With two important environmental holidays coming up, World Migratory Bird Day on 13 May and International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, it’s as good a time as any to consider how our pets affect New Zealand’s wildlifeContinue Reading...
Archives For cats
Following on from his tale of returning to Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island 33 years after the last cat was removed (Conservation Blog, 24 June 2013), Dick Veitch recalls the history of cats on Little Barrier…
No one knows exactly how or when cats got to Little Barrier. Andreas Reischeck noted cats were “very numerous” on his visits to the island between 1880 and 1885.
The resident rangers killed cats, but taking out 10 to 40 cats a year didn’t so much as dent their population. Cats made a massive dent in the bird population though. By the 1960s, the Little Barrier snipe was extinct, and the saddleback and banded rail had disappeared from the island. Cats were the prime suspect in these loses, and in the decline of the tuatara, and lizard and seabird species on the island.
The Wildlife Service (now part of DOC) started Operation Kill the Cats in 1968. The next 10 years saw a reduction in numbers, but no eradication. The lessening cat numbers allowed black and Cook’s petrels to recover a bit, but it was still easy to count 40 freshly cat-eaten Cook’s petrels on a single walk to Hauturu’s summit in March or April at that time.
In 1976 the operation stepped up a gear. Wildlife Service and Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park staff agreed on a joint approach—the Park would build huts and cut tracks and the Service would kill the cats. The plan called for three new huts and 70 km of tracks. Park Ranger, Dave Smith, and Assistant Chief Ranger, George Holmes, supervised the hut building and got three-quarters of the tracks cut by 1977. The Wildlife Service finished off the tracks and began getting rid of the cats in 1978.
The island rangers and Dave’s successor Alex Dobbins and their families were the stars of the operation. They managed the comings and goings of cat trappers and boats, and got people out to the huts. The ranger’s house was frequently invaded, particularly for important TV events such as rugby matches!
Cat hunting was done by two teams. Team 1, managed by Richard Anderson, was mainly people from Northland. I managed Team 2. Various government unemployment schemes, a line up of willing volunteers, Wildlife Service trainees and even the occasional paid person provided all the muscle for the job. All up 139 people were involved.
The plan was to do a bit of poisoning and a lot of trapping in the first year, then bring in dog teams – we all know how dogs love to hunt cats. The dogs did well in training on the mainland but did not even hint at scenting a cat on the island. Day after day we walked those tracks without the slightest sign of action. The dog team was quickly disbanded! We now know there were still at least 23 cats on the island. Who knows why the dogs couldn’t smell them.
So the trapping and poisoning continued. We walked the tracks and mapped the locations of cat signs. Slowly the mapped information showed each cat being trapped or poisoned, until the last cat was trapped on 23 June 1980.
Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island lies 80 km north of Auckland city on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf. You need a permit to visit this thickly forested island that is home to over 350 native species of plants. It’s an incredible place to view wildlife.
Instrumental in removing cats from Te-Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island, Dick Veitch returns, with 22 others from the 1970s eradication team, to delight in an island transformed. Here’s his story….
I was off the boat, through the quarantine shed and heading to grab the bunk of my choice when it hit me—the continuous bird song almost blasting across the flat. Incredible!
The others caught up, the kettle boiled, and we settled down for the official welcome from the island ranger. But he soon had to play second fiddle to a kokako happily drinking from the spouting. Incredible again!
The next day I almost tripped over a robin hopping from the quarantine shed across the track looking for food—just like the blackbirds and thrushes hopping over the lawn back at home. Incredible times three!
I returned to Te Hauturu-o-Toi, or Little Barrier Island in two shifts, with 22 of the 139 people who helped get rid of cats on the island in the late 1970s. Back then the forest was quiet. A visiting photographer at the time demanded “The forest is silent. Where are all the birds?” My response was “It’s mid-afternoon. What do you expect?”
The bird song is now continuous—mostly bellbirds, some kokako and saddleback, and the occasional tui. Birds sing day and night. I’ve been back to Little Barrier occasionally since it became cat free and seen the changes slowly building the magic of the place (not that we didn’t think it was magical before!). But what must be going through the heads of those who were with me who hadn’t been back to the island in more than 30 years!
The last cat was removed in 1980. We patted ourselves on the back and put saddlebacks back onto the island—cats had wiped them out in the 1880s. With cats gone we expected some seabirds to return, but knew the next pest down the line, the rats, would slow any bird recovery.
In 1980 no one had any idea it would be possible to eradicate rats from such a rugged 3,000 hectare island. But in the 1990s, when rat eradications from small islands were becoming standard, talk started up about getting rid of the rats from Little Barrier. And what do you know, the island was declared rat free in 2004!
This was the real game changer. Cats eat rats and birds, true. But rats eat birds as well as insects, eggs, plants and seeds. With no cats and no rats, plants and birds are flourishing on Hauturu. This was expected, but the amazing thing is that some bird numbers have almost doubled, and plants we have only ever seen flowering are laden with fruit.
It will take time for lizard and seabird numbers to increase. Forest birds can have several nesting attempts each summer, but seabirds are generally limited to one egg a year, and lizards to two or three eggs or young, sometimes only every second year. But there have already been some amazing successes.
The most amazing find is the NZ storm petrel. Once thought extinct, sightings at sea off north-east NZ began in January 2003. Now a diligent team of seabird enthusiasts have found the bird breeding on Little Barrier. Just how this tiny bird survived the rats and cats remains a mystery.
With the exception of the extinct Little Barrier snipe, all the birds decimated by the cats and rats are now back in abundance or still increasing. The banded rail, last seen in the 1940s, has been seen with chicks on the island, and a crake species, not previously seen, has also been sighted – just not well enough to see whether it’s a spotless crake or marsh crake.
There is surely more change to come but it is hard to imagine that it will be any more wonderful that it is now.
Thanks to DOC staff in Warkworth and on the island for their help in organizing our trip.
Dick Veitch is an expert in eradicating pests from islands. He worked for the Wildlife Service and DOC for about 40 years.