By Nigel Boniface
Back in 2010, I was semi-retired and working three days a week with a plan to do more tramping. One day walking out to the Holdsworth road end, through Donnelly Flat, I spotted a group of four tui chasing one another through the trees — it was maybe the parents teaching flying skills. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see more birds in the area?’
Soon after I spoke to the campground caretaker, a Forest & Bird member, and we approached the local DOC office about setting up a trapping program in the Donnelly Flat area. They were keen and Project Kaka was set up, which monitored the effects of regular 1080 operations over some 57,000ha of the Tararua Forest Park and a volunteer project in the area that would add to the data collection.
It would need more than two of us to run the project. By word of mouth, approaches to tramping club members, and some local publicity, we soon had a small band of volunteers keen to help DOC staff set up the traps in an area of about 50ha. Project Kaka at Donnelly Flat was underway.
Initially we used Timms traps to catch possums (150 in the first four months) and DOC 200’s for mustelids, with bait stations for controlling rats. 12 months later DOC found 300+ second hand Victor traps and we have since used these to catch rats, mice and the occasional stoat. The advantage of a trap is that you can count what you kill and we have kept good records since.
All traps are dangerous to some extent. A Victor will snap close if handled incorrectly and give you a good bruise, while a Timms or DOC 200 would be a lot worse. So, if someone is showing you how to set and unset a trap: listen and learn, heed all the safety advice, and you will be fine.
DOC have come up with recommended spacings between traps — 50 -200m is common depending on the trap. Lines should be more or less parallel and 50-100m apart. If you have the choice, set up lines in a reasonably accessible area with as few hazards as possible, but sometimes when you just have to cross that stream, maybe go around that clump of ongaonga! Lines will go to some ‘interesting’ places that have their rewards, such as magnificent rimu trees and remote waterfalls, which you would like to think have never been seen by a human (unlikely though).
Over the years volunteers have come and gone (we usually have a band of 10-12 regulars). Some are shift workers, some ‘between’ jobs, and most are retired. Recruitment is still by word of mouth, the occasional article in the local paper, and by visitors asking ‘What are you doing?’ as we go trapping. We meet fortnightly to clear the traps, record the results and, most importantly, have a cuppa, a scone (provided by the camp caretaker’s wife) and a chat (which takes nearly as long as the trapping)!
This is also a time to discuss our results (with a little bit of competition as to which line got the most/least pests). Are numbers going up or down? Did that change of bait help or did the weather make a difference? After a beech mast we can be sure the rat numbers will go up and for a month or two, we will clear the traps every week and find a rat in maybe 25% of the traps each time, then numbers will drop off. After one of the scheduled 1080 operations, we can be sure of low numbers for a while, but they will come back unfortunately!
In 2017 we assessed how we were going. We were always catching some rats, occasionally lots, so was that the definition of ‘winning’ and if not, what should we do? We asked DOC. Their advice was ‘if you want to have an area with few pests you need to be trapping an area of about 1,000ha to give you a buffer zone.’ How was that going to happen with mostly retired volunteers?
Well sometimes miracles do happen. A few months later a phone call from one of our friendly local DOC staff informed us that DOC Wairarapa had been left some tens of thousands of dollars in the will of an Australian, to be spent on biodiversity in the Holdsworth area! They suggested they could purchase some 400 Goodnature A24 traps, if we were interested. Mmm, can we do this? With more publicity and word of mouth enquiries, can we find a bunch of fitter people to walk the hills?
People came out of the local woodwork — from our local Search & Rescue group, individual trampers, hunters, and those with a general interest in the outdoors and helping our native wildlife. ‘Yes DOC, we can do this,’ we replied.
This took us to a whole new level with Community Agreements, Safety Plans and much more. However with lots of help from our local DOC staff, it all happened. The Atiwhakatu Trapping Project now joined Project Kaka at Donnelly Flat as an additional, larger scale, trapping operation.
First major job was to install some monitor lines to give us a baseline of the density of rats in the area, as well as a regular update from future six monthly monitors. With eight monitor lines and ten tunnels on each line that all needed to be set up one day and the cards removed the next, this was our biggest regular job. Coordinating a bunch of fit and busy volunteers (and sometimes the weather) does not always work.
Once the traps arrived, it was time to start installation. On the first day two of us set off with ten traps each, including drills, hammers and marker tags, and saws and loppers. How difficult can it be on a partially marked, but little used track? After a lot of cutting and sawing, we had five traps installed and we called it a day. Moral of the story: cut and mark the track first, then mark the trap location and put in the trap. Not all at once!
We had, and still have, a small group who gets out when time and weather permit to mark the lines and install the traps. They sometimes come alone, but usually in pairs. We once had a team of seven put in 80 traps in a day. Some lines become quite long and a lot of walking before the actual work starts can be common. It’s all good exercise and with a purpose.
As the project continued two local schools joined the group, taking on a line, or more, each to service every six months. This is not only a community service for them, but is also used in school studies. A local scout group are also regulars, as well as one or two families with young children. The wider community is slowly becoming involved, which is great.
One of the drawbacks of the A24 traps is that it is unusual to see a dead rat. It is only necessary to service the traps every six months and once killed, a dead rat will often be eaten by other pests. A recent problem is that we have found a small number of traps laying on the ground, as they have been knocked off the mounting bracket, possibly by pigs. Fortunately none have been damaged.
With the help of a friendly local lawyer, we have set up a trust to coordinate the projects, apply for further funding (for more traps and consumables to service the traps), and to report to DOC and other government departments. All are necessary jobs to ensure the fun part of getting out and enjoying the forest and of course, to help nature.
Are we winning? Recent monitoring shows that we are succeeding, but we have not had a beech mast and subsequent rat plague for a while. Comments from regular visitors to the area say that they are hearing (and seeing) more birds, which is good news. Five-minute bird counts, another monitoring tool, have been conducted. However, they have not been done on a regular basis, which means we do not have useful data there yet. Overall though, yes we are winning, not only for the birds and insect life in the forest, but also for the health and enjoyment of a lot of volunteers of all ages getting out and enjoying some purposeful tramping.
FMC thanks Nigel Boniface for sharing his article, which is published here on Wilderlife as part of FMC’s 2021/22 focus on Volunteering for Biodiversity. To learn more, visit www.fmc.org.nz/vol4bio.