Perhaps the fight will only be over after great swathes of Aotearoa New Zealand's indigenous forests have fallen silent. Or science offers another solution.

Some of those forests are already ''on the brink of collapse''. That's the dramatic description given two years ago by Forest and Bird after it sent a drone camera over the rugged Russell and Whangaroa forests.

It's largely why Department of Conservation is about to swoop over the Russell state forest and rain down upon it tonnes of 1080-laced pellets.

Read more: Northland towns join 1080 protest as DoC prepares to use it
Northlanders join nationwide protests against 1080


The drone footage was horrific viewing of a deadly chain strangling the forest.
The chain is made of introduced pest animals — possums, rats, stoats and other mustelids, dogs, feral cats, pigs and more. They feast on new green shoots, berries and fruit, native chicks and eggs, ground birds, lizards and other wildlife including insects, native fish and freshwater shellfish.

These evil invaders thrive in their voracious, vicious rampage through the forests and the ecosystems they support.

That drone footage from 2016 showed a forest canopy so sick, so starkly devastated by a chain of predation on flora and fauna, it galvanised the cash-strapped Department of Conservation (DoC) and its minister who was then Maggie Barry.

Former Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry. Photo / File
Former Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry. Photo / File

''I love killing possums,'' Barry joyfully declared last year, announcing $380,000 in funding to begin saving Russell Forest.

Punaruku man Paora Glassie is a trustee of his marae and is against the use of 1080. Glassie says the poisoned pellets will land too close to the awa (river), it will kill even more birds, and the process leading to the 1080 drop due in the next couple of weeks was not fully consultative.

He challenges the authority of representatives who make up the roopu mangai (lead) from all nine hapu whose rohe is in or touched by the Russell Forest, DoC and other parties to make the decision. That's a hapu to hapu issue, and not for this story.

But Glassie claims that after the last aerial drop in 1996 ''the ngāhere (forest) was silent''. He said he and some whānau walked into the forest some time later and the ground was covered in the corpses of birds.

''I looked around and I said, 'what have we done, cuz?'.''


Glassie says the 1080 money would be better spent sending in trappers and cyanide baits. The traps, the cyanide, the dead animals get carried out.

''Target the pest, not the whole ecosystem.''

But has that worked? Has it even been tried to the extent it could end the problem?

Glassie agreed to be quoted, but is just one of several people who contacted the Advocate with concerns.

Like many when it comes down to it, he is also conflicted. And angry that Russell Forest went virtually unnoticed, slowly dying through what many say was DoC's neglect, before that famous drone footage.

''Yes, the ngāhere is on the brink of collapse. It's awesome what they're doing, trying to bring it back before it's too late, but I don't agree with the kaupapa (the action plan). It's frightening our old people who feel they have been ignored and have been told horror stories, it's making our people fight amongst themselves.


''Let's all sit down again and talk about it again, and find a way forward we can all agree with.''

Warren Morunga is the man who paved the ground between his employer DoC and the nine hapu whose consent was needed for the drop, and who have taken the lead in developing a draft 20-year forest health management plan.

The roopu is now developing a governance kaupapa so the plan can be signed off with the other partners, DoC included, but ''it's their document", Morunga says.

Taking off his DoC hat and speaking as a man from south Hokianga who has seen forests dip and thrive, pre and then post-1080, he's a believer. He cites Mataraua, southwest of Kaikohe, and West Coast forests where he used to work as ''booming'' a couple of years after the drops.

Morunga is sceptical about claims of forest floors littered with a carpet of dead birds but admits in the old days of 1080 things were different, the kill very much more scattergun. It simply isn't like that now.

No one likes to use poison — but the alternative is worse, he says.


And yes, Morunga says of Glassie's comments, Russell Forest was always the bridesmaid, never the bride, until Maggie Barry championed it. However, the attention awarded the forest needs to be more than a one-hit wonder.

''This is not ongoing funding. That's why they (the roopu) need a plan, so that forest can be built in to the future. It stays safe.''

Russell Forest, where 1080 drops will soon take place. Photo / Kristi Henare
Russell Forest, where 1080 drops will soon take place. Photo / Kristi Henare

A dog would probably die if it ate a 1080-contaminated possum carcass. Even a horse might die if it ate enough poison-laced cereal pellets through the fence.

Common sense and responsible ownership should stop people who lived near or saw signs announcing there had been a 1080 drop letting their stock, pets or working dogs run around eating dead animals.

Those are probably the most easily-fixed problems among those cited by people opposing 1080 use.

