Long, hard road for TB-busters

Richard Steele and his son, Dan, run an eco-tourism operation on their 1500ha sheep and cattle station near Owhango, which is south of Taumarunui and which borders the Whanganui River.

They delight in showing visitors one of the river's special dwellers, the whio, or blue duck.

This area is one of the bird's last strongholds, in part because the Steeles declared war on the stoats, rats and feral cats that drove the birds to the edge of extinction.

The Steeles take visitors along the river terrace to show them the side that has been treated with 1080 for TB control.

"On that side, you couldn't count the number of rata in flower," Steele says. "But on the left-hand side, where nothing has been done, you can't find one. That's the difference between controlled and non-controlled areas."

Father and son are part of a biodiversity protection programme called Kia Wharite.

They pay a bounty for feral cats and the rebound in birdlife is major.

Tui are also flocking in and there are kereru in the garden.

Although Steele's stock have not suffered from TB for many years, he has devoted much of the past 30 years to campaigning on behalf of those who have experienced the disease's effects on both farming businesses and lifestyles.

Before he came to his present home, he was hit hard by TB when he farmed near Taupo.

"Bovine TB was our issue of the day.

"I was losing 200 cattle on a regular basis. I can remember a mob of 104 steers, and 101 of them reacted to a TB test."

The Ruapehu district soon earned a reputation for being a TB hotbed, prompting a campaign for a blockade on stock from the region.

Steele realised that if they wanted to keep farming, he and his colleagues would have to do something about TB.

"We had to form our own branch of Federated Farmers," he says.

"We did it purely so we could have our own voice." If Ruapehu did not get its TB problem under control, livelihoods would suffer badly. And he knew that tackling TB meant tackling possums.

They did everything they could think of to manage both the possum and the unemployment problems. Drawing a straight line between the two, Steele helped set up the "possumbuster" scheme.

But he says it was the advent of large-scale aerial 1080 operations that finally knocked TB to the mat in Ruapehu. In concert with levies, testing and movement restrictions of livestock, infection rates began to fall. A sense of normality returned - as did the rata, fantails and kereru.

"If somebody had told me back in 1989 that the King Country would be clear of TB by 2010, I'd never have believed it," Steele says.

"Some people told us not to even try, but we've achieved such a huge amount. "It's been a remarkable story about a very small, very dedicated group of people."

* Copies of the Making TB History book and DVD are available to the public free of charge from the Animal Health Board. To order a copy, email history@tbfree.org.nz or call 0800 482 4636. Electronic copies can be downloaded from the AHB website www.tbfree.org.nz

- Hamilton News

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