That’s completely untrue. In May, The NZ Journal of Ecology published results of searches for dead birds after 15 aerial 1080 operations. They found 13 dead native birds in 11 years, and of those, only two tomtits tested positive for 1080.
We kill around 1.3 million birds every year with our cars – but I don’t hear anyone clamouring to ban cars on the strength of that.
ADDITIONAL: It’s true that early 1080 operations, back in the 70s and 80s, flew on 1080 at very high rates – up to 25 kg/ha – and they did undoubtedly kill a lot of birds. Today, 1080 is sown at rates as low 1.5 kg/ha, and it’s now very difficult for a bird to even encounter a fatal dose in its own territory.
EXTRA: Last September I spent four days in the Coromandel combing two different bush blocks after a 1080 operation, going off-track, looking for dead birds. I never found any, but there were still plenty of live ones around. I invited anyone and everyone I could to send me documented evidence – photos or videos – of this slaughter. The anti-1080 Facebook page, 1080 Eyewitness, claims to have more than 6000 members, but I never received one account. Every time I read a claim about alleged bird deaths, I asked for photos. None were ever furnished.
It’s true that 26 out of 219 radio-tagged kea have died in 1080 operations since 2007. Nobody thinks this is acceptable, because kea are a threatened species. DOC has tried a chemical repellent – D-Pulegone – on baits to try to stop kea picking them up but it’s only had partial success. Often, the kea that eat 1080 baits are what rangers call “hut birds” – individuals that hang around humans looking for handouts. Unfortunately, some people still feed kea, which teaches the birds to consider everything they find on the ground as potential food.
It’s very important that people don’t give kea handouts for that reason.
ADDITIONAL: Even with the accidental deaths, monitoring has shown that kea still enjoy much better breeding success when pests are controlled – both possums and stoats have been filmed eating kea chicks.
Yes; 1080 ends up in backcountry streams and rivers, some of which supply municipal drinking water, and that sounds terrible until you understand how quickly it degrades and dilutes in water; until you realise that public water supplies have been tested after 1080 drops for the last 25 years, and those tests have never found traces of 1080 in public drinking water anywhere near the Ministry of Health thresholds.
ADDITIONAL: Of more than 3200 samples – only four from public water supplies found traces of 1080. The Ministry of Health permissible level of 2 ppb. What would two ppb look like? Imagine squeezing two drops of ink into a municipal-sized swimming pool. You just added 2 ppb, and these samples were just a tiny fraction of that.
EXTRA: A dangerous exposure for humans is 2 mg of sodium fluoroacetate per kilogram of body weight. That means a 60 kg adult would have to drink at least 240 litres of water (a wheelie bin-full) – in one sitting, within eight hours of the drop – before they would even be at risk. Frankly, if you really cared about our waterways, would you be marching against tiny, temporary traces of 1080, or the 70,000 tonnes of nitrogen that runs off dairy pasture every year?
No it doesn’t. That’s just a bumper sticker. 1080 is not equally poisonous to all animals. It’s highly toxic to mammals, much less so to birds. Some invertebrates appear to be quite susceptible to 1080, while others – like worms – seem not to be bothered at all. The same with aquatic invertebrates. Reptiles are very resilient to 1080, as are fish – and the Cawthron trout research proved that – and it’s practically impossible to kill amphibians.
ADDITIONAL: It’s important to remember that when 1080 is dropped at two kilograms a hectare, or even less – and don’t forget that only 0.15 per cent of an average 1080 bait is actual poison, that’s not even a pinch of active toxin – so few baits fall into an individual bird’s home range, it’s very difficult for creatures to even encounter, let alone consume, a lethal dose – unless they’re a mammal – which is one reason birth deaths have declined so dramatically.
Unlike many other poisons, 1080 doesn’t persist in living tissue. Studies have shown that any animal, be it mammal, bird, fish or insect, that doesn’t receive a lethal dose will metabolise and excrete that 1080 in anything from a few hours to five days, depending on how big it is. So clearly, as long as people observe the recommended stand-down period, they can’t be exposed to 1080 in meat or fish.
