Winning the Rat Race
by Marina Skinner

About 70 Auckland neighbours in Paremoremo have evicted rats and possums from their gardens and welcomed native birds in their place.

Derry McLachlan dreams that one day he’ll have kiwi poking around in his Auckland backyard. Even if that seems a distant goal, he’s doing the best he can to create a safe haven for more common native birds.

In semi-rural Paremoremo, at the northern edge of the North Shore, Derry and 70 other neighbours are controlling possums, rats, stoats and other introduced pests on their properties. They are part of the Pest Free Pare project, which is backed by Forest & Bird.
Before Derry became the project co-ordinator in 2007, he and his wife, Judi, had many problems with possums on their one-acre property. “They were eating our grapefruit and lemons and creating havoc,” he says. He found a rat in his compost bin and neighbours saw them running over their roofs and decks. They were keen to see more native birds in their garden, which includes a patch of regenerating native bush and a stream.

Forest & Bird Auckland Field Officer Nick Beveridge helped organise a survey of pests in the area, putting tracking tunnels in a few gardens to check which pests were there. The first survey in August 2008 recorded pests in 11 properties but the most recent survey last September recorded pests in just three properties.

Derry had never set a trap or filled a bait station, but he completed a two-day NZQA course on pest control. With advice from Nick, he put two Timms traps, a DOC200 trap and four bait stations around his garden. The equipment and bait is subsidised by the Biodiversity Condition Fund.

In the first year, Derry caught eight possums and six rats in the Timms traps. It’s impossible to tell how many rats and possums took the bait but Derry had to top up the bait stations every couple of days initially. Now, there are so few rats or possums to eat the bait that it goes off before it’s consumed. “A lot of people don’t like disposing of dead bodies,” Derry observes. They prefer bait, which means no animal carcasses to get rid of but it’s harder to tell how many pests have been killed.

Derry started out checking his traps at least once a week, which didn’t take long on a small property. Last month he caught the first possum in two years, which shows the need for ongoing pest control. He has put bait stations on trees at eye level so it’s easy to see if bait has been taken and needs replacing.

The McLachlans are starting to enjoy the benefits of a pest-free backyard. The main avian visitors were once sparrows and doves but now kereru, tui and fantails (piwakawaka) are regulars. “The kereru sit in our birdbath and splash around,” he says.

With the pests gone, the McLachlans are making an effort to make native birds feel at home. They have put in two bird feeders filled with sugar water for the tui, and they have planted native plants, such as flaxes, kowhai, sedges, kawakawa, putaputaweta and kahikatea. They were never happy about the possums and rats raiding their fruit trees but they’re perfectly content to indulge the birds. “It doesn’t matter if you lose a bit of fruit,” Derry says.

Paremoremo locals have become more interested in wildlife, and Forest & Bird’s North Shore branch chair, Alan Emmerson, and Nick have given community talks about native birds. An annual bird survey is held one weekend in November. Figures from the survey last November show 415 reports of native birds of 14 species including tui, fantails, kingfishers, keruru and paradise ducks.
“People are often commenting that there are a lot more birds in the area,” Derry says. “The use of the bait has gone down. It seems to have knocked a lot of the problem but we’ve got to keep vigilant about it. The emphasis now should be on encouraging bird feeders and planting trees.”

Derry sees his community playing a part in a much bigger project, the North-West Wildlink, which aims to create a corridor for birds stretching between Tiritiri Matangi Island wildlife sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf and the Forest & Bird/Auckland Council Ark in the Park in the Waitakere Ranges.

Nick would like to attract tuneful bellbirds back to the Paremoremo/Lucas Creek bush area. “Bellbirds have been extinct in the Auckland area for more than 100 years,” he says. “They were introduced to Tiritiri and they have started moving back to the mainland. We’d like to get them to Paremoremo as another step on the way to Ark in the Park.”

The Pest Free Pare project has had spin-offs for the people of Paremoremo as much as the birds. Derry says it’s helped build a better community, with people getting to know each other and sharing a common goal. “It has been very satisfying to see the results and to see the bird life that’s improved around the local area. We’ve got to keep up what we’re doing.”