• 25 million native birds killed by pests a year
• $3.3 billion cost to the economy and primary sector a year
• $28 million new company to identify large pest control programmes and attract private investment

New Zealand is on track to be rid of rats, stoats, possums and feral cats about 10 years earlier than an official target announced by the Government, an environmental lobby group says.

One environmentalist has hailed the formal 2050 target, announced by Prime Minister John Key yesterday, as a "game-changer".

But Forest & Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said a predator-free country was "entirely achievable" earlier.

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"We are on track already to possibly achieve this by 2040 or shortly after. I'm not going to argue by 10 years. There is no question New Zealand can be predator free, in terms of what the Government has talked about," Hackwell told Radio NZ.

Nonetheless, Hackwell said the target was still important. Forest & Bird wanted to see details of the plan, and funding and new technology would be crucial.

Predators, including possums, are now costing New Zealand's economy and primary sector $3.3 billion a year, Prime Minister John Key said this afternoon. Photo / File
Predators, including possums, are now costing New Zealand's economy and primary sector $3.3 billion a year, Prime Minister John Key said this afternoon. Photo / File

However, NZ First's primary industries spokesman Richard Prosser said no human society in history had succeeded in exterminating rats, and New Zealand was unlikely to be the first.

"Our birds and lizards have coexisted alongside ferrets and stoats for more than 130 years, cats for 200 years, and rats for more than 800 years, yet we still have birds and lizards. The rat is the preferred food of the stoat, which only switches to preying on birds when rat populations are depleted.

"There is now an uneasy equilibrium, albeit an artificial one, that we run the risk of upsetting if the task of mammal control is not very carefully planned and executed."
Prosser said the fact pet cats weren't mentioned in the government plan was because addressing that problem was "electorally impossible".

Asked yesterday about philanthropist Gareth Morgan's goal to get rid of all cats, Key referred to his own pet cat, Moonbeam.

"Moonbeam is safe as a house. If you're asking about feral cats on the DoC estate, their time is limited."

At the heart of the policy is a new $28 million joint venture, Predator Free New Zealand Limited, which will identify large-scale pest eradication projects and attract private investment to boost their reach.

Sir Rob Fenwick, the chair of the Predator Free New Zealand trust and a leading advocate for pest eradication, said it would allow a military-level response to the problem for the first time.

"It's a real game-changer. We've been killing predators now for decades and in the past it's been quite an un-strategic approach to this campaign.

"This fund will drive a more strategic and comprehensive approach to a landscape-scale assault on predators that we haven't seen before."

The policy is largely dependent on private funding, prompting Labour and Greens to question whether the Government was doing enough.

Green Party conservation spokesman Kevin Hague pointed to a University of Auckland study that put the cost of a predator-free New Zealand at $9 billion.

Through the new joint venture, the Government will put in $1 for every $2 contributed by businesses and charities.

Sir Rob said philanthropists, including the Morgan Foundation and the Tindall Foundation, were "lining up" to invest in biodiversity projects.

Next Foundation director Chris Liddell, whose organisation invests in large-scale pest control, said the goal of complete eradication was achievable if the whole country got behind it.

"It's a big vision and it's what we need," he said. "Having the Government leading the way is really important."

To help achieve the target, the Government is also betting on the development of a major scientific breakthrough by 2025, capable of wiping out rats, stoats or possums.
In the meantime, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said 1080 poison would continue to play a key role.

"It is always going to be the weapon of choice in the battle to get rid of these vermin in the very steep country," she said.

Key said rats, stoats and possums killed 25 million native birds a year, at a cost of $3.3b to the primary sector.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, flanked by Ministers Nick Smith, Nathan Guy, Steven Joyce, and Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, flanked by Ministers Nick Smith, Nathan Guy, Steven Joyce, and Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell