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Removing Cats won’t save our Birds
Gareth Morgan wants to rid the country of cats because they kill our birds- for many one-sidedly informed this sounds reasonable but New Zealand scientists have evidence to show this would be futile and dangerous.
Unknown to most people, three acclaimed world experts on animal predator/prey relationships live, or lived in the Hutt Valley – Mike Fitzgerald, John Flux and the late John Gibb – all former population biologists in the now-defunct Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
These scientists spent decades investigating feral cats, rats and rabbits in the Rimutaka bush, suburban Melling and on Wairarapa farmland and none would agree with Dr Morgan’s views.
Setting thousands of traps, Dr Fitzgerald calculated the number of cats and rats in the Orongorongo Valley for 23 years. The cats held the rat numbers in check for years but when cat numbers fell, the rat population shot up. The cats also held the riverbed rabbits in check and their population also shot up when the cats disappeared.
Dr Flux logged everything his cat Peng You brought to his Melling house for 17 years. The cat brought home 558 little victims which included 53 native birds (mainly silvereyes) and 151 foreign birds (such as blackbirds and sparrows). Peng You never killed tui or New Zealand pigeons. Indeed, these species established themselves on the Melling property during his time there. More to the point, Peng You killed 63 rats, 221 mice, 35 rabbits, and two weasels during his 17-year lifetime. Rats and weasels are much more effective predators than ground-based cats as they climb trees to eat birds’ eggs and chicks in the nest and also eat the flowers, fruit, berries and seed before the birds can eat them.
Following Peng You’s demise, rabbit numbers shot up round the Melling property. On balance, Dr Flux thinks his cat, and probably other suburban cats, actually benefited native bird populations by killing so many of their more numerous predators. Forest & Birders argue that this is heresy and claimed that he could not argue from a sample of one cat. Dr Flux counters that his was a sample, not of one anything, but of 558 prey items.
In a two-year trial in the Wairarapa in the 1960s, Dr Gibb showed that cats were more effective than pest destruction boards in controlling rabbits. To prove his point, Dr Gibb persuaded the board to stop shooting rabbits on 1200 hectares of hill pasture and scrub for three years. At the end of that time there were fewer rabbits there than on the adjacent shot-over land.
And here is the letter of someone well experienced, who works with DOC, but who doesn’t want to have his name published. The reason for that is sad enough but, well, we live in times of “political correctness”, don’t we?
“Hi. In my opinion, if all cats not needed for breeding were to be neutered or speyed,we would not have much of a problem at all with cats. I have worked in a number of nature reserves as a volunteer, and seen the disastrous results of eradicating cats before the rats, mice, stoats and weasels were gone. When the cats on Little Barrier Island were eradicated, the rat population exploded, affecting not just the birdlife but the giant wetas and the native skinks.
In the Mapua forest park, analysis of just what the wild cats were feeding on showed that although there was a smallish amount of birds in some cats diet, most of their prey was rats and mice, so the small amount of damage that the cats did to the birdlife was more than compensated for by the benefits of the cats feeding on the rats and mice. If anyone in the council were doing their job properly, they would discuss the cat issue with the experienced people in the D.O.C. with a great deal of field work behind them, that have spent years working on pest control, rather than a bunch of hysterical ignoramuses without any real experience who seem to think that conservation can be done from an office. If most of these anti-cat people really knew anywhere as much as they think they do about problems with our native birdlife, they would know that in most urban and sub-urban areas, exotic birds are always a bigger threat to our native birds than cats. I think that most people realise that Mynahs are a threat to our native birds, but few seem to realise the problems that sparrows cause. Sparrows seem quite immune to the effects of some parasite worms, and most of them act as vectors for spreading them to our native birds because they will defecate in the water where other birds drink from, with disastrous results to our native birds. One of the scientists that I worked alongside was doing a lot of work on the breeding dynamics of our native Kakariki, and he came to believe that sparrows were a bigger threat to the kakariki than cats ever were. I have 2 cats, both neutered, and they would catch at least 3 rats a week and 2 mice every day, and one of them has cought and killed 2 weasels that I am aware of. I don’t think that a lot of people realise just what a good job of keeping the rats and mice down cats do until they live without a cat, and find just how the rodent population explodes when unchecked by cats. Realistically both habitat removal and competition for food from exotic birds are a much bigger threat to our native birds than any domesticated cat. I just wish that people wanting a cat would have them de-sexed if not using them for breeding.
I have no doubt that the bureaucrats in most local councils will support microchipping of all cats so that they can then push for registration in order to take more money off the rate payers.
I don’t think that feral cats always fare very well for themselves in the wild , I do know that down on Stewart island a lot of the cats don’t survive past their first winter, because when food is scarce and the weather gets cold, once the cats get wet they soon pass away.
As for most of the local councils, every time they sign off a permit for another sub-division, they are in effect signing off the death of more of our native birds by being complicit to habitat destruction, so it is hypocritical of them to blame cats for environmental damage attributed to cats.”
The following essay from the “Spinoff Scientific Magazine” shows a very interesting criticism on the usual ideas of most self-appointed “environmentalists” or “conservationists”.
Perhaps all it really takes is some “out of the box” thinking?
What if the Predator Free 2050 plan is actually a terrible idea?
By Jamie Steer | Guest writer
May 6, 2017
New Zealanders celebrated the government’s ambitious goal to completely eradicate possums, rats and stoats by 2050 – but according to some scientists, the plan is ill-conceived and unlikely to succeed. Ahead of a major conference on the future of New Zealand biodiversity, Dr Jamie Steer argues that Predator Free 2050 needs an urgent rethink.
