We are resilient
Letter from James
This year was as difficult as they come for Aotearoa, and at Predator Free Wellington we’ve had our fair share of challenges to overcome. Words like resilience, adversity and adapting are all well used terms to describe our collective realities at the moment. But what does dealing with adversity and continual adaptation actually mean in practical terms?
For us it has meant changing operational plans and the deployment of staff continuously - gearing people up to do one thing and changing that in an instant. It has meant dawn operations to secure storm damage, 3am shifts on traffic berms for operational teams, trying new things we never would have conceived to get the result, stop start, stop start. It has meant rolling out at pace, turfing out what isn’t working and scaling up what is. It has been hard, really hard! For us, what has been most important is never losing faith that the goal can be achieved.
Our team of thousands not only stayed with us through these unprecedented times but has continued to grow and excel. In my times of frustration it has been the incredible efforts of others that has given me the motivation and determination to keep going and that hasn’t always been easy - so thank you to all of our incredible partners, our collaborators, our volunteers and our community.
We are winning, we have successfully eradicated weasels and we have successfully eradicated Norway rats.
We are now down to the lowest levels of Ship rats ever - we are literally catering to individual preferences.
We received additional funding through Predator Free 2050 Ltd’s Jobs for Nature and our funding partners at Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council and the NEXT Foundation committed to new funding, meaning our project can continue to scale up and roll out continuously. It also means we can keep up with the need to share our learning and technical advice with other urban eradication projects getting underway.
We continue to strive (and thrive) through these tough times. We’ve had coastal storms ravaging our traps and bait stations, and our Lyall Bay community had our back when they were pulling traps out of harm’s way ahead of forecast six metre swells. Every weekend we have the incredible Miramar crew turning up without fail to do their bit, and 40 trappers from across Wellington came out to our base to build 400 odd trap boxes on possibly the worst winter weather day we had - it tells you a lot!!
I’ve never been more proud to be part of Predator Free Wellington. What we are seeing in this city and collectively across Aotearoa is a pretty impressive lesson to the world about what can be achieved if you get a critical mass of people united under a collective mission.
I hope you enjoy reading this report!
— James Willcocks, Project Director
The Miramar Peninsula project has enabled a proof of concept for an urban eradication. We now have a template that can be replicated nationally. We have successfully eradicated weasels and Norway rats and we have almost eradicated Ship rats.
Importantly, Miramar residents will tell you it’s working - you can hear and see the difference. We are not just halting decline, we are seeing the bounceback. Our native birds have increased by 33% on the peninsula and wētā numbers have doubled since we started the eradication.
Miramar Peninsula status: Eradicated
Habitat: All the weasels caught on the peninsula were found within 500m of the coast. As they prefer a mix of bush and coastal habitats, they were rarely found in urban areas. Moa Point had the highest incidence of weasel activity prior to our eradication. At the biggest weasel hotspot on the peninsula (with nine catches) a weasel den was found with the remnants of feathers and bones inside. The den was a burrow in the ground, alongside a stream and under native bush canopy.
How to eradicate weasels:
Our eradication plan involved a very intensive trapping grid of 100x100m across the peninsula and every 50mx50m around the coast line, using BT200 double set run through trap boxes.
Initially, the traps were left open and pre-fed with fresh rabbit meat. This was so the weasels could get accustomed to going in and out of the trap box for a reward. Rats were also entering the traps leaving a rat scent that attracts mustelids, so prefeeding meant we would not clog our traps up with dead rats.
Once rats number were reduced significantly as part of the wider eradication progamme, the traps in the trap boxes were activated and adjusted to be more sensitive to enable us to catch smaller weasels, particularity the females who can only reach 40 grams. Traps were then refreshed with bait weekly during the prefeeding and trapping phase.
As the graph below shows, the last weasels were trickier to catch, however, we have had no evidence of weasels since January 2021 and predator detection dogs have confirmed that no other weasels are present.
Miramar Peninsula status: Eradicated
Reinvasion: Three Norway rats tried to get back onto the Miramar Peninsular and were caught.
Eradication isn’t just about removal, it is about trying to stop pests reinvading and becoming established. To safeguard the Miramar Peninsula we installed a virtual barrier system of parallel lines of traps and bait stations at very high densities (including one line that has a trap every 10 metres) across the Rongotai Isthmus. We also increased trap densities along the coast for any potential Norway rats trying to reinvade from the coast. This network of traps have remote sensors fitted to them to automatically notify us if a trap is activated. We are also relying on the residents of Miramar Peninsular to let us know if they see anything suspicious, and we have been so lucky to have an army of eyes and ears out there to support this work.
