a lot of time trapping during the breeding season to prevent this.

“Many of our native animals avoid their traditional predators by freezing, staying completely still.

“This was a great strategy when the threat came from birds of prey that hunt by looking for movement, but does not work with cats, as they can hunt by scent.

“Most forest birds are prey for feral cats,” he said, adding that lizards were also at risk.

“Lizards are also on the menu and feral cats sniff them out and make a quick meal of them,” Flack said.

“Many of us have seen well-fed pet cats bring home birds and lizards.

“Feral cats are much more efficient hunters and are preying on our native wildlife across the country every day.”

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