Last year the Government officially endorsed a plan so apparently uplifting and otherwordly it was compared to space travel – New Zealand’s very own Apollo mission.
The plan is to completely eradicate five of our 31 species of introduced wild mammals, thereby eliminating some of the predators of our cherished native birds. The cost of the plan is estimated at over $30 billion. Once complete – some 35 years from now – we will be a Predator Free New Zealand. Well, sort of, but not really.
To do this, the government assures us, we’ll simply need to “ramp up” the efforts we’ve taken to date to eliminate introduced predatory mammals from some 48 thousand hectares of remote, uninhabited islands. They figure we’ll achieve the same over the remaining 26 million hectares of towns, cities, parks and playgrounds with only moderate further difficulty.
Oh, and we’ll also probably have to use a controversial, new and untested form of genetic engineering that drives our fellow not-originally-from-around-here mammal species extinct by making them infertile.
The plan’s unveiling was a marvelous photo opportunity for the gaggle of ministers in attendance at the announcement; newspapers since have been filled with inspirational stories about the Predator Free New Zealand plan. We have all but fallen over ourselves to offer glowing recitations of the Government’s policies and to wax lyrical about “what if”.
But a few others have remained more circumspect about a plan the late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan once called “ambitious”, but also “crazy”. They wonder at the lack of funding, the technical probability of success and, more disturbingly for its proponents, whether the plan plots the right course at all for conservation in this country.
How did we get here?
It was with this backdrop of events and commentary in mind that a good friend of mine asked me recently “How did it all come to this? How did conservation in New Zealand come to be boiled down to killing stuff? And can this strategy of conservation-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun really be the only option?”
It all began, I explained, in the 1970s when a hippie sub-set of the baby boomers dreamt up an idea they called “ecological restoration”. History, they theorised, could be dialled back, and nature’s wonderful balance restored. The formula was simple: find an ecosystem, figure out the influences that could be ascribed to humans, and get rid of them.
As the climate changed, as the world globalised, as thousands of people from around the world continued to migrate from the country, and as countless more species were introduced or self-dispersed, our role, it was said, was to keep our wildlife the same as it was hundreds of years ago.
It didn’t come to much at first, but in the 1980s conservationists doubled down their efforts, targetting a subset of introduced wildlife they called “invasive species”. Conspicuous and unable to defend themselves, these species were to be ruthlessly scapegoated for the environmental mistakes of the past.
Where are we going?
Since then, New Zealanders have frequently been encouraged to kill invasive species wherever they find them. This is unfortunate because, generally speaking, broadscale control of invasive species has been a failed strategy in this country. We’ve barely been treading water in most areas.
Even our most reviled invasive species – rats, stoats and possums – are still found in all but about 0.2% of their inhabitable range throughout New Zealand. In contrast, our conservation successes (and there have been many) have invariably been due to targetted, sustainable investments in small areas.
Despite this fact, we’re still being conditioned to believe that there are no options. We either kill all these invasive species everywhere, or the native species that we love will all progressively die.
It’s one or the other. But is it really that simple? Are our options really that depleted? I say no.
In fact I reckon that an entirely valid alternative to Predator Free 2050, and the like, is to accept that some of our most vulnerable native species are not going to be able to survive everywhere in New Zealand. We might choose instead to accept that those species are going to be protected mainly on islands and in mainland sanctuaries, not that unlike the way they currently are.
That’s not going to be the case for all our native wildlife mind, remembering that many of our native species – like pukeko, karoro and kãhu – are doing just fine on their own. More often than not they’re every bit as wily as their introduced counterparts. So it’s not going to be one or the other. Our future ecosystems are going to be mongrel, hybrid, mixed-up combinations of native and introduced.
Globally, ecology and conservation movements are beginning to recognise this, moving away from fixating on pristine past states and historic species assemblages. Instead the focus is shifting toward urban and landscape ecology, and ‘novel ecosystems’, comprising mixes of species that have never existed in evolutionary history.
Last year the Ecological Society of America, the world largest group of ecologists, themed their entire conference around life in the “Anthropocene” and how we need to get better at accepting and living within a dynamic, human-influenced nature.
Back to the future?
It has come very late in the piece, but some of us are beginning to realise that the ecosystems of the past cannot represent those of the future on anything more than a token level. We have changed our environment, for better and worse, to the extent that there is no going back now.
A resilient future for life in our country now means adapting our lifestyles to the limits of the earth but also, and this is crucial, accepting that other species and ecosystems need to adapt now too. They’re not all just static museum dioramas for our gratification.
We can still have a healthy, diverse, and productive biodiversity. But we can’t have the same biodiversity we had in the past: probably not even close, because that’s not how life works. Evolution is all one way. Not to a better life, but to a life best adapted for what’s in front of it.
This, of course, is all lost on those conservationists who remain committed to the notion that the influences we have on our environments are all wrong. For them, the best we can do is to try to make nature more like it was in the past, before we inconsiderately came along.
Don’t believe it. The fact of the matter is we have a range of environmental futures open to us now beyond replicating the past and it’s time we started genuinely discussing and exploring them. Let’s question the assumption that going in reverse is the only way forward for conservation in this country.
Dr Jamie Steer has worked and studied in the environmental services industry in New Zealand for close to 20 years. He is passionate about promoting debate on the future of biodiversity management in New Zealand.