Dog owners are being warned to keep their pets off Westport beaches after hundreds of rats washed up there yesterday.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) said they may be victims of a recent 1080 drop 140 kilometres away in the Lewis Pass National Reserve.

There is a risk dogs could be poisoned if they eat the dead rats.

DOC said they may have been washed down the Buller River in recent heavy rains and deposited on beaches near the river's mouth.

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Samples of the rats have been taken and sent away for testing but DOC said results could take two to three days to come through.

DOC Western South Island operations director Mark Davies said while it was possible the rats could have come from a recent 1080 drop, reports of dead fish and birds, along with the rats, were not consistent with the way 1080 was understood to work.

Signs have been posted on Westport beaches and work is now underway to remove the dead rodents.

Mayor's warning
Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine said the public should be careful if they planned on visiting beaches today.

"Obviously it's not a good look. So there's just warnings going out to keep your dogs under control because dogs are very susceptible to 1080 as secondary poisoning."

Some of the rats that have washed up on Westport beaches. Photo / Fiona Duncan Campbell
Some of the rats that have washed up on Westport beaches. Photo / Fiona Duncan Campbell

"It should be passed on to the beaches further north as well."

The beaches mostly impacted were those just north of the Buller River mouth, he said.

Some locals and DOC rangers had done a partial clean up yesterday but a formal clean up would take place tomorrow.

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"Obviously there's health and safety issues for people to be handling the carcasses until they know exactly what they're dealing with. So essentially the public safety message was avoid handling them and keep dogs and children away."

"Treat it as 1080 at this stage until proven otherwise."

'Not something I've ever heard of'
Mr Cleine said the mass wash-up was not something he had heard of before, or considered.

"It's not something I've ever heard of happening in a mass lot like this. I guess, everything inland there's the potential for it to end up in the river which will end up potentially on the beach.

"This operation happened some 140 kilometres inland so whether it's just a set of unfortunate circumstances that have timed it where the carcasses are at a certain stage and the heavy rain that may have got them into the river... I really don't know."

"Until they confirm 1080 who knows what other potential causes there could be but it certainly seems on the face of it, to be related."

- RNZ