Another argument is that New Zealand uses more of it than any other country while its use in the wilderness is widely banned in many countries.


That's because other countries have high numbers of native mammal species that are not targets, so 1080 can't be used. New Zealand has two native mammals, bats and seals.

Nicola Toki, DoC's threatened species ambassador, cited a study where 600 kiwi were monitored with radio transmitters for a long period after 1080 drops, and not one died.

Yet, Toki said, in areas where there is no pest control, 19 out of 20 kiwi eggs are eaten by rats, stoats or other predators.

''We're not saying 1080 doesn't kill some goodies but if we don't use it, the goodies are being wiped out. We do know 1080 kills so many baddies that the goodies can breed up again.''

As for the birds, kukupa are vital to Northland's native forest because only they spread seeds of many tree species. They and their chicks and eggs are fair game for predators.

And possums strip the trees of the seeds kukupa disperse, compete for berries and fruit, and graze on seedlings that do made it into leaf, Toki said. It's a double whammy.

A kukupa eating a karaka berry. Photo / Supplied
A kukupa eating a karaka berry. Photo / Supplied

Nowhere else in the world has the same problem that rats, stoats and possums cause here.


This week former die-hard activists, a confederation of Māori academics and commentators, scientists, government departments and conservation groups who now back the use of 1080 have flooded the wires with information they say refutes ''fake news'' and out of date attitudes.

Dr Belinda Cridge, University of Otago Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, said that while the use of 1080 to control possums and rats has a bad rap, scientists still say it's the best tool.

''As I understand it, the ongoing concerns are around non-target species toxicity and water contamination,'' Cridge said.

''Common concerns centre on deaths concerning other native species, such as birds and fish, and hunted species such as deer and pigs.

''1080 is toxic to all species, however, birds and reptiles seem to have a degree of tolerance.

''Scientifically, the understanding is that the original 1080 compound is broken down quickly in the environment and that 1080 doesn't persist in the environment or water like many other toxins. This makes it unlikely that it will accumulate in waterways and cause down-stream poisonings.''


Cridge said research on 1080 has slowed down in recent years as science works to develop alternatives. However, overseas research on 1080 often can't be applied to the ''unique'' local scene.

Professor Neil Gemmell, also from University of Otago, said developing genetic tools is time consuming and expensive and the best tool currently for large-scale pest control is 1080.

Professor Neil Gemmell of Otago University. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Professor Neil Gemmell of Otago University. Photo / Otago Daily Times

Gemmell said it is aerially spread at the lowest amounts required to keep pest species in check so native birds and other species stand a chance of survival, and it rapidly breaks down in the environment.

There is a list of new tools being honed, including genetic control technologies, but finding species' Achilles' heels is some way off, he said.

''The case of 1080 use is well established and it works – where it is used our native species are recovering, where it is not they die, it really is that simple.''

Forest & Bird said much of the opposition to 1080 does not stand up to even mild scrutiny, and likened those opposed to its use to ''climate change denial''.


Forest & Bird said extensive research of 1080 shows it's one of the safest toxins available for large scale pest control.

Prominent New Zealand Māori environmentalists, academics and activists have released a joint statement, entitled Ngāhere Justice.

"They oppose the call for a national ban on 1080, saying it disempowers mana whenua from making their own decisions about how to care for taonga — a right secured by Te Tiriti o Waitangi,'' said environmentalist and indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata.

''We also understand that our distinct and precious taonga is currently under extreme threat from invasive species. We are losing our endemic species at unacceptably high rates, and a failure to act falls short of our responsibilities to our ancestors, and future generations.

''We are greatly concerned with the amount of mistruth surrounding the use of 1080, which is unhelpful and distracting for those charged with making decisions.

''We acknowledge the significant level of research already carried out under strict guidelines to develop 1080 to what it is today.

The debate continues, in some quarters at least, over the possum or the poison?
The debate continues, in some quarters at least, over the possum or the poison?

''We also acknowledge that our ngāhere are in crisis, and require urgent assistance to avoid ecological collapse. Time is not on our side, and if we continue the current trajectory of species decline in search of the perfect alternative, we will be failing in our duties.

''We therefore support the appropriate use of 1080, informed by current scientific evidence.''

The Ngāhere Justice coalition also denounced any hate speech or acts of violence in relation to 1080.

That is a message also spread by the ''keyboard warrior'' organisers of today's nationwide Ban 1080 protests. Several of those events are being held in Northland towns today.

Meanwhile, Russell Forest is due for a dump of the controversial toxin that may yet prove the best start to a desperate battle.