1080 can persist in dead tissue, though; sometimes for months, which is why poisoned carcasses pose such a threat to dogs. But unless you’re going to scavenge the corpses of deer or pigs from a 1080 zone, you’re not going to get poisoned that way either. Remember: it’s the dose that makes a poison lethal. Too much salt will kill you. Too much alcohol will kill you. 1080 has been found in puha and watercress, but it turns out that those plants actually manufacture it themselves, just like tea does. And no-one’s died from eating puha.
For me, that argument – that we could just use traps instead of 1080 – is a straw man: it’s not about traps OR 1080; it’s about traps AND 1080. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on circumstances and budgets. And they secure very different outcomes. We don’t have the luxury of being able to dispense with 1080: we urgently need to use every tool at our disposal, to best effect. In some places, that’ll be ground control – in other places that’ll be aerial 1080.
ADDITIONAL: It’s a mistake to assume that traps can do whatever 1080 can do, and vice-versa: in productive broadleaf forest, rat numbers are high practically all year round, so you need constant control to protect isolated populations of birds like kokako, for instance. Traps shine in that sort of application – especially self-resetting ones because they’re always on duty.
The South Island beech forests, though, generally only support lower rat numbers – until a mast season when they go nuts on all the extra food. So it’s not cost-effective to maintain trap networks in those circumstances – it’s much better just to skittle those rats when they boom. And 1080’s great for that; DOC can respond quickly, cheaply across big areas.
So you can see that traps and 1080 are two different tools. The trick is to use the right tool under the circumstances. This is why simplistic statements about replacing 1080 with traps make no sense.
I’m not saying that if you oppose 1080, you must be a nutter. There are two distinct aspects to this issue: one is scientific, and that’s objective – either something is correct or it’s not, and we can use what the science tells us to arrive at some practical position.
Then there’s the ethical or philosophical aspect. You may simply be uncomfortable with the notion of spreading poison across the land, or causing suffering to animals of any ilk. You might just think that’s wrong. That’s subjective, so there are no invalid positions, and everyone is entitled to one.
But if we’re talking about the science, then you’re entitled only to what you can prove. Science is objective: it doesn’t care what you believe. Protecting Paradise takes aim at those people who distort or selectively present findings, or simply make up their own junk science, simply to make 1080 look worse than it is, in order to secure a personal or political agenda.
It would seem that some people have decided – on behalf of the rest us – that 1080 must be banned. They might harbour some abiding philosophical or personal opposition to it and have therefore decided that the rest of us should see it their way.
One sector – an element of the hunting community – don’t like 1080 because it kills deer. Their position seems to be that only they have the right to kill game animals. Some in that hunting lobby work very hard to make 1080 look bad, presumably to win public support to get it banned.
Other opponents have a vested commercial interest. Some outspoken 1080 opponents own or have interests in possum fur businesses, and in one instance, a venison pet food company, so perhaps these people consider that 1080 represents a commercial threat.
There is another interest at play, too, and it’s political. Recently, we’ve seen NZ First really ramp up the anti-1080 rhetoric, driven principally by MP Richard Prosser. This would seem to be a play for votes in the hunting and outdoor communities. Perhaps NZ First has figured that if it can win over traditional United Future and Ban 1080 voters, it can get more MPs into Parliament next time.
Conspiracy theorists start with a belief, then only accept those statements that confirm their belief. I’m concerned only with that which has been scientifically tested and proven. That’s why the book has 30 pages of references in the back.
In 2004, I think it was, I wrote a series of case studies for DOC, profiling farmers, and community and iwi conservation groups that had first-hand experience of 1080 use. I talked to them about the results they’d seen for biodiversity on their patches, and about their personal positions on pest control in general.
For the TBFree programme, Making TB History, I travelled the country in 2010 compiling a kind of written history – accounts from farmers who had witnessed the real horror days of bovine TB – the seventies and eighties – when many lost most of their animals to the disease.
I was paid to do that work, which was essentially advocacy for pest control programmes. And I was comfortable doing it, because this wasn’t propaganda: these were authentic first-hand accounts from people with genuine personal experience of pest control issues. They were the real thing, in the real world, and their stories helped me to arrive at my own position on 1080. The stories were told in their words, not mine. I didn’t just spin up some PR out of nowhere.
ADDITIONAL: People can call me a shill, but how is that any different from the Deerstalkers Association helping fund Steve and Clyde Graf to help make their Poisoning Paradise documentary? Or from them charging the public to come and see their films? Or owners of possum-fur or venison product companies – or fishing and hunting guides – campaigning to bring down 1080? It’s a bit rich for those people to start talking about gravy trains.