Habitat: Norway rats flourish in urban environments, feeding on food scraps, compost and backyard garden vegetables. They are normally found by freshwater streams and coastal habitats.
In the Miramar Peninsula they were most commonly trapped along the coastline at Cobham Drive and Lyall Bay, around our buffer zone.
How to eradicate Norway rats:
In 2020, Victoria University of Wellington Master’s student Henry Mackenzie researched the nocturnal activities of different rats in Wellington. He found the average distance a single rat moved in any one night is between 0.01 ha and 0.45ha, although one Norway rat had a home range of less than 2 metres as it was always found either in or immediately next to a compost bin.
With Henry’s research in mind, we didn’t know if our eradication grid (100m x 100m traps and 50m x 50m bait stations) would work. Could a Norway rat be enticed into one of our devices if it already had a reliable food source, such as a backyard compost bin?
Similar to the method used with weasels, traps were pre-fed with fresh rabbit meat, and peanut butter was used for the bait. We also placed devices in locations near where we knew they lived, e.g. near streams and composts.
Alongside our trapping and baiting programme, we encouraged residents to rat proof their composts and we installed chew cards and wax tags to monitor for signs of rat activity.
Our virtual barrier system of traps and bait stations along the Rongotai Isthmus is also working, and we have picked up three Norway rats trying to reinvade the peninsula.
The biggest risk now is swimming rats and that is one of the reasons why we have the barrier in place. We also rely heavily on the community being vigilant for any rat activity.
Biosecurity will be ongoing, and we have a team of community volunteers who will continue regularly checking traps along the coast once the eradication is complete. Automated sensors have been installed in the traps to let us know if there has been a catch. In late 2021 we will also be trialing a new QR code system where anyone can check one of our coastal traps and scan the QR code to let us know if it’s clear or needs resetting.
Miramar Peninsula status: We are down to the lowest rat numbers ever recorded on the peninsula.
Found in: Ship rats are at highest density in areas of undisturbed, dense vegetation, particularly escarpments and weedy banks (i.e. Maupuia, Karaka Bays, Marine Parade, Beacon Hill, Breaker Bay). Cape Ivy is a particularly favoured habitat. Other popular species are taupata, karo, blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle, Elaeagnus and English Ivy. Ship rats are at lowest density in highly developed urban areas (i.e. Miramar Flats). They are tree (arboreal) and ground dwelling, and are excellent climbers, so it’s important to think of habitat in a 3D context.
How to eradicate Ship rats:
When it comes to eradicating Ship rats we have learnt a lot, and we still have a lot more to learn.
Our trapping grid (50m x 50m bait station and 100m x 100m traps) works in highly urbanised areas and we have been able to eradicate Ship rats from the majority of the Miramar Peninsula. Areas where we are still finding Ship rat activity are the steep, weedy areas that are difficult to access.
We have now switched to a habitat based approach. This means rather than expecting the rats to come to our bait stations and traps, we are taking our devices to the rats, especially where we see cape ivy.
Getting to really low rat numbers (like we are now) means the textbook for trapping rats gets thrown out, and we are literally catering to individual preferences. We are having to think like rats and trial new techniques constantly. However rats are highly neophobic - meaning they don’t like change- so this is an extra challenge to consider.
The Miramar Peninsula community continue to be a critical partner and having live intelligence of any rats sighted by the community means we can respond to rat activity quickly. Our aim is to stay ahead of their breeding as we know they breed all year.
To summarise, if you are wanting to know how to eradicate ship rats - you need dogged determination, and an army of volunteers every weekend checking devices and a community behind you. It also helps if you don’t have a global pandemic at the same time.
Problem: Initially we used long life rabbit lures, but then found research to suggest that these were not palatable for mustelids meaning they wouldn’t return for a second feed which was critical for habituation prior to making the traps live.
Description: Switched to fresh rabbit meat to pre-feed locked open traps which were re-baited every fortnight.
Learning: It took a lot of effort to keep up with the supply of fresh meat but through collaboration with Greater Wellington Regional Council we were able to do this and give the regional rabbit population a good towelling.
Outcome: Fresh rabbit used to pre-feed traps, zip tied open so the base plate behaves normally over a period of 2 months worked really well to habituate weasels before all traps were livened up simultaneously. The majority of weasels were eradicated over a period of 4 weeks.
Problem: In order to ascertain whether our team were accurately distinguishing rat bait take from mice take we developed bespoke ink tracking cards to install in bait station entrances.
Description: 10,000 pieces of card were cut with a waterproof membrane over the centre and each card was individually inked in situ so it was as fresh as possible.
