Effectiveness of possum-control work questioned

An East Otago farmer has expressed concerns over the effectiveness of possum-control work being undertaken in the area, given the omission of a large tract of forestry in the middle of it.

Duncan Smith, who farms on the Pig Root, near Morrisons, said extensive work was being done in the area as part of the TBfree programme, which he fully supported.

However, about 4000ha planted in pine trees had been left — in the middle of the operation — as it needed to be done by helicopter, not ground-based operations.

He was told that was expensive and not within the budget, while possum monitoring showed there was not a huge population within the forestry.

That was no different to the area surrounding the trees and the monitoring happened while the work was being done on the forest’s outskirts, he said.

Funding came from the Ministry for Primary Industries and Animal Health Board levies.

"Essentially this means forestry blocks in my area at least, create habitat, limit options for control and have to pay nothing towards eradication," Mr Smith said.

He questioned why the possum monitoring in the forestry was being conducted at the same time the eradication work was being done nearby as, if the numbers were high, it would still be at least 2020 before a 1080 operation was done. He also questioned why ground-based operations were not co-ordinated in conjunction with aerial application.

With the increased interest in widespread forestry plantings, Mr Smith also wondered what that meant in the future if more tree plantations and forestry was planted in Otago, and whether there was a plan to change the funding structure so overseas investors did not "get away scot-free".

Mr Smith, who had contacted Ospri to raise his concerns, said it had been a frustrating process.

Having contractors driving through ewes and lambs and having some lambs caught in leg traps was "just part and parcel" of trying to control the possums and there was no real way around that. He was not blaming the contractors, saying they were "just trying to get the job done".

"It would not be so bad to think that something was being achieved but, in this case, I think it is a waste of time if 10,000 acres next door is left untouched," he said.

When asked to comment on the concerns raised by Mr Smith, Ospri sent a statement saying the programme’s design ‘‘might not be obvious when viewed at close quarters’’ — sometimes possum control operation boundaries and methodology varied according to risk, terrain and proximity of infection.

But the Tbfree programme had been ‘‘highly effective’’ in bringing the number of infected herds in New Zealand down from 1698 in 1998 to 26 in 2019. There were at present only three infected herds in Otago.

When contacted, Ospri southern South Island programme manager Eric Chagnon said Mr Smith’s concerns were legitimate but the overall picture had not necessarily been seen, and the effectiveness of the programme was not in jeopardy.

"People often see what’s happening at that time in their place and they don’t have the full picture really. It’s understandable to think the job is not being done completely."

The aerial 1080 method was probably the most effective method but aerial was not done every year. It was scheduled for that area in 2021. At least three years of ground control were done to make sure the population was low enough.

Support from farmers was essential for the success of the programme and he was grateful for the likes of Mr Smith, letting contractors on to their property multiple times.

"We really depend on their sacrifice and their support for the programme to be successful," he said.

The operation was not limited to farmland; work was done anywhere there was a risk. As long as there was Tb in wildlife, then there was still a risk more herds would get infected, he said.

Possums were the proven transmitter of disease between wildlife and livestock.


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