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The ‘GBICT Referendum’

- a response from the Trust



What an amazing response to the Great Barrier Island Charitable Trust ‘referendum’ – pink page after pink page unfolded to reveal both "yes" and "no" answers, requests for information, donations, membership forms, and many notes of encouragement and helpful comments.


It was very satisfying for us to know that the vast majority of the 585 forms returned support this small group of locals. It was particularly rewarding to see our membership increase dramatically, and to get some positive comments and generous donations from off-shore and overseas respondents. The returned results overwhelmingly speak for themselves:

Each response was entered into a data base, hence the need for numbering, and notes made of comments and questions. The huge job for the Trust now is to resource itself to be able to research all the matters relating to an island wide eradication and communicate this back to the community. The need for a ‘referendum’, (‘questionnaire’, call it what you will) was to ask as many residents and ratepayers as possible, what they, as a community, thought about our vision of a feral cat and rat-free Great Barrier Island We have a clear mandate to keep going. Thank you.

The referendum was sent to ‘all’ residents and ratepayers, both on island, elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas. We have since become aware that some people who should have received it, didn’t. This is in itself a significant finding – there seems to be no fool-proof way of communicating with all concerned. We can only assure those who didn’t receive it that we did our best, and we’ll be looking into the problem.

We estimate that c. 60% of the private land on Barrier is owned by off-island ratepayers, and this proportion of our questionnaires went to them. Consequently it was interesting to get 53% of our replies from the 40% of people living on the island, indicating a very strong level of local support.

The responses also included a range of perfectly reasonable questions—some of which we would like to reply to as follows.

Are we paid?

Our funds are raised through applications to funding organisations and from the membership. Currently all five Trustees contribute most or all of their time on a voluntary basis. The Project Manager (Liz Westbrooke), who is researching the steps needed to achieve eradication, is paid for 8 hours/week from funds we applied for specifically for this role. The Trust secretary (Fenella Christian) is paid for 10 hours per week of her time. One of her main roles is to apply for additional funding to keep us going! It may be that as the jobs get bigger in future we will need to reimburse trustees for their expenses and some of their time, but we will remain an essentially voluntary Charitable Trust composed of mainly resident members of the Great Barrier Is. community.

Is this a hobby?

For all the Trustees, rat eradication and the benefits derived from it are an interest and a passion perhaps, but a bit too much like hard work to call it a hobby. Most ‘hobbies’ don’t try to halt the waning of New Zealand’s biodiversity—listed as one of the top 10 issues facing the country at this time.

Are we experts?

Our Chairperson (John Ogden) has expertise in Ecology, and there are also collective skills in Project Management. Liz Westbrooke in particular has knowledge in that area. Judy Gilbert and Fenella Christian (Trust secretary) have years of experience in raising funds for employment in conservation projects, and community building. They have a wide network for information gathering. Tony Bouzaid has an understanding of many community related matters through his long-term role on the Community Board, and both he and Judy have first-hand experience of rat and feral cat control on the extensive properties they manage. David Speir has experience in journalism and nature tourism, and he edits the Newsletter. Overall then, we can claim a level of appropriate expertise.2  This should not be mistaken for arrogance; we are acutely aware that we do not have all the answers and that there are many other points of view to be heard. In particular, we have no effective input from local Iwi at present. There are also technical aspects of an eradication campaign for which outside expertise will be required. Neither this Trust, nor those outside experts, should make decisions for this community. Exactly how such a community-led decision with regard to rat/feral cat eradication can be arrived at, is one of the main questions currently facing the Trust, and on which we need feedback. We are certainly not experts on that!

Are we anti-pet?

The referendum was about eradication of pests not pets! Most of the Trustees have treasured pets and we are all aware of the importance of them, particularly for anyone who lives here alone or in an isolated situation. While we have such high densities of rats, a house cat assists with keeping their numbers down. Our vision is for a feral cat free island. To avoid pet cats going feral we would need biosecurity measures. The first step would be to de-sex pet cats, because without this no-one could be persuaded to put any support into feral cat elimination. However, we recognize that this is something that the community must first agree to. This is an inhabited island and a balance between the needs of human and native species will be worked towards. There were many respondents, mainly locals, who commented negatively on the numbers of un-managed pets, and visiting domestic cats and dogs. The issue of micro-chipping them was also much commented on. Whether or not animals are micro-chipped will be the subject of investigation and information-sharing with the community before the Trust has any clear opinion on this.

Can feral cats be used to control rats and rabbits?

There are many hundreds of feral cats living in the bush. Their diet is unknown, but they probably feed mainly on rats and young rabbits. If rats were eradicated many feral cats would also die, but others would ‘prey-switch’ to birds. This could be disastrous for some species – such as brown teal. To avoid this, feral cats must be targeted at the same time as rats. There were a number of suggestions that feral cats be used to control the rabbMorepork.  We all love to hear them and they may be put at risk during rat eradication.  Consequently we need to know how many are present on GBI now.  Photo by Len Doelits and rats. Predators of course never eliminate their prey – as a rule of thumb any given weight (biomass) of prey can support only 10% that weight of predators. On average one cat weighs as much as 18 rats, which means that to support one feral cat requires a permanent rat population at least 180 times greater than the number of cats. Many other factors control both cat and rat numbers, but this simple calculation serves to point out that pest control by predators is not an option. (New Zealand tried this with stoats and weasels and what a disaster that has been!). Apart from a few managed areas on both private and Department of Conservation land, the bulk of this island is not managed for pests at all, leaving the cats to do their thing. The problem with leaving the feral cats is thus that they also like eating more than rats; lizards, ground nesting shore and bush birds, and insects. The rabbit issue is a whole other problem which requires more research and more information to be given to the community before a consensus can be reached. Rabbits however are not such a problem for our native birds. Currently they may be sustaining the feral cat population.

Are we self appointed?

The Trust evolved from the Great Barrier Island Private Conservation Initiatives – a group of locals who got together in 2001/2 to share our conservation activities. There are currently four founding Great Barrier Island Charitable Trust Trustees and one nominated. Although we get most of our funding from government organisations, we also have growing membership support, and we strongly maintain our autonomy as a community group.

What is our stand on the current Marine Reserve proposal?

Our Trust deed has a clause that states one of our objectives as: "Promotion of and support for integrated planning and management of the marine environment around all the coastal areas of Great Barrier Island, which may include marine reserved areas, mataitai, partial take areas and Taiapure." However, we are not, at this stage, seeking to represent the community in this area. Our current focus is on the eradication of rats and feral cats, which in itself is a huge task, never before attempted on such a large inhabited island. The Trust has made no submissions or statements regarding the Marine Reserve Proposal, nor could it now do so, unless specifically invited by the Minister of Fisheries. Some trustees made individual submissions, but these were clearly made on their own behalf.

Do we think feral cat and rat eradication is really possible?

Yes to both! Thank you for the great level of support, the thought provoking comment and questions, and for such a clear indication that the majority support this Trust exploring further the vision of a rat and feral cat-free Great Barrier Island .

John Ogden, Judy Gilbert, Tony Bouzaid, David Speir, Liz Westbrooke, Fenella Christian

The forms have been independently checked and the form counts verified by Angela Wright, Accountant, Puriri Bay.