Learning: Field teams were able to collate perceived rat bait take with actual footprints to calibrate their interpretation of results.
Outcome: A useful tool for us to be able to further refine our accuracy in determining and reporting rat bait take to inform operational planning. Note, this photo shows mice footprints.
Problem: Chew cards are a great tool for ease of deployment but we wanted to make sure they had the highest degree of efficacy possible. Research told us that fresh, quality peanut butter improved interaction rates.
Description: Made our own chew cards with top of the line nut butters kindly supplied by our partners at Fixx and Fogg in Wellington - thanks heaps! This guaranteed fresh chew cards.
Learning: Premium nut butters with high nut concentrations are far more aromatic and improved interaction rates.
Outcome: Continued to deploy all of our own hand filled chew cards which are proving to be a very effective detection tool in the urban context.
Problem: Hand filling chew cards at scale to get thousands of them into the field was proving to be a challenge.
Description: A fantastic retired builder and Predator Free Miramar volunteer (John Herrick) was unable to check traps because of an injury, so he offered to assist with chew cards instead. He designed a crafty chew card press capable of holding 280 chew cards at once that can be slathered with fresh nut butters direct from Fix & Fogg’s factory.
Learning: Simple but super effective way of producing fresh chew cards at scale to keep up with operational demands.
Outcome: We now have three presses and would be lost without them.
Problem: A small number of rats will not go into lethal devices, which is a problem when you’re aiming to get the population to zero.
Description: Setting traps in three sided boxes that were staked to the ground. Not having a base on the boxes provided a natural and consistent surface for rats to enter.
Learning: Created the perfect indoor/outdoor flow for trap boxes to cater for rats that wouldn’t enter traditional devices.
Outcome: Technique only used to target individual rats post knockdown phase where they are not interacting with other traps and bait stations. Haven’t fully evaluated the efficacy at this point because the sample size is so small but early camera data is showing promise.
Problem: Unable to put field teams into incredibly steep cliff terrain which is ideal rat habitat.
Description: The field team designed and built boomerang bait stations capable of keeping bait secure in the device and being lowered off the side of cliffs for later retrieval.
Learning: Getting lethal devices into all rat habitat is key to the eradication goal. We needed to trial different weighting systems to hold stations in place to provide for easy access and not put animals off.
Outcome: Evaluation is still in process, we have had some good early success in extreme terrain.
Problem: How can we re-use chew cards that have no chews once rat numbers are really low to keep costs down and minimise waste.
Description: Lined up chew cards in the filling press and used an air compressor to blow them out, ready for the next slathering in fresh peanut butter.
Learning: Proved to be a bit fiddly but the technique is constantly being refined.
Outcome: Reduced costs and the big win is from minimising waste. The idea had the benefit of re-deploying chew cards that had already been in the field meaning they were already weathered and not look or smell new to rats potentially impacting interaction rates.
Problem: How to lure a remaining rat to a camera in an area we think has been successfully eradicated.
Description: Developed a swag of reusable screw top plastic pots filled with peanut butter that have a small hole drilled in the side to slowly leach oil and peanut butter in front of a camera.
Learning: Provided a cheap longer life lure that didn’t require constant refilling and was easily deployed at scale in the field.
Outcome: Testing of these lures in areas outside of the eradication area where we knew there were still rats almost proved too successful. We had a couple of instances of rats chewing out the small holes to make them bigger and gain access to more peanut butter. A useful tool to test for proof freedom as part of a broader detection plan but not in areas with higher rat densities.
In just four years, Predator Free Miramar has grown from being a handful of keen backyard trappers to a united community of thousands who are hugely motivated to drive the last rats from the peninsula and make it a haven for native birds.
Predator Free Wellington works side by side with the community and there’s a real sense of pride among Miramartians about the local birdlife, beaches, bush and backyards – and all of the people working together to protect them.
We talked to a couple of Predator Free Miramar’s trappers to understand why they trap, and why they keep coming back week after week…
In the almost 10 years that Phil has lived in Miramar, he has seen a remarkable change.
Phil was one of the early trappers on the peninsula, joining Dan Henry and Predator Free Miramar in 2017. He has caught around 85 rats in his backyard, sometimes up to 2-3 a week in 2017 and 2018. He is also a regular volunteer with Dan’s crew on a Sunday.
Phil talks about rats being “pretty bad” pre-2017. If he went out in his yard at night and looked up in his Ngaio tree with a torch, he could see the eyes of rats in the branches reflecting back at him.
For his neighbours, the rat problem was bad enough that they moved out of their house for a few days just to get some sleep.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change. He hasn’t caught any rats in his backyard since 2019.
