The eleventh hour battle to save Russell Forest from being killed by invasive pest species began today with an air attack.

Recent controversy about 1080 seemed a distant ripple as helicopters, iwi and local hapu members, Department of Conservation (DoC) and Forest and Bird representatives gathered on a ridge on Puhipuhi mountain, 38 kilometres north-east of Whangarei, to witness a bait drop on Northland's largest eastern forest.

Next week the green pellets that fall on the forest made critically ill by the possums and other predators destroying trees and birds will be laced with poison.

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The aim is for mammal pest species hungry for the spring flush of food to tuck into the pellets like those they tasted earlier.

Kara George: ''Our plan will entail the use of tools including other poisons, and hard work.''
Kara George: ''Our plan will entail the use of tools including other poisons, and hard work.''

The last aerial drop on the forest by DoC was in the 1990s but a lack of follow-up meant the surviving pest population boomed again.

This time, a hapu-led, 20 year forest health management plan will ensure long term follow-up.

Kara George, spokesman for the nine hapu from the area said that plan aimed for high level outcomes: ''So it needs high level detail to ensure we get the kind of resourcing we need. We are nearly there, but not quite.

''Our plan will entail monitoring, and the use of tools including other poisons, and hard work.''

A flight over the deep, steep and rugged forest shows what ''hard work'' might mean.

It looks impenetrable. A trapper might be lucky to walk a kilometre an hour, and still get nowhere near the interior, the most ravaged part of the forest.

The green canopy is punctuated with ghostly grey skeletons of giant trees, of many species.

This damage, said to be the direct result of possums' appetites, doesn't occur in large patches but everywhere one looks there are signs of death, thousands of individual dead trees.

DoC national director of partnerships, and landscape restoration, Martin Rodd described the 1080 drop as ''not a biggie'' regarding the size of the job.

''But this forest is about as sick as you can get.

''The beauty for its future is that the hapu are leading this 20 year health plan, with DoC's help. It's that long term view and commitment that is needed for its recovery.''

Forest and Bird's Northland advocate Dean Baigent-Mercer said the forest was near ''free fall collapse''.

''This has been a long time coming. Things can still be turned around but too little has been done for too long. To get here has taken a lot of courage, a lot of arguing and a lot of soul searching.''