Cats will not be welcomed in one part of Hamilton's newest suburb after the environmental court ruled in favour of protecting endangered native pekapeka bats in the area, one of the two species of bats in New Zealand and the country's only native land mammals.
There are about 60 of the critically endangered bats living on the south side of Hamilton in Hammond Park, opposite the new suburb of Amberfield, which will house more than 2000 people as part of the Peacocke development.
A hearing was held in Auckland in early September, and an interim decision was issued this month by Environment Court judge Jeff Smith who ruled the bats needed more protection near Hammond Park before houses could be built there.
Such a ban is believed to be the first of its kind in an urban environment. The land proposed for the Amberfield development has until now been rural. However, in the coming years thousands of new homes are expected to be built in the area - over 800 in the development in question - which raised concerns for the bat population, which is declining by between 6 and 9 per cent a year and approaching extinction.
The ban, which would also apply to rats and mustelids, was first mooted by independent commissioners after a resource consent hearing for the Amberfield development, but was appealed by developer Weston Lea Ltd to the Environment Court.
The Department of Conservation also challenged the consent conditions, but argued they did not go far enough to protect bats. The Riverlea Environment Society Incorporate and Forest & Bird registered as interested parties to the case.
Cats are among the main predators of New Zealand's bats, along with possums, rats, and stoats.
Evidence supplied to the Environment Court showed just one cat had killed more than 100 short-tailed bats in a week.
Judge Jeff Smith ruled the logic supporting a cat ban in the area was "almost irresistible".
Forest & Bird senior lawyer William Jennings said while the ruling was a "big win for the bats", it would also help protect many other native species predated by cats, particularly birds.
He didn't believe it was the first "cat-free zone", as other bans had been in place to protect species including kiwi in Northland, but it was the first time a court had imposed one on a new subdivision.
While the court had not decided on how the ban should be enforced, Jennings said it could take the form of covenants placed on properties that did not allow for residents to have cats.
The decision could serve as a precedent for areas around the country where cats predated on critical wildlife populations, Jennings said.
"I think wherever we have threatened species, and some form of development is proposed, this could be used."
DoC Hauraki Waikato Taranaki acting regional director Tinaka Mearns said they were "very encouraged" by the decision.
"We believe the judgment gives a positive way forward and we look forward to working with the parties on the finalisation of the consent conditions."
In his ruling, Smith said the consent was a "positive way forward" for the bats, but urged Hamilton City Council to pursue a catchment-wide approach, particularly given other developments planned.
Hamilton City Council city growth general manager Jen Baird said the interim decision supported their "vision to create an attractive and sustainable community in Peacocke" along with work to protect the natural environment, particularly native long-tailed bats.
The council did not currently have a policy around the control of these cats, rats and mustelids, as pets; staff were working through how this could be managed.
Long-tailed bats are smaller than the short-tailed bat, chestnut brown in colour, have small ears and weigh 8-11g.
They are believed to produce only one offspring each year.
They can fly at 60km/h and have a large home range of about 100sq km.