Deer and possums ruining our forest

DYING TOTARA: Mere Tamanui hugs a dead totara in the Raukumara Forest Park. It was one of hundreds she and Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins saw on a survey trip this month. Picture by Graeme Atkins

THE dawn chorus of native birds in the heart of the Raukumara Forest Park was once deafening.

Now, it is almost silent.

It is not only the wildlife that has disappeared.

On a survey this month in the Waingakia River headwaters, Department of Conservation (DoC) ranger Graeme Atkins and volunteer Mere Tamanui recorded more than 200 dead totara.

“We got to 200 (dead totara) and stopped counting — it just got too depressing,” said Mr Atkins, who has been surveying for DoC in the area for the past 20 years and hunting there for more than 30.

“We saw only four alive, but they were barely hanging in there.

“Standing among dead totara as far as the eye can see is a pretty sobering experience — especially when you are in the middle of nowhere.”

He believes possums, which first showed up in the 1970s and 1980s, are the culprit.

“A single possum returning to a totara each night over three years can do enough damage that the tree does not recover.”

Even more concerning was the lack of understory, he said.

DoC has been surveying the understory in Raukumara Forest Park for the past 30 years.

The forest park is divided into three areas, each with 10 survey lines 200 metres long.

A team visits each area on three-yearly rotations and records the understory at 10m intervals.

Linking destruction to feral animals

Based on that data Mr Atkins said they could link the disappearance of the understory and destruction of trees with the introduction of deer and possums.

“Twenty-five years ago deer numbers in the Raukumara were low, kept in check by feral venison recovery operators. Then, two people surveying could barely get one line done in a 10-hour day because of all the different plants. You used to need a machete to make your way to the survey line.

“There were all sorts of native seedlings, ferns and grasses coming through. Kaka would hover over us as we did the survey.

“Now, we can do three lines in that same period. There is nothing to measure. All the edible species of plants that once dominated the understory of the forest have been removed by the deer.

“This time we recorded only a few ferns and horopito (pepperwood). In the future, that will be all that remains in the forest.”

People often thought the Raukumara was “untouched”, he said.

“It is sad to say it isn’t. This is not a bush remnant in a farm paddock. This is in the middle of nowhere. It should be looking like the Amazon jungle.”

Along with disappearance of native habitat went the wildlife.

“We camp at the same spot each time, and 20 years ago there were whio (blue ducks), black pekapeka (bats), kaka, kiwi and kakariki (parakeet). They are just not there any more, or are in much smaller numbers.”

Mr Atkins said the deer, which he believes would have come through Te Urewera and Waioeka Gorge, also caused erosion problems.

“It is a ticking time bomb. As they strip the understory, slips are popping up all over the place.

“In the past vegetation would have sealed them over but now, with the deer, they are not healing.”

Rats another problem

A further problem was rats, he said. They ate the seeds and bird eggs.

The only pest control in Raukumara Forest Park is for feral deer and goats, through contract hunters. There is no possum control.

Mr Atkins wants the community to have a proper discussion about how to tackle these challenges. He is arranging to take a Ngati Porou film crew to document what has happened, to show at hui throughout the rohe, and to take leaders in to experience it first-hand.

“I want people to see the destruction for themselves so they know where I am coming from. It is very difficult country and easy to get lost in.

“The place needs pest control over a huge area to give the land, forest, native animals and plants a chance to recover.”

■ Raukumara Forest Park, established in 1979, covers 115,000 hectares of extremely rugged and remote, bush-clad land.

It is one of the least developed or visited tracts of bush in the North Island, and has protection status under the Conservation Act 1987.

The area has a long history of human association. A number of iwi, including Ngati Porou, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Te Ehutu, Ngai Tai, Whakatohea and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, and affiliated hapu, have occupied and continued to maintain mana whenua on all flanks of the ranges.

The area is home to Mount Hikurangi, the sacred maunga of Ngati Porou, and the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island at 1752 metres.

The area is administered by the Department of Conservation, which meets with Ngati Porou on a regular basis during the year and produces an annual report detailing work completed within the forest park.

This informs their business planning discussion with Ngati Porou, where they set the work plan for the following year.

The draft conservation management strategy (CMS) developed for the area has involved input from iwi, the public and key stakeholders.

It includes Nga Whakahaere Takirua, a strategy co-authored with Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou dealing with public conservation land within their area of interest, including Raukumara Forest Park.

The CMS sets clear measurable guidelines and milestones, including the approach and decisions around pest control. It is due for release for public consultation in July 2018.

THE dawn chorus of native birds in the heart of the Raukumara Forest Park was once deafening.

Now, it is almost silent.

It is not only the wildlife that has disappeared.

On a survey this month in the Waingakia River headwaters, Department of Conservation (DoC) ranger Graeme Atkins and volunteer Mere Tamanui recorded more than 200 dead totara.

