25 October 2019
In typical fashion, when the Brits colonised New Zealand they decided that although the land had promise, it was way too foreign. The solution, they determined, was to import some favourite elements of the Mother Country to make New Zealand feel much more like home.
What better way for the colonisers to make New Zealand feel like the land of their birth than to transport some familiar birds half way across the world and then release them to compete with an unsuspecting and ill-prepared population of native birds? For this reason, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, blackbirds, goldfinches, chaffinches and many more species from the UK are abundant here in New Zealand.
And it wasn’t just the Brits. The Aussies weren’t much better, nipping across the Tasman Sea to release some of their own familiar species such as Black Swans, Australian Magpies and Silvereyes.
To make matters worse, mammalian predators were brought to New Zealand and released, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Rats, stoats, and possums now ravage New Zealand’s native bird species, which previously faced no such threats and were therefore ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of ruthless killing machines.
The combination of predation from introduced mammals and competition from introduced birds has been disastrous for New Zealand’s native birds. Some species have gone extinct, and many others can only be found on predator-free offshore islands. Our planned visit earlier in this trip to one such island, Tiritiri Matangi, had to be cancelled due to the weather, and we have therefore struggled to see many of the native birds that were due to be one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.
Bushy Park Sanctuary offers us the chance to put this right. This is a small area (100 hectares / 247 acres) of lowland rainforest surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The park and the homestead (grand farmhouse) bearing its name were gifted to conservation organisation Forest and Bird in 1962. The project to make this a special place for native birds has been managed by the Bushy Park Trust since 1994 and was encircled by a 4.8km pest-proof fence in 2005.
We are staying for two nights in the Bushy Park homestead, which has been converted into what we might describe in the UK as a boutique hotel. Built in 1906 in the Edwardian style, it is a Category One Heritage Building registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
To access the homestead and the adjacent sanctuary we have to drive through an airlock style double gate – one gate is always closed, which minimises the chance of predators entering the protected area. However, it’s obviously not fool-proof – or, to be more precise – possum-proof, as there are baited poison traps distributed throughout the homestead grounds and sanctuary.
I must confess to having slightly mixed feelings about the poison. I know that the predators don’t belong here, and I also know that the native birds we’re hoping to see don’t stand a chance unless those predators are eliminated, but the poison inevitably causes suffering and a lingering death. As a matter of principle I don’t accept that any living creature should suffer at the hand of (wo)mankind, but without drastic intervention native birds will suffer and probably become extinct.
Oh dear, what a conundrum. But what is absolutely clear is that the predator control and the reintroduction initiatives that have followed it have transformed the mix of birdlife to be found in this small area. As we walk though the forest and enjoy the sight of so many unfamiliar trees and other plants, our ears are assailed by the call of birds.
But what we hear is not the type of birdsong that we’ve heard elsewhere in New Zealand, calls that are familiar from back home such as the blackbird and the chaffinch. No, these are the calls of native birds which are thriving in this tiny North Island sanctuary. And as we scan the trees and the bird feeders we spot the culprits, including Fantails, HiHi, Kereru, Saddlebacks and New Zealand Robin. Click here to see my brief YouTube video of the birds at Bushy Park.
There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about at Bushy Park Sanctuary. It demonstrates that with enough resources, and if we are willing to accept that the suffering of the poisoned is a price worth paying, small areas of the country can be reclaimed for native birds. It also demonstrates that those birds are magnificent creatures that deserve to thrive and to be admired by us, the architects of their decline.
But the New Zealand government has committed itself to ridding the country of rats, stoats and possums. It says
Predator Free 2050 is an ambitious goal to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten our nation’s natural taonga, our economy and primary sector. Join us in eradicating New Zealand’s most damaging introduced predators: rats, stoats and possums. Going predator free will bring us a huge range of environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits.Source: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/ Retrieved 30 October 2019.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But given the enormous effort that has gone into protecting just the 100 hectares of Bushy Park Sanctuary, is this realistic or merely fanciful? And considering the millions of living creatures that must be eliminated to make it happen, do the ends really justify the means?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and as a guest here it’s really not my business anyway. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?