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Successful Community Conservation in the Far South

 

Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, taken from Ackers Point.  Photo by Spirit & Nature PhotographyThis article looks at the Stewart Island Rakiura Community and Environment Trust (SIRCET) an environment restoration and protection trust whose activities in the Halfmoon Bay precinct of Stewart Island are gaining national attention. Our aims and activities here have many parallels with SIRCET and a closer examination of their history and activities is well warranted.

 

SIRCET is a Charitable Community Trust composed entirely of people who live on, or have a strong interest in Stewart Island. The Trust’s principal conservation work, the Halfmoon Bay Habitat Restoration Project (HMB HRP) is focused firmly on the local community taking control of their own destiny and protecting the land that they live on.

This project aims to control possums, wild cats and rats (the full suite of introduced predators on Stewart Island), on private land around Halfmoon Bay. A recent survey of visitors to Stewart Island found that 30% noted the birdlife to be the highlight of their visit. The Trust wishes to maintain this drawcard as a basis for a growing tourism industry, and in doing so work towards a sustainable future for the Stewart Island community.

Ecology
The forest species in the Halfmoon Bay area are representative of the main forest cover found on Stewart Island, which is lowland temperate rain forest (kamahi, rimu, rata mix). Some unique flora, eg. mistletoe and tree fuschia are also present.

The area is distinct in the numbers and diversity of bird life. These bird species include: tui (seasonal flocks of 100+), bellbirds (korimako), kaka (flocks of 12+), kereru/ NZ pigeon (occasional flocks of 15-20), kiwi, little blue penguins (koraro), a mainland breeding colony of sooty shearwater (titi), grey warbler (riroriro), fantail (piwakawaka), brown creeper (pipipi) and red-crowned kakariki. The only known Stewart Island population of long-tailed bats (pekapeka) occurs in the Halfmoon Bay area. Many of these individual species, let alone the combination, are distinctive at a national level.

Many species have disappeared from the area over time eg yellow-head (mohua), saddleback (tieke), Stewart Island robin (toutouwai), with some disappearing off the main island within the last ten years eg. rifleman (titipounamu) and Stewart Island weka because of predation by introduced mammals.

History

This project started in 2003, as a purely volunteer pest-control project. The foundational trust members and initial volunteers were able to take on 20 hectares at the very tip of the peninsula which forms the southern side of Halfmoon Bay (the township of Stewart Island/ Rakiura), called Ackers Point. This is home to a seasonal population of sooty shearwater (titi), and a breeding population of Little Blue penguins. It’s a popular place for tourists and Islanders to walk the well-formed track.

Over time the HMB HRP project has expanded to cover some 200ha with possum, rat and cat traps at prescribed densities. Outside funding has allowed for a project manager and some assistants to co-ordinate volunteers and support the project effort.
The project operates almost entirely on private land, with “our community taking action” being the main focus. This ‘community’ is made up of both residents and visiting crib-owners. If landowners choose to offer their land for inclusion, it is at no cost to them, and gives them greater ownership of the project. There are some small DOC or council-owned reserves and the Trust has permission to include them also.

Safety of domestic pets, children and the workers themselves, as well as maintaining people’s privacy, has been a strong focus, to ensure the restoration work continues to be supported and to grow.

Community sensitive techniques

The pest-control side of the project operates entirely through trapping. It was set-up in that way so that any member of the community or anyone with an interest in Stewart Island can be involved (No special poison-handling licenses are needed, and kill-traps reduce the time-investment versus gain.) To protect the Island’s domestic pet population only live-capture cage traps are used with some selective shooting for wild cats. The need for support of the whole community, including pet owners, is considered paramount! The Trust’s stance on domestic pets is to promote responsible pet ownership: keeping dogs on leashes, following council regulations and keeping cats inside & well-fed). They provide free cat collars (with a bell!) to help identify pets if caught.

Since the project’s inception, 210 hectares have been protected through a grid network of seven hundred odd traps. There are approximately 5 possum and 5 rat traps per hectare, with a more intensive area of trapping around the border and the odd less intensive area (eg. the golf course). Due to the nature of wild cats and the method of control, cat traps have not been placed in permanent locations. Instead mobile cage traps are used to target areas in which wild cats are either known to be (through identifying cat sign using a trained cat dog) or in which special wild life exists (eg Little Blue Penguin colony).
Other landowners who are not within the current restoration area are also setting up their own pest-control projects. The Trust makes themselves, and their advisors available to provide advice and support to these projects wherever requested. So the total number of community traps working together towards a common goal is significantly greater than the Trust’s efforts alone.

Volunteer Lee setting the 'Warrior' possum kill-trap.  Photo by Kari BeavanHow many volunteers?