“We got to 200 (dead totara) and stopped counting — it just got too depressing,” said Mr Atkins, who has been surveying for DoC in the area for the past 20 years and hunting there for more than 30.

“We saw only four alive, but they were barely hanging in there.

“Standing among dead totara as far as the eye can see is a pretty sobering experience — especially when you are in the middle of nowhere.”

He believes possums, which first showed up in the 1970s and 1980s, are the culprit.

“A single possum returning to a totara each night over three years can do enough damage that the tree does not recover.”

Even more concerning was the lack of understory, he said.

DoC has been surveying the understory in Raukumara Forest Park for the past 30 years.

The forest park is divided into three areas, each with 10 survey lines 200 metres long.

A team visits each area on three-yearly rotations and records the understory at 10m intervals.

Linking destruction to feral animals

Based on that data Mr Atkins said they could link the disappearance of the understory and destruction of trees with the introduction of deer and possums.

“Twenty-five years ago deer numbers in the Raukumara were low, kept in check by feral venison recovery operators. Then, two people surveying could barely get one line done in a 10-hour day because of all the different plants. You used to need a machete to make your way to the survey line.

“There were all sorts of native seedlings, ferns and grasses coming through. Kaka would hover over us as we did the survey.

“Now, we can do three lines in that same period. There is nothing to measure. All the edible species of plants that once dominated the understory of the forest have been removed by the deer.

“This time we recorded only a few ferns and horopito (pepperwood). In the future, that will be all that remains in the forest.”

People often thought the Raukumara was “untouched”, he said.

“It is sad to say it isn’t. This is not a bush remnant in a farm paddock. This is in the middle of nowhere. It should be looking like the Amazon jungle.”

Along with disappearance of native habitat went the wildlife.

“We camp at the same spot each time, and 20 years ago there were whio (blue ducks), black pekapeka (bats), kaka, kiwi and kakariki (parakeet). They are just not there any more, or are in much smaller numbers.”

Mr Atkins said the deer, which he believes would have come through Te Urewera and Waioeka Gorge, also caused erosion problems.

“It is a ticking time bomb. As they strip the understory, slips are popping up all over the place.

“In the past vegetation would have sealed them over but now, with the deer, they are not healing.”

Rats another problem

A further problem was rats, he said. They ate the seeds and bird eggs.

The only pest control in Raukumara Forest Park is for feral deer and goats, through contract hunters. There is no possum control.

Mr Atkins wants the community to have a proper discussion about how to tackle these challenges. He is arranging to take a Ngati Porou film crew to document what has happened, to show at hui throughout the rohe, and to take leaders in to experience it first-hand.

“I want people to see the destruction for themselves so they know where I am coming from. It is very difficult country and easy to get lost in.

“The place needs pest control over a huge area to give the land, forest, native animals and plants a chance to recover.”

■ Raukumara Forest Park, established in 1979, covers 115,000 hectares of extremely rugged and remote, bush-clad land.

It is one of the least developed or visited tracts of bush in the North Island, and has protection status under the Conservation Act 1987.

The area has a long history of human association. A number of iwi, including Ngati Porou, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Te Ehutu, Ngai Tai, Whakatohea and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, and affiliated hapu, have occupied and continued to maintain mana whenua on all flanks of the ranges.

The area is home to Mount Hikurangi, the sacred maunga of Ngati Porou, and the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island at 1752 metres.

The area is administered by the Department of Conservation, which meets with Ngati Porou on a regular basis during the year and produces an annual report detailing work completed within the forest park.

This informs their business planning discussion with Ngati Porou, where they set the work plan for the following year.

The draft conservation management strategy (CMS) developed for the area has involved input from iwi, the public and key stakeholders.

It includes Nga Whakahaere Takirua, a strategy co-authored with Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou dealing with public conservation land within their area of interest, including Raukumara Forest Park.

The CMS sets clear measurable guidelines and milestones, including the approach and decisions around pest control. It is due for release for public consultation in July 2018.

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Darryl - 11 months ago
Put a price on possum, deer and goats' tails and you will get people in managing the numbers and create jobs. Let people know exactly where big numbers are and give permits to hunt those places.

Pat Condon, Whakatane - 11 months ago
Bloody easy to blame the animals - prove it, and then give us all the weather reports on moisture levels over the past five years and we might also put evidence to you that this caused these trees to die off. About time you started looking at the truth and then maybe you would tell people how often this area has been treated with 1080. There should be very few deer or possums left.

Grant Stanley Vincent - 11 months ago
I do wish people would do a little research before bursting in to print! The last aerial 1080 operation in the Gisborne District/Tairawhiti was 20yrs ago over about 9000ha, NW, W and SW of Mt Hikurangi. No major pest control since then over the 115,000ha of the Raukumara Forest Park/Conservation Area, so that's the reason pest numbers have increased so much over the past 10-20yrs.