Every day, we kill hundreds of animals, in the slaughterhouse, or by hunting, or by just taking our kids fishing. We can justify cruelty and death when it suits us, but to claim special exemption for the pests that kill 25 million of our native birds every year makes no sense.
ADDITIONAL: Animal welfare is a big reason some people oppose the use of 1080. We know what 1080 does inside the body, but we can’t know for sure the extent of the distress or pain a creature goes through. MPI has looked at all the commonly-used poisons and ascribed each of them a kind of “suffering score”, based on what we can observe and measure, and 1080 scored roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of – I won’t use the term humaneness – but welfare.
Some toxins are more harsh, others less so, but I want to point out that tens of thousands of New Zealanders happily buy Talon, or Pest-Off, from the hardware to kill the rats in their attic. Those are brand names for Brodifacoum, which has a welfare score worse than 1080’s – it deliberately takes around two weeks to kill – but people don’t seem to mind using it.
Richard Prosser denounces 1080, but has come out in support of cholecalciferol instead, which scored far worse than 1080 in the welfare rankings.
ADDITIONAL: There’s no ethical mandate for killing animals of any kind, whether by hunting, fishing or pest control. Personally, people will be guided by their own values and priorities. But most regional councils require land owners and managers to control pest animals on their properties by legislation, so there’s an implied responsibility there. There’s also the Wildlife Act, which is very clear about which creatures are considered game, and which are to be protected.
People often forget that a great many native birds die in traps – some kiwi and weka have suffered in leg-hold traps for days. This is Save the Kiwi month, and it started with two kiwi caught in leg-hold traps in Northland in the same week. I don’t call that “more humane.”
In fact, Australia, the United States, South Africa and Israel still use 1080 as well. And it’s wrong to say that 1080 has been banned elsewhere; it simply hasn’t been registered for use, and that’s a very different thing. 1080 is most deadly to mammals, and most other countries have native mammals that they can’t risk killing accidentally in poison drops. That’s the main reason they don’t use it; not because 1080 is so heinous.
Because we have just three species of native mammals – all of them bats – we can use 1080 with much more confidence: that’s why New Zealand uses nearly 90 per cent of global production each year.
1080 was withdrawn for a number of years in the United States because a few people were accidentally poisoned, but it was reinstated again under specific conditions, because it left their wildlife service with no vertebrate toxin to use on pests.
If you’re a mammal, say; a rat or a possum, you’re highly susceptible to 1080, so you may only have to find one bait to get a lethal dose. But if you’re a bird, you have a higher tolerance for it. That means you have to find and eat more of it to get a lethal dose. With doses and sowing rates so low, you may not be able to find enough baits in your home range to be at risk. This is one reason bird deaths are negligible these days.
Neither DOC nor OSPRI are profit-making entities, so that’s pretty much where that argument collapses.
It’s true that the company which processes raw fluoroacetate into 1080 baits is a SOE – it’s Government-owned, which is just a quirk of history. But it then sells the overwhelming bulk of that 1080 to other Government entities. So the Government is selling it, and the Government is buying it. Call that a money-go-round if you like, but where’s the profit? It costs money to make 1080. It costs money to buy 1080. It costs money to use 1080. It costs money to pay the staff, get the consents, hire the contractors, put fuel in the helicopters… the conspiracy theory about gravy trains is exactly that.
There has been no equilibrium and there never will be. Our native wildlife evolved for 80 million years in the total absence of fast, four-footed predators. That’s why so many of them ended up flightless. To suggest that evolution can turn on a dime in the space of a few hundred years is nonsensical – it doesn’t work like that. We’ve lost nearly 50 species – one of the worst records of any country on the planet. Another 4000 are threatened to one degree or another. That’s not an equilibrium; it’s a massacre – pests devour the eggs and chicks of an estimated 25 million native forest birds every year – and that’s why the bush is quiet.
It’s nothing of the sort. Treasury allocated $20.7m for the Battle for Our Birds operations this year, and that’s for a mast season: ordinarily, DOC spends between $3m and $5m on 1080. Even when you combine DOC spending with that of OSPRI and Regional Councils it still only comes to around $15m a year. Around 80 per cent of OSPRI’s possum control work is actually done by trapping, and that’s part-funded by levies on farmers.
