We volunteers met at the kohanga, the hut where the supplies are kept for the pest eradication project for the Aongatete Forest Restoration. We’re put in groups of 2 or 3, allocated a line, a track along which the bait stations are located, load the supplies into a backpack and with the track plan in hand, climb up the hilly farm paddock to the forest beyond.
The New Zealand bush is beautiful, but ship rats, stoats, possums, mice, deer and wild pigs have decimated the bird and invertebrate populations and many of the plant species have disappeared. The bush is silent, with gaps in it where trees used to be. Parts of it are dying. We’re going to do something about it.
We bumped into two tourists and from the conversation, this story popped into my head:
The two German walkers looked at us in amazement. ‘Zis bush has more people in it than birds! Vot are you all doing here?’
He’d hit the nail on the head. We were out there on a job to’‘Bring Back the Birds’. Locals, disturbed at the loss of wildlife in the forest, set up the Aongatete Forest Restoration Project ten years ago to rid part of the Kaimai-Mamaku Conservation Park, between Katikati and Tauranga, of pests. Volunteers had hacked trails through the bush and set up lines for bait stations. The plan of the east-west lines running across the north-south trail looks like contour lines on a geographical map.
I’d joined to help replenish the bait stations, especially important in spring when birds are nesting and fledglings vulnerable. It feels good to be out in the bush, getting fit, breathing fresh air and making a difference at the same time. You can’t do that in a gym! What we’re doing involves poisoning ship rats and possums.
This is how a dead native forest is created: ship rats eat native lizards and invertebrates and raid bird nests for eggs. These rats are prey for stoats and feral cats, so they attract additional animals to the forests. Possums are also a problem in the Aongatete forest – they raid bird nests and strip the forest of so much of its vegetation that their favourite plants are gone, dying out or under attack. With all these holes in the forest canopy, wind is knocking over the tall tawa trees. As new seedlings and saplings grow, deer mow the forest floor clean.
The German tourists met us as we bumped into another volunteer group at one of the crossings of the bait lines. What were we doing? One bloke had a quick response.
‘Pest Patrol,’ he answered.