• Geoff Thomas writes on fishing for the Weekend Herald.

Somebody must have told Sir Richard Branson about the Government's plan to rid the country of exotic pests by the year 2050. Because when he visited recently he referred to it in an interview with the Herald on Sunday, commenting, "I think you're the only country in the world that's made that pledge".

It is not surprising we are the only country to come up with such a concept. For the proposed programme launched last year with great fanfare, while laudable in its objectives, has to be the biggest con since the Y2K bug.

The Department of Conservation does a good job with limited resources, although its use of 1080 is very contentious. And the 2050 target does seem like a smart way to get more funding. But let's look at what is really involved.


More than 50 years spent in the bush and the outdoors gives you a pretty good understanding of the enormity of the challenge when it comes to introduced pests. Hunters of game birds are as concerned about the predation on ducks, pheasants and quail as conservationists are for threatened native bird species.

DoC staff are paid to do what they do. We hunters don't get paid to shoot every feral (wild) cat we see, every rat we see and every ferret we see. Or to set traps throughout swamps and around ponds. But we do it because we actually love the birds we occasionally hunt.

Feral cats are the probably the biggest problem we face, because they are everywhere - in the cities, in the towns, on farms, in the native bush and in planted forests. And despite what some cat-lovers maintain, they do kill birds. In huge numbers. Gareth Morgan was on to something.

An associate who lives at the end of a road in Auckland's Waitakere hills regularly tells of people driving up, opening the car door and tossing out the family cat at Christmas time. They are obviously going on holiday and don't want to pay to put their pet into a cattery. Some people shouldn't have pets.

The mustelids are also efficient killers. This family includes ferrets (also known as polecats), stoats and weasels in descending size. They are one of only two species in the world which kill for the sake of killing. A mustelid will go into a chicken coop and kill every bird, while eating only one. The other killer species of course is humans.

Ferrets are kept as pets and are also farmed for their fur, and one incident was reported where a ferret farmer released all the stock into the wild when the business became uneconomic as he did not have the heart to kill them.

But as a snapshot of the challenge to rid this country of pests and the unrealistic nature of the 2050 target, let's look at just one example.

A programme to monitor predators, involving 24 cameras combined with traps which either kill or capture, has caught over four months 87 hedgehogs, 12 stoats, three feral cats, one rat, four mice and three weasels. The traps were designed to deter cats as they did not want to cause any local pets to disappear.


But the abundance of feral cats was a huge revelation. The cameras are set up on a tree or structure and are triggered by movement, taking an infra-red image so there is no flash to scare the subject. One camera can take many images a night. Over four months, 97 per cent of the images captured were of wild cats.

That exercise was carried out in the South Island over a 2.5sq km rural area. What is the total land area of New Zealand? The survey concluded that feral cats were present in particularly high numbers in our agricultural landscape, followed by stoats.

We are going to get rid of all rats by 2050. Really? After killing all the rats in the mountains and forests and farms, how do they propose getting rid of the rats that live under most of the houses in New Zealand? Pet cats kill rats. They do a great job. But as long as you have pet cats, you will also have wild cats.

There is a partial solution which would tick a lot of boxes. Make the problem worth money.

When wild deer were being caught to stock the burgeoning deer farming industry in the 1960' and 70's you couldn't find a deer. A hind was bringing up to $2000 straight out of the bush and Kiwis came up with all sorts of ideas for live capture. They used helicopters, net guns, foot traps, fenced traps and all sorts of innovations, some of which didn't work very well. But the financial incentive ensured that deer were hard to find.

It has been reported that it costs something like $60 to kill a possum using aerial-spread 1080 poison. Whether it is $60 or less, the principle remains the same. If that was paid to hunters for every possum tail they produced, it would create employment in job-poor rural areas, encouraging youngsters to set traps and go out at night with a spotlight and a .22 rifle. Many do that now anyway.

If the hunter could earn an extra $8 or $10 for the fur there would be a real incentive. And it would get rid of possums.

We have been spreading 1080 around the hills for many years, but how many possums are still out there? It seems we are just treading water.

DoC does manage other programmes like trapping, and encourages the fur industry which has bloomed in recent years. But instead of pouring so many millions into the controversial 1080 industry, and it is an industry, maybe it is time for a re-think.

Such a programme would only target possums and there are still the ferrets, the stoats, the weasels, the feral cats and the hedgehogs. Maybe a healthy bounty on all of them is the answer.