There’s a new topic of conversation doing the rounds of the beach-side cafes and neighbourhood of Sumner in Christchurch. “It’s surprising who gets very proud of catching a dead rat,” says Gabe Ross, coordinator of Te Manu Waiata Project, otherwise known as Predator Free Sumner. “People are pretty enthusiastic, and we’ve had some very positive feedback,” he says.
Gabe is a landscape architect and has both a keen appreciation of New Zealand’s unique plant life and plenty of experience of the conflict rats and possums can cause with both our native landscapes and our urban gardens. He got involved in predator control after returning to Christchurch and finding the local rodent population just a little too close for comfort.
“I got involved in the Predator Free movement after moving back to Christchurch in 2015 and being a bit horrified at the number of rats lurking around the house we were renting at the time,” he explains. “I got involved with some trapping being done on Council reserves in the rural fringes of Sumner and we decided to apply for the Kiwibank/PFNZ Trust grant as a way to kick start a trapping programme in the residential areas.”
The application was successful, and the first traps went out to Sumner backyards in October last year.
“‘Te Manu Waiata’ or ‘The Bird Song” is the name we have adopted for the initiative to keep rodent, possums and mustelid numbers low enough to allow our native flora and fauna to thrive,” says Gabe. “Our emblem is the bellbird as there’s a decent population here and on a nice morning you can hear them singing all over the valley. We also get a lot of fantails at the heads of the valleys, but we’d like to see tui and kereru spread back to our area from Banks Peninsula.”
‘Te Manu Waiata’ project area currently runs from Redcliffs to Taylors Mistake encompasing several hillside and valley floor communitys beaches and rocky cliffs.
“There was a pretty good trap uptake with the first round of traps provided from the Kiwibank grant being snapped up within a couple of months. We’ve been lucky enough to receive a top-up of funds to support our efforts in Sumner and we’re currently in the process of obtaining and distributing more traps which should get us up to around 360 traps out in the community.”
Earthquake damaged buildings and rezoned empty sections have given Sumner pests and predators plenty of potential new habitats to expand into, undoubtedly contributing to the willingness of locals to get involved.
“There’s a lot of red zoned land around the village since the earthquake and decent populations of rodents and possums have taken advantage of the vacant land. The rocky areas along the beach are also prime habitat for rats – nothing like a rat scrurrying past your beach towel to motivate folks to start trapping,” Gabe says.
Promotional posters, mail drops in targeted areas and a Facebook page to keep the local community updated and enthused, are all techniques that have helped Gabe and his fellow volunteers build community awareness and support.
“We try to send out monthly email updates,” says Gabe. “One of the challenges we have is the time it takes to get the info out there in a way that is accessible. Not everyone uses Facebook or the internet. We’ve made a fantastic video with help from a local videographer in our community. It’s great that people our coming out of the woodwork and donating their skills.”
By November last year, community trapping was underway in earnest and reports of catches were regularly coming in.
“Catches to date are around 300 animals with over 150 rats and 37 possums, 47 hedgehogs with the balance being mice and 1 weasel,” says Gabe. “We are aiming to eventually hit a target of 1 in every 5 households actively trapping for rats. In our project area we have approximately 1600 dwellings that will require approximately an additional 300-350 rat traps to cover the residential area. We will ultimately need to extend this with supplementary traps in surrounding reserves and coastal areas, but the initial focus is on the residential areas.”
Christchurch City Council and LINZ have been planting extensive areas of native plants in the red zones and reserve areas that surround the project area which will provide great habitat for native wildlife to recolonise the area once predators are under control.
“The habitat will be there in a few years,” says Gabe. “There’s already a seagull colony at Sumner and historically there were penguins nesting in the area. Another group, the Summit Road Society is starting up a Port Hills-wide predator control project. They’re aiming to help community groups and landowners get about 3000 traps installed along the Hills that border Christchurch and will serve as an umbrella organisation helping to distribute info and equipment.”
Although sometimes time-consuming, Gabe finds coordinating Predator Free Sumner to be very rewarding.
“It has been a fun process with participants across all age groups keen to get involved,” he says. “I’ve also given advice to a Christchurch school that wanted to apply for Predator Free Schools funding and talked to a group in Cashmere about getting started – what to do and what works.”
Word is getting out there, thanks to keen community volunteers like Gabe. New dots are appearing on predator free maps and soon those dots will begin to join up – across Sumner, Christchurch and the Port Hills and likewise across New Zealand. Perhaps we’ll start to hear more about ‘the giant rat in my backyard trap’ instead of all those old fishing yarns about ‘the one that got away’.