As a professional gardener he has worked hard to create a sanctuary or ‘tūi café’ in his backyard, planting close to 500 native plants, and encourages his customers to do the same. He’s created lots of places for insects and lizards too.
The tūi love the harakeke and the kōwhai, and his challenge now is to build up winter food, such as kohekohe.
Phil describes trapping as “addictive”. He likes being involved in something bigger than himself – with lasting effects for the environment.
“On a personal level, trapping is restorative and good for my mental health. It provides time out in the forest, with the sense of being involved in a community.”
Jonathan is another Miramar Peninsula trapper that started out with Dan Henry’s Predator Free Miramar volunteers about 3-4 years ago. He says his motivation to support the whole concept of trapping is about bringing back birdlife.
He remembers reading a book about Captain Cook, they were anchored offshore because the dawn chorus kept waking up their crew too early.
When Jonathan thinks about this, he thinks about what a mess we’ve made. “This place should be teeming with birdlife,” says Jonathan.
“When I first started out trapping, I initially thought I didn’t have rats in my property, I had wrongly assumed that because there were a lot of cats in the neighbourhood that would equate to there also not being many rats around.
“The first night I put my trap out, I heard a big bang almost immediately and wandered outside to find my first rat catch. I managed to get three rats that night. That’s when I knew we might have a problem. The trap then went quiet for a week, so I went out and bought some chew cards and put these out around my property. The next day it looked like it had been snowing in my yard, all the chew cards had been decimated by rats.
“I rang Dan Henry and got a second trap and continued to catch rats in my backyard for several months.
“It’s incredible to see the increase in the birdlife. I leave home at dawn and it’s nice to walk outside and hear the birdsong across the valley and when the kowhai are in flower to see the tūi fighting with each other for the best spots.
“Recently I stepped out on my deck and saw a kārearea in full flight chasing after a blackbird, doing exactly what it’s meant to do.
“The reptiles have also come back – we see geckos in the bushes and skinks can be seen and heard rustling under the weed mat in our garden.
“As a volunteer with the Miramar Peninsula crew I check traps regularly on a Sunday. The rat numbers are so low it would be easy to feel slightly disappointed to not find any catches - but actually if I check 30 Victor traps and there’s nothing in there, that’s a success.
“The conversation has now changed amongst the volunteers from killing rats to talking about the tūi we are seeing, and the waxeyes eating oranges from our backyards. I really enjoy the camaraderie of the volunteers. People are out there enjoying themselves, it’s good for my mental health, it’s something that gets you out - it’s removed from what you normally do, a change of scenery and a change of activity,” says Jonathan.
“There’s also pride, every rat we catch is one that is not out there breeding. That is the reason we are here to do this and one day we will catch the last rat on the peninsula.”
We are very close to nailing the last few rats on Miramar Peninsula. They’ve proved tough adversaries, but we have a motivated team and community who are not giving up any time soon. Once we’ve caught the last few rats, the price we’ll pay for being Predator Free is eternal vigilance – which means we’ll need to be constantly monitoring for reinvasion. We have to be ready to pounce at the first sign of any rat incursion.
Other ways people can help are by planting bird-friendly habitats in their backyards and by changing those old habits of throwing out bread for the birds. That bread just attracts rats and mice, so we all need to adjust our behaviour. And finally, this is not just about Miramar, but our neighbouring suburbs too. The more trapping we can get happening across the wider Wellington city, the harder it’ll be for rats to reinvade Miramar! So tell your friends!
The second phase of our eradication project involves 19 suburbs - covering the area from Kilbirnie around the south coast to Ōwhiro Bay and up through Newtown to the CBD and Wellington Harbour. It is an area that is almost twice the size of our Miramar Peninsula eradication and is home to approximately 60,000 people.
Our first challenge before we can start installing the devices on the ground is gaining permission from approximately 7,500 households to have a trap/bait station in their backyard.
On the Miramar Peninsula it took six months of face to face door knocking to get the 3,000 households we needed signed up. Unfortunately with covid impacting all of our lives, we’ve had to pivot our sign up approach and rely on online methods to support the face to face communication.
This is working, albeit a bit slower - at the time of writing this report we have 2,807 households signed up, with 4,693 to go.
We are grateful for the trust the community has had in our team. We could only launch the online campaign because residents know the eradication works and it is safe for their pets and their children.
We are also incredibly grateful for the eight volunteer trapping groups in this phase two area that together have already caught more than 20,000 pests and have a network of over 3,000 traps in backyards and reserves. Thanks to their incredible efforts we already have a community that know the benefits of predator free mahi and we can work side-by-side to ensure this project is a success.
