By Jonathan Underhill
New Zealand spends about $100 million a year on pest control programmes. The money is spent by the Animal Health Board, regional councils, Department of Conservation, forestry companies private land owners and non-governmental conservation authorities.
And it is a profitable business. The state-owned Animal Control Products Ltd made a profit of $1.26 million in the 12 months ended June 30, well above budget and down from $1.58 million a year earlier. Sales fell to $6.29 million from $7 million in 2011, when the company made a large export sale for use on Macquarie Island.
The latest results mean the company was able to pay a final dividend of $1 million after a first-half payment of $400,000.
Opponents of aerial drops of 1080, the biggest product sold by Animal Control Products, attracts some of the most stubborn and unrepentant opponents of any issue across New Zealand’s bio-physical landscape.
There’s a genuine wail from the heart from these people at what they say is the devastation wreaked by aerial drops of a poison they claim gets eaten by rare native birds and prey animals favoured by hunters.
The product they oppose is 1080 possum and rodent pellets. This is sold in bulk 25 kg bags at home and abroad.
The Department of Conservation will tell you that despite public opposition and potential environmental effects, the aerial drops are the most effective possum control currently on the books. There’s plenty of effort going into finding alternatives but that’s a road littered with false dawns. Does anyone recall the wobbly possum?
Personally I despair at the thought of feral cats, ferrets, dogs and possums targeting the chicks of rare native birds, bringing down on New Zealand our own version of a Silent Spring. How many people have walked through a native forest silent other than the wind in the treetops or the buzzing of wasps in the beech trees?
The risk of Tb infection in cattle means possum control is a topic where farmers and townies generally align.
Animal Control lists 11 possum control products on its website and a range of other controls for rodents, birds, rabbits, deer, goats, wallabies, feral cats and mustelids. Options include double strength phosphorus paste, peanut butter feed paste, cyanide paste and Pestoff waxed possum bait.
The company comes under the ambit of the revised National Pest Management Strategy under which the Animal Health Board is aiming to eradicate Tb from wildlife across 2.5 million hectares in New Zealand.
According to Animal Control’s 2012 report, the Animal Health Board has indicated its revised strategy will include a number of operational changes, including reduced sowing rates and alternative sowing patterns. It may be that public pressure is coming to bear on these government agencies.
Chairman Derek Kirke said the company faces a number of challenges – “including a constrained market, a highly competitive export market and ongoing anti-1080 sentiment.”
The domestic market is likely to be “flat in the medium term” mainly because DOC is “managing budget constraints, re-prioritisation and restructuring which will likely constrain growth in the conservation pest control sector.”
Exports to Australia “are anticipated to show only modest growth in the face of aggressive competition from multi-national competitors.”
There’s no chance New Zealand will run out of 1080 soon. Animal Control keeps a buffer stock of four years estimated supply and as at June 30 that amounted to about 8.5 tonnes of 1080 powder, worth about $1.7 million. The amount is worked out by how long it would take to build a new plant and start producing the chemical.
I haven’t seen any projections that show possum numbers will be brought under control. DOC is a department that has shown willingness to negotiate with business to get outcomes with an eco-benefit that doesn’t stifle commerce. Even failures like Pike River Coal were held up as innovative and effective examples of accords between DOC and mining, for example.
There doesn’t seem to be any miracle solution on the horizon for possums. In the absence of a breakthrough, 1080 will continue to be the most effective weapon against the Australian pest that ravages our native forests. And it turns a profit.