A Northland family have got the trapping bug in a bid to protect local native birdlife.
By Delwyn Dickey.

They may have trained as vets but, after working through the sharemilking system, when Kirsