New Zealand Fantail, one of the forest birds at risk from predatory rats, stoats and possums (photo: Peter Hodge © all rights reserved 2013).
My son and I headed towards a hut in the Tararua ranges. We walked in beech forest, below tall trees and ferns. Birds were calling - Tomtits, Grey Warblers, Whiteheads, Tui, Bellbirds, Long-tailed Cuckoos ... I stopped, stood still, and listened, just listened, breathing cool air, and delighting in the bird song ...
"Dad ... Dad!"
"Are we almost there yet?"
"The hut ... are we almost there yet?"
"Yeah, almost there."
He plodded on, reassured that the hut was just around the next bend. Actually, it was another 30 minutes walk away, but I've found that saying "yeah, almost there" has a similar effect as saying "we'll see" to the "can I have x" question (x being a computer game, an expensive toy etc etc). It's a kind of verbal Aikido where a question is parried with a vague yet soothing answer.
We reached the hut, and tucked into ham sandwiches (I've discovered that a way to get my son enthusiastic about tramping is to promise delicious food). It was peaceful, sitting in the sunshine, looking east over forest, ridges and creeks to the summit of distant Kapiti Island. A pair of Whiteheads flew about in the bush.
Two trampers turned up, another father and son. The father was lean and fit, and he needed to be, because he was laden with gear: a bulging pack, a large and bulky camera bag, a bumbag, and two walking sticks. "Heard the weather was packing in, so we decided to head out," he said, dropping his gear onto the deck, and letting out a sigh.
We talked about tramping and cameras. Phil seemed like a sensible guy. Then he started talking about the Department of Conservation (DoC) and 1080 poison, his eyes glinted, and the conversation took an odd turn. "I've never seen so many dead worms", Phil said. "Big fat ones, bloated ... they're everywhere ... you must've seen them - it's all that 1080 DoC are dropping."
I'd seen one dead worm, but I couldn't say if it had been killed by 1080 or something else. It seemed unlikely ... in the wild, animals die in many ways.
In some forests, DoC carries out targeted aerial drops of 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate - a poison mixed into baits). The aim is to kill mammalian predators - opossums, rats and stoats - which were introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century by European colonizers. The consequences have been devastating for native flora and fauna. Before the arrival of humans, birds dominated New Zealand's terrestrial ecology. In the absence of native mammals, many native birds and plants didn't evolve the sort of defences against grazing and predation that are taken for granted elsewhere.
Left unchecked, possums chew their way through whole forests, eating the flowers, fruit and seeds that birds need for food. Stoats and rats devastate populations of native birds and insects. Landcare Research scientists estimate that over 25 million native birds are killed each year by introduced predators.
1080 is an effective tool for culling predator populations to levels that allow native forest and birds to bounce back and thrive. It is biodegradable, and doesn't build up in the food chain or leave permanent residues. There are no viable alternatives, especially for large and remote areas. But 1080's use is controversial among some people, including those who see conspiracies everywhere. Some believe that 1080 is poisoning waterways, killing dogs, and making people sick, even that shadowy people with vested interests are behind 1080.
"DoC's dropping all this poison," said Phil. "The birds are eating the 1080 and dying." He stared at me, as if daring me to contradict him. "This whole area is a silent desert - there are no birds, there's no birdsong!"
Four Tui flew past. Tomtits and Grey Warblers were calling in the trees. A Bellbird perched on a branch. Minutes earlier I watched Whiteheads, and saw a Long-tailed Cuckoo fly past. I thought about all the birds we'd seen and heard on the walk up. What the hell was this guy on about?
"That politician, Bill ... can't remember his surname , and that former prime minister - you must know the one ... they own 80 per cent of the 1080 production in New Zealand..."
My son nudged me. "Dad," he whispered, "tell him about the Kakariki we saw."
Earlier, we'd come upon two Yellow-crowned Parakeets (Cyanoramphus auriceps) - Kakariki. We'd watched them as they perched on mossy branches, calling, chattering, checking us out. Then they were away, flapping fast through the trees, north, down into the Otaki River.
Yellow-crowned parakeets are preyed on by stoats, rats and possums; on predator-free islands, they are abundant, but in many mainland forests, including the Tararuas, they are rare1. That we'd seen two, so close, along with other vulnerable birds like Whiteheads, suggested to me that in this area DoC's 1080 control was working.
In a 2011 report on 1080, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found that the use of 1080 was effective and safe. She concluded: "it is my view based on careful analysis of the evidence that not only should the use of 1080 continue (including in aerial operations) to protect our forests, but that we should use more of it"2.
Trapped in their obsessions, people like Phil can't, or won't, see what's in front of them. They rehash a mishmash of urban myths, half-truths and cherry-picked 'facts', while ignoring independent and evidence-based analysis. If Phil had seen forests which were 'silent deserts', it wasn't because of 1080 ... it was because rats and stoats were killing native birds, and possums were eating the food that the birds rely on.
1 G P Elliot (2013), Yellow-crowned parakeet, in C M Miskelly (ed.,) New Zealand Birds Online.
2 Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (June 2011), "Evaluating the use of 1080: predators, poisons and silent forests", pages 6-7.