The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) is just now commencing their biggest aerial drop ever of the controversial toxin 1080 over some 700,000 hectares (about 1.7 million acres) of forest land at a cost of some $25 million. Heralded earlier this year with a campaign called “The Battle for Our Birds”, the Conservation Department claims if we don’t drop enough poison, we will have a rat plague this year of “Biblical” size, thanks to a beech mast.
A mast is a natural phenomenon that occurs on a cyclic basis with many plants, not just beech trees, and occurs when plants produce more seed than usual in a given year. It is theorized that masting might be connected with climate or weather changes. The last big New Zealand beech mast occurred in 1999-2000, although Northern Hemisphere beech are estimated to mast ever 5-10 years. Ironically, while DOC paints a masting as a catastrophic event, in the UK, a mast year is seen as “a great opportunity to experience nature at its best.”
The problem with beech masting in New Zealand, according to DOC, is that extra seeds mean extra food for rodents, and their argument is that the rat population will grow larger than normal this year (in fact, become “a plague of Biblical proportion” according to the July 14 DomPost), and that when the beech mast food supply runs out, the rats will turn to birds as their food source.
I’ve written about 1080 use in New Zealand before, most recently in January when this DOC project was first announced, and earlier about 1080 in general. It’s pretty clear I am no fan of 1080. It used to be possums that were held up as the scourge of New Zealand and the reason 1080 needed to be broadcast through our forest. Now possums get nary a mention, and suddenly it is rats and stoats who are the villains. The fact that masts are a natural phenomenon that happen on a regular basis and haven’t been seen as cause for alarm in the past, and now are suddenly given as a reason for a massive increase in poison use, is puzzling. The fact that 1080 is toxic to everything that breathes makes its wanton use in virgin forests inexplicable. The fact that rat population recovery after a 1080 drop is relatively quick paves the way for further drops in the future.
It’s winter. Folks “on the ground” observe that the beech masting in New Zealand is now over. Any uneaten seeds have sunk into the ground or composted, adding to the nutrient level on the forest floor. Actually, some suggest it wasn’t really much of a “masting” to begin with. (Notice the “Save Our Birds” campaign was already ramped up well before the masting even occurred.)
Meanwhile, not only will rats and mice be killed by the poison that rains down on them from the air, but so will deer and wild pigs, weka, kea, tomtits and morepork. Not to mention the countless insects and the other critters that help keep our forests alive. I don’t know how many birds will be “saved,” but no doubt DOC will come up with a number, and will argue that any birds that died as a result of the poison drop are fewer than those that would have died if they didn't drop 1080, and who could prove otherwise? Daft. Sad, and daft.
I can come to no conclusion other than this campaign is DOC’s way of keeping their budget up and staff in employment! They're not saving birds, they're saving themselves.