The Department of Conservation has contracted deer cullers for the past three years or so over about 10,000ha and while very useful, this is really only holding the line, as it were, in one area. There is also helicopter venison recovery operating out of Opotiki but this will not reduce deer numbers to a level that allows ecological recovery.

Putting a price on the tails of possums, deer or goats will also not reduce their numbers enough to rescue indigenous ecosystems. But if you want to apply for a hunting permit then I'm sure DoC will be happy to assist and point you in the right direction; they certainly don't discourage hunting.

There is plenty of proof from all over the country on the damage caused to our unique ecosystems by browsers and predators. Once again, do some research please. So yes, it is very easy and correct to blame the introduced animals for forest collapse. The possible "...moisture levels over the past five years ..." is an interesting angle from Pat Condon, perhaps you can follow that up?

I'll make some comments about the benefits of aerial 1080 operations soon but in the meantime I'd recommend reading the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report "Evaluating the use of 1080: Predators, poisons and silent forests" June 2011 and the "Update Report" June 2013.

Grant Vincent,

Chair,
Forest and Bird Society Gisborne branch

Grant Vincent - 11 months ago
Woops ... talk about doing a little research before bursting into print? My letter of December 5; the area in the Raukumara Ranges being covered by the DoC contracted deer cullers is 30,000ha not 10,000ha.

Dylan, Cambridge - 11 months ago
Thanks Grant Vincent for taking the time to respond so well. Pat Condon is a fur buyer so obviously his views are orientated by profit.

Shelley Davy, Tauranga - 11 months ago
1080 and humans are to blame. They never think about the consequences of their actions and ultimately animals and the eco system pay the price!!! All in the name of money. Where are all the pictures and videos of the animals and native birds in agony dying a horrible, slow, inhumane death because of the disgusting people who think it's a solution? Maybe the totara are dying because of 1080 poison they soak up with their roots which maybe prevents them from regrowing the damage done from possums as quickly? It's not normal to have that amount of chemicals in the soil. Humans have upset the balance of nature, and their solution is to throw poison at it??? BAN 1080!

Neville Du Fall, opotiki - 11 months ago
Grant Vincent, for your information the report from the previous Commissioner for the Environment was written by Jan Wright, a person with no qualifications in conservation and no qualifications relating to animals or human health.
Can I suggest you read The Quiet Forests by Fiona McQueen for a thought-provoking, unbiased and more balanced perspective.

Footnote from Ed: Interesting angle on the highly-respected former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, whose independence was clear from her criticism of the Government on numerous occasions over its policies towards the environment.
Her qualifications in brief, as listed on Wikipedia, are:
Jan Wright has a physics degree from the University of Canterbury, a master's degree in energy and resources from Berkeley University in California, and a PhD in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wright worked as an independent policy and economic consultant for many different NZ government agencies and as a member of various Crown Entity Boards before becoming Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in 2007.

Neville Du Fall, Opotiki - 11 months ago
A further comment, in my experience possums are opportunist grazers, they do not chose a tree then eat it to death.
My previous property had no possum control and a number of 30-year-old totara, all still very healthy.
Also I can't recall seeing a possum browsing on totara - I will start monitoring totara more closely. It seems unusual that a forest area can't supply a more palatable food source than totara.
I would suggest that a more in-depth study must be done to identify a more likely cause for the death of these totara than to conveniently blame possums.

Aaron Bevan, Thames - 3 months ago
It should not be 1080, ground hunters are far more selective and able to seek specific targets. 1080 is a class 1A poison, the world health organisation classes 1080 as a broad spectrum non-discriminatory highly hazardous poison that kills ALL OBLIGATE AEROBIC ORGANISMS; in English anything that breathes air! It starts on the smallest organisms, the very start of our ecosystem, then to the invertebrates the insects,and it's scientifically proven that kiwi and other native species will eat invertebrates killed by 1080 and in turn face secondary poisoning, the FAO is seeking a global phase out. It is BANNED OR SEVERELY RESTRICTED IN MOST COUNTRIES because of its non-discriminatory and extreme toxicity. The claim that other countries can't use it because it kills their native mammals is utter lies,1080 kills our native species in exactly the same way as any mammals in any country. Dr Jo Pollard BSc(hons) PhD zoology bas done a scientific evaluation of the parliamentary commissioner for the environments views on 1080.
There is so much for the local community in the Ruakumaras in trapping ,there is employment and their kai will remain safe and organic.
If 1080 was used in the way its manufacturers instructed, which is how it's supposed to be. It would be in bait stations where non-target species can't get to it, away from water ways, and care to be taken to ensure it does not end up in the water, remember it's extremely toxic to aquatic life, it's also ecotoxic, all carcasses should be buried deep enough that scavengers cannot dig it up, or it burned. Remember this is a highly hazardous, toxic poison that kills anything that breathes air, and great care should be taken to prevent non target species from being poisoned by eating baits or carcasses of dead animals. It should not under any circumstances be applied the way DoC does.
You are supposed to read the label and follow the manufacturer's instructions.

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