People help with the project in many ways. They have about 25 regular, trapping volunteers (who have adopted a trap line each to check weekly), as well as those who help with finances, workshops and workdays, organizing important events and so on.

Volunteering isn’t limited to the community, there are many people living around New Zealand who offer support, such as advice and critique by request, legal support and production of a website. The Trust is keen to involve anyone who has an interest in Stewart Island.

Achievements

Every year the contribution to the project increases, and so far, so have the results. Tui and bellbird numbers have shown a 71% increase over the last two years in the annual bird-call count monitoring within the restoration area. (Initial results from the 2007 monitoring show another very significant increase over the last year) In comparison, a nearby, unprotected area has shown no change in numbers over the same Titi (sooty shearwater) - Photo by Paula Brownperiod of monitoring. Tomtits have also more than trebled in that time and fantail numbers, which appear to have suffered a seasonal set-back in 2004/05 in both areas, have begun to swell again within the protected area.

The predator control has allowed the re-introduction and successful breeding of Stewart Is. Weka (2005) and the introduction of the Stewart Island Robin (2006).

Two local businesses, (Stewart Island Flights and Aurora Charters) and the Southland Department of Conservation have sponsored these transfers, which could not have been achieved without the restoration work being carried out. Local members are excited to see the weka forming pair bonds and breeding around the local walks, in their backyards and beaches.
In 2005 they were voted to receive an Environment Award (Community Groups’ section) by Environment Southland, a fantastic filip to all their supporters, sponsors and volunteers.

Funding

Clearly the SIRCET has substantial funding support from Biodiversity and Advice Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Community Trust of Southland but also excellent local business sponsorship and Tertiary support in species monitoring. Their aim is toward sustainable revenue streams and sound management to ensure the continuity and growth of the project.

Thanks to a rotational, intensive trapping strategy they have ensured that pest numbers can be kept low with minimal effort, making the best use of volunteers’ time, and allowing for expansion of the area of protection or focus on areas of special need.

The funding has allowed SIRCET to employ two professional part-timers — an operations officer and an administrations officer. Among a raft of responsibilities, they co-ordinate the work ensuring economy of effort and maintain information feedback to keep all well informed as well as recruiting new sponsors, volunteers and advocates. Their task is also to ensure the project has funding for the years to come, and that sponsors are given value-for-money in their level of involvement and exposure.

What makes this project work is its “closeness to home” for this community. People living here, and those who choose to visit, value having an abundance of native wildlife around their homes and gardens. Many earn their living from tourism, others simply feel that the sound of the kaka calling at dusk means ‘home’.

Like many remote communities, interested people here work together well, and that is the key to this project. No one person could achieve long-term pest control around the Bay; this project relies on a small amount of effort from each person, coordinated into a big vision. Kari Beavan, Operations Officer for SIRCET sums up the attitude of the local conservationist, “With an example like the world-renowned, pest-free Ulva Island on our doorstep, and a head start simply because of the nature of Halfmoon Bay, it’s only natural to want to take that extra step to protect this area.”

COVER PHOTO: The vision for Stewart Islanders is that endangered species, such as the Stewart Island Robin, become everyday residents around the local homes and gardens of Halfmoon Bay. Initial releases have seen the birds, which only occur on Stewart Island, returning to the Freshwater Valley soon after release; however, future releases are being planned with alterations to ensure the birds remain.

COMMENT: The cohesiveness of the group involved on Stewart Island, as well as their enthusiasm is a model for Great Barrier. We will need to overcome the difficulties of physically separated communities and dividing power politics when asked to envision an island-wide perspective. The topographic scale of the HMB project lends itself well to the processes already embraced ie. using trapping methods alone to reduce predators to low levels works quite well on a small peninsular, where the reduction of the macro predators (cats and possums) has had immediate effects on breeding success and fledging of the larger birds and ground nesting species.

The dynamics of rats is less understood as we have discovered, and the response of the ubiquitous rat population to the reduction of the other competing predators (especially possums) will be interesting data to follow from Stewart Island. The annual peak in the rat population cycle here on GBI is limited principally by the abundance of the vegetative food available – it is most likely the same case on Stewart Island, although seasonal climatic variations may have a more dramatic effect. Data established here shows that trapping can reduce the winter minima but fail to limit the exponential booms of the rat population in the dry season. However, local experience has shown here that reduction of rat densities has improved outcomes for introduced robin nesting success. By using indicator species counts (and breeding success) as a measure of trapping effectiveness SIRCET can get relatively fast feedback on their trapping programme and make appropriate adjustments. The relatively small scale of their project allows for quick responses.