The forests of ancient Gondwana, New Zealand (shared with Tasmania), have been suffering die back and hillsides collapsing in great slips which have scarred the land for millions of years. If this is the case, what was the cause of these disasters before possum and deer came along?
Firstly, it is because much of the land is geologically young and unstable. Secondly, it is under the strong influence of a maritime climate and subject to cyclical extremes, of periods of storms which are often followed by periods of droughts.
We also know that pre-human forests were subject to intensive browse by birds, ranging from giant moa to bush pigeon, as well, by insects ranging from stick insects to the many grubs of moths and beetles. Browse shaped the forests. This changed with the coming of the Maori, which brought about the first mass extinction and a consequent major change to the forest ecology.
New Zealand’s written records start at forests modified by Maori, but as yet unmodified by European arrivals. The journals of the first botanists and explorers such as William Colenso prove interesting, because he actually travelled through untracked forests, mainly in the Ruahine Ranges, in the 1840’s. His journals chronicled a forest in a state of change, mainly from climatic factors. Before any effects from introduced browsers, he found massive slips and fallen forests from storms. Drought which can be correlated actual records is also noted by the hydrologist Dr Patrick Grant as a cause of die back which can result in permanent forest changes, such as changing the height of the bush line. An interesting feature is the delayed impact of the real effects of drought. Though Waipawa records show severe drought in the years 1914 – 15, it was not till 1917, several years later that the full damage was obvious.
So too today, weather events that can affect forests are occurring, and can be verified by both observation and their impact. A case in point is Northland, where drought has been declared in both January and December 2010 and again in 2013. It was no surprise then, that meteorologist Dr Jim Sallinger was reported in the NZ Herald of 3/4/13 that forest was at risk of die back over a wide area from Wairarapa to Northland. Without significant rain, he predicted century old native trees were at risk of dying due to drought. The accompanying photo showed dying trees.
A later paper quoting Salinger on Sciblogs of 14/10/14 chronicles events, ranging from global climate change, residual effects from ozone depletion and changing wind patterns from the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) as being current drivers of increasing drought. Higher temperatures from the drought have a multiplier effect as plant evapotranspiration increases with heat, it exacerbates the damage to both forests and farms.
Though it is all a seemingly rational and observable cause and effects situation and one that can be verified, it was also a “crisis” occurring in the emotionally charged area of forest decline, spurred in the district by the kauri tree dieback crisis. It is just the sort of crisis that would be vulnerable to capture and be capitalised on by commercial conservation interests. This indeed appears to be the case as Forest and Birds Northland chairman, Dean Baigent Mercer enters the fray. A long and fanatical proponent of the use of 1080, Baigent Mercer even holds a handler’s license for the deadly poison. Such a zealot would be anxious to have a crisis that can be manipulated to provide an excuse to use poisons. The drought damaged forests are a heaven sent opportunity that just needed a bogey man to complete the picture. Baigent Mercer found it in the possum. Although observable road kill in Northland is very low indicating that animal numbers were low, Baigent Mercer claimed the forest “was being skinned alive” by a plague of possum.
With the resources available through Forest and Bird, Baigent Mercer arranged a drone fly–by to take video images of selected forests showing dying trees and a lot of drought damage. It has been used to front an almost hysterical campaign on TV and national media demanding government action to put more resources into Northland to save the forests from a plague of “pests”. It was not long before “action” was translated into dollar terms, and the call came out for $30 million dollars to mount an aerial 1080 poisoning campaign.
The crisis of the damaged forests soon attracted the attentions of other human predators keen to feed on its plight. First on the scene was none other than the government’s Department of Conservation (DoC). Citing the same bogeyman of possum, they set about poisoning the Warawara Forest with aerial 1080 in late 2015. A photo of the alleged possum damaged forest published in the Northern Advocate of 17/10/15 shows defoliated tree crowns which look more like a mixture of senescent decline coupled with drought in an old cut over forest. Given the low numbers of possum road kill on the roads, they look the least likely culprit.
The New Zealand Herald backed the crisis a few days later in its 29/10/15 edition trumpeting the release of the drone fly over footage. In this release, Forest & Bird claimed over 1000sq. kilometres of forest was dying and re-iterated its demand for emergency funding to counter the “relentless attack” from various pests.
However, in the same article there was an interesting voice of reason from forest ecologist, Dr Peter Bellingham of Landcare research, whose views had been sought. After paying his obligatory gesture to the exotiphobic paradigms of New Zealand science by saying “there was good evidence to suggest that slashing possum numbers etc..” he then went on to say that “pests weren’t the only driver”. Adding “It all needs to be set against a backdrop of a variety of things that can cause trees to decline.”
He further said. “They will die as a result of drought, and trees in Northland are also sometimes side-swiped by cyclones and these can spike death rates of trees”.
Bellingham said drone footage of dead trees offered a “snapshot” that did not necessarily prove possums were to blame. He considered a point in time evaluation was no substitute for an un-biased temporal evaluation.
That certainly has not happened here.
These words of caution have been totally over looked in a hysterical campaign beaten up by Forest & Bird and their Northland advocate. The front cover of their Summer 2015 magazine, Forest & Bird, features a possum and the lead article is about Baigent Mercer and the possum crisis in Northland. It has been so unquestionably accepted by the national mainstream media, that when a conservation worker for pateke (brown teal) wrote a letter to the local paper, the Wairarapa Times Age, pointing out possum numbers were low in Northland. In his letter, he also reported Whiteywood (Melicytus ramiflorus) in Northland’s native bush were being killed by the infestation of borer and Totara are simply dying of old age. His letter was rudely declined, for, amongst other things, as being “unbelievable propaganda”.
$30 million would be quite a windfall to the local “pest” eradication industry, but it would be a grant of taxpayer money to address whipped up crisis of plagues of “pests” when the real issue is really a cyclic climatic event that causes natural cycles of forest die back. It is the usual classic case of stealing a crisis to suit the poisoners own ends. Forest & Bird can and do milk crisis’s for their own fundraising – and that’s what they are doing here. The regional council and their contractors would be the other beneficiaries, and they will be pumping the “pest” problem for all it is worth.
In the end, will spending $30 million on poisons do anything for the forest? Not really. 1080 is an insecticide. It will destroy all the insects that break down matter to form the forest soils, it will take out the food chain that maintains many bird species including kiwi. As well as “pests” such as rats and possum, it will take out native birds, bats and frogs. It will only take out a few stoats. What it will really do is further contribute to New Zealand’s steady decline of its forests and fauna from a nations continuing self-destruction in the name of conservation.