In April, we ran our first ever #ChewCardTuesday campaign, made possible thanks to sponsorship from NZ Post to courier out 2,500 free chew cards. The reports that came back from this campaign have helped us understand potential rat hotspots in phase 2, and which areas we may need to target first.
We are feeling excited and optimistic about phase 2 - there will be some interesting challenges, including the Wellington Zoo, Government House and Wellington Regional Hospital. We’ve also added possums to the phase 2 eradication mix.
The enthusiasm to be involved has blown us away. We’re a third of the way through our target already, and now our three community outreach officers are taking a suburb by suburb approach for gaining sign ups through door knocking, starting with Hataitai and Roseneath, and then moving along to Lyall Bay, Melrose and Kilbirnie. If you haven’t signed up your house yet, please sign up online www.pfw.org.nz/island-bay-to-cbd.
I love the massive increase I’ve seen in all our native birds over the last 10 years we’ve lived in our house - kākā, kererū, tūī, pīwakawaka and kōtare. We go to sleep every night hearing the calls of the ruru and the kākā and it’s one of the best things about living in Wellington.
Wellington celebrates ten years of bird monitoring!
Every year, Wellington City Council evaluates the state and trends of birds in Wellington, and 2021 is the 10-year milestone of this monitoring programme, meaning we can now see meaningful trends across the city and in some key species.
Most meaningfully we are finding more birds, more species of birds, and bird communities that are becoming more dominated by native species.
Results from the latest report show kākā, kererū, tūī and pīwakawaka are thriving, and korimako and kākāriki are also widespread. While many Wellingtonians may not have seen the data, most know that kākā are making their presence felt all over the city, and tūī have become an everyday sight in our neighbourhoods.
But it’s not all good news with species like tīeke, toutouwai and pōpokotea still finding it challenging to establish outside the safety of the Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne’s fence, largely due to predators.
Continued trapping of pest animals can make a real difference for these species and help native bird numbers to soar even higher in the future.
Wellington trappers have caught an incredible 100,000+ pests in their backyards and reserves. They do this voluntarily, they do this because they enjoy the exercise and getting out to check a trap line, they do it for the birds, lizards and insects, and they do it to be part of something bigger than themselves.
The community is the strength of the Predator Free Wellington movement. This is a project that truly belongs to the people.
I’ve seen geckos around my house twice in recent weeks, for the first time ever. And kākā are everywhere when they were not here at all 8 years ago.
(+25,212 catches this year)
Predator Free Wellington celebrates Miramarvellous festival with Double Vision Brewery
The first #ChewCardTuesday campaign is held, encouraging residents to track rats in their backyards
Al Jazeera spends a day with Predator Free Wellington for their 101 East programme
Miramar eradication featured on TVNZ 1 news
Letter from Peter
Predator Free Wellington is not a project, it is a cause. This is part of a much broader global movement to restore our environment, to rehabilitate our biodiversity, to win back our planet. If our species is to survive on this planet, we need thousands of projects like this.
And the particular feature of Predator Free Wellington is that it is an URBAN movement, throwing up very specific challenges and opportunities. We need to learn how to achieve our predator free goals in the middle of a major city. The conviction is that we can restore biodiversity in an URBAN environment, which is a challenge full of aspiration and ambition.
We are learning lots of things as we go, and the most important thing is that this mahi can only happen as a community effort. This is not just the work of the project leaders and paid staff, but also of the thousands of volunteers and community groups that put their shoulder to the wheel every day, every weekend. In doing so, this is also a cause that builds a community and builds resilience in that community.
From my part within that community, I can see a big difference. I live on the Miramar Peninsula, where we have had a 33% increase bird life. The trappers that regularly knock on my door are great people working for a cause, and the people around me are very proud of what has been achieved so far. We now need to roll out this effort to the west and north, and give the other parts of Wellington the benefits of what has been learnt to date.
This is a tough project. These rats are very hard to eradicate, and zero is a very big number. But we are persistent and committed, and are going after every last rat, one rat at a time. We have the support of the community, local and central government, and our private sponsors. With this ongoing support we are confident that we will continue to deliver on our goals.
This whakataukī aptly describes where we are at;
Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei
Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain
(This is about aiming high, but it’s real message for me, is to be persistent and don’t let obstacles stop you.)
- Peter Chrisp, Chair, Predator Free Wellington Ltd
Fight for the Wild is a call to action for all New Zealanders. It tells how each of us holds a piece of a jigsaw, and how, if we all play our part, we might just see a wilderness saved and our Wild returned.