First, it’s not about alternative tools; it’s about additional tools, because we need to fight pests with everything we can. But I don’t agree with this meme doing the rounds that the Government isn’t serious about finding additional methods. There’s been around $30m spent in the last 15 years on ideas to interfere with possum and stoat breeding biology, and $4m a year was going into the small mammal research programme. In 2009, FRST funded a programme worth $1m a year called Pest Control for the 21st Century, looking for effective lures and toxin delivery devices for rats and stoats. I think that ran for six years.
Under the biological heritage stream of the national science challenge, there’s about $300,000 a year available for small mammal research. Plus a much bigger MBIE pot for contestable project funding.
Otago, Lincoln and Auckland Universities have all been involved in pest control work, as has Plant and Food.
Lincoln’s Centre for Wildlife Management and Conservation has been isolating the smells from stoat and rat bedding, and one of the stoat lures is showing promise in field trials on the Coromandel right now. Thanks to that sort of investment, we now have a promising new stoat poison, called PAPP. It kills in two hours and there’s an antidote for it.
It’s worth remembering that there hasn’t been a new vertebrate toxin registered anywhere else in the world for nearly three decades, and that’s mostly down to the sheer expense and regulatory rigmarole involved. New Zealand is practically the only country taking a lead, which is why we’re recognised as the global trailbreaker in invasive species control.
People often don’t realise just how difficult this research can be: a PhD student at Auckland University spent three years testing 70 different compounds for their toxicity to rats. Every one was a blind alley.
Because what happens with 1080 dictates what happens to our wildlife. Our native plants and animals are very special: they’re what’s left of nature the way it looked 80 million years ago, and they exist nowhere else on the planet. As someone said to me; think of the Great Pyramids: they’re only found in Egypt, but they’re the heritage of the whole world, precisely because of that rarity. And so it is with our wildlife. That means we owe it, not just to other people around the world, but to all the generations that come after us, to nurture and grow that heritage, because we hold it in trust – it’s our turn to care for it. At five years old, I was already a nature geek. What if your great-grandkids turned out to be the same? But unlike me, they never got to see a kiwi in the wild – or a mohua, or a whio, or a giant snail – because we let them die.
ADDITIONAL: Recently, the Government got behind the vision of a predator-free New Zealand – to evict rats, stoats and possums from this country by 2050. That could be a powerful uniting ambition, because New Zealand, in my view, still struggles to articulate what it stands for. What’s our defining philosophy? How do we want Aotearoa to look, and work, in 2100? Nobody’s ever shown me a blueprint – a plan of any kind – to set this country up for future generations.
What makes us unique? Other countries play rugby, and Australia has claimed the pavlova. The jet boat is great, but it doesn’t offer a vision of nationhood. When you stop to think about it, we have Maori culture, and we have creatures and plants that live nowhere else on Earth. Those two things define our real essence. Those are the reference points we should rally to. What a message, what a brand, to project to the world – that we intend to care, as somebody put it to me recently. That we mean to heal our hurting environment. What a character reference it would write for Aotearoa.
Predator-Free will be hard work, but we’ll do it and we’ll inspire the world. Finally, we’ll have an environmental reputation we can be proud of.
People need to be aware, though, that 1080 will still be an essential part of that predator-free vision. Traps are so much more effective now, and the economics of trapping are improving all the time, not to mention all the other innovations coming on stream. And the research and development of new technology will only accelerate now the vision is official. But there are some plain realities standing between us and an environment without 1080: before we can go in with traps and bait stations, pests in each block – and we’re talking very big blocks, maybe 20,000 ha or more – will have to be knocked down to very low levels first.
That will have to be done from the air, because of the scale, and the nature of some of the terrain. There’s only one vertebrate pesticide registered for broad-scale aerial use in New Zealand, and that’s 1080. So you can appreciate immediately that before we can set a course for a 1080-free New Zealand, we have to use 1080. Predator-free won’t happen without majority support from the New Zealand public – we’ll be asking their permission to do those initial knockdowns with 1080. The big difference will be that, instead of asking for consents to drop 1080 every three or five years forever, we’ll be seeking consent to drop it that one last time.