Wiping out rats and other pests from Cooks Beach

19 Oct 2021

Wiping out rats and other pests from Cooks Beach

The Purangi Conservation Trust’s only paid worker, Laura Barton, dreams of wiping out rats and other pests from Cooks Beach and further afield in order to allow the area’s birdlife to flourish again.

In the brief three years since the trust was formed in 2018, its aims have struck a chord with locals who are described as passionate in wanting rid of the vermin, re-establish wildlife and re-generating native bush.

So far, 500 rat traps have been set in and around Cooks Beach and in the year to date around 1,000 rats have gone to meet their maker, courtesy of around 50 volunteer rat-trappers. But, as far as Laura is concerned, that is not enough. “My dream would be to see every household in Cooks Beach with at least one trap,” she said. “Our ambition is to completely eradicate pests that destroy our birdlife and other endangered species, alongside [the government’s] Predator-Free NZ 2050 programme. If we could get everyone in Cooks Beach to have a trap, the area would be well under control.”

The Purangi Conservation Trust was formed by Cooks Beach geologist and environmental and water resources engineer, Bruce Smith, along with Nick Goldwater, who is an experienced ecologist, Scott Yates, a very motivated part-time resident, Rose Morcom, who handles all funding and media requirements, and Dave Campbell, their treasurer. “Bruce noticed a lack of birdlife, so he started to look after his own area up the back of Cooks Beach, trapping and planting, and then found that Tui and other birds were coming back,” Laura said. “Now we have 500 traps throughout the area, with more going in all the time, from Ferry Landing to Flaxmill, Cooks Beach, behind the town and up the Purangi River.

“Birds started coming back to different parts of the area because there were fewer pests. That gained further momentum and local people started volunteering and making donations because they could see the results and jumped on board.”

But despite the relative success, Laura said that the 1,000 rats trapped so far this year could be improved upon. “It has been very successful and we want to build on that success, so we are probably going to expand the area,” she said. “There are a few people from Hot Water Beach who are interested, and up the Whitianga River is very important too.”

Unfortunately, this year the trust did not receive a grant from Waikato Regional Council so has had to rely on donations from the public, especially as it wants to virtually double Laura’s part-time hours from 16 to 30 per week. “The locals are very generous, either donating their time in trapping and planting, or making donations of money,” Laura said. “We have had donations from $100 and even a couple of donations of $5,000. People are generally very passionate.”

Other people donated plants, including Graeme Windross of Zealandia Nurseries who gifted thousands of native trees and shrubs to improve biodiversity and provide trees for native birdlife to feed on. At the same time, Laura said, they were removing pest species of plants such as asparagus fern, privet and wilding pines to allow indigenous trees to flourish.

Recently, the trust’s newsletter suggested having a rat-catching competition and a number of volunteers have been photographed holding up dead rats like trophies. “It is a bit hard, because you can really upset people with the notion of killing, but it’s for a good cause,” Laura said. “We are still thinking, possibly, to make it a sort of competition like a fishing tournament. I would love for someone to sponsor a rat-catching competition.

Catching rats, possums, ferrets, stoats and weasels became almost obsessive, and some of the volunteers got really excited about the different models of rat traps available. “It almost becomes a fever, they are very passionate about them,” Laura said.

During the most recent Covid-19 lockdown, some volunteers used their spare time to manufacture new rat traps, one man notching up 50 of them.

For Laura herself, Covid meant her closing down her Ferry Landing Store business - which sold snacks, coffee, pies and ice creams - due to a lack of tourists. “Then this opportunity presented itself and I have thrown myself into it whole-heartedly,” she said.

Laura said that when growing up she often used to come to Cooks Beach where her grandfather used to tell her that when Captain Cook arrived, he could hear the birdsong from 6km out at sea, but those songs had been silenced over the years. “It would be way too ambitious to hope that it would be like that again, half of those birds are probably extinct,” she said. “We are trapping pests, regenerating the bush and just doing what we can.”