Conservation officials are scrambling to catch some rogue rodents after the worst rat invasion since pests were eradicated on a Northland island group seven years ago.

Since February, six rats have been detected on the Ipipiri islands of the eastern Bay of Islands, where an project is under way to restore native wildlife long since extinct on mainland Northland.

Four have been caught but two have so far eluded the Department of Conservation (DoC) traps and rodent-sniffing dogs. The rats still at large are on Urupukapuka and Okahu islands.

Two rats were caught on Poroporo Island and one each at Urupukapuka's Cable Bay and on Round Island, just off Urupukapuka.


The presence of a rat on Okahu is alarming because it is the island's first incursion since 2009, and because it is the most distant island from the mainland.

The invasion comes as rare saddlebacks (tieke) and whiteheads (popokotea) re-introduced last winter have started breeding on the islands for the first time in more than a century.

Senior ranger Adrian Walker said the first rats were detected on February 20, triggering a rapid response by DoC staff and trained members of Rawhiti hapu.

"We've never had to deal with so many rats at once, and this shows our ongoing monitoring of these islands is effective and we have world-class response systems in place."

The rats are detected using tracking tunnels (tubes with an inkpad that shows up rodent footprints), wax tags (wax blocks that rats like to chew on) and dogs trained to sniff them out.

All pests caught so far are Norway rats, strong swimmers that can kill nesting seabirds and prey on animals that live, roost or nest close to the ground.

Mr Walker said finding the invaders was challenging because Norway rats hid during the day in burrows.

"This is where the rodent detection dogs and their handlers are key."

DoC was still trying to work out how a rat got on to Okahu Island. Possibilities include swimming or hitching a ride on a boat.

Two of the rats were young females which did not appear to have bred. DNA samples had been sent away for analysis in a bid to find out where the rodents came from.

Even one rat could do a lot of damage by eating birds, eggs, reptiles and insects, Mr Walker said. He urged island visitors to check their boats and gear for rats, mice, ants and skinks to avoid accidentally re-introducing pests.

Project Island Song aims to restore native wildlife on the Ipipiri islands. It is driven by community group Guardians of the Bay of Islands in partnership with DoC, Rawhiti hapu and private landowners.

Species released so far are tieke, popokotea, pateke (brown teal) and toutouwai (North Island robins).

Rat numbers may have been boosted this year by a wet summer which has ensured plenty of food for native birds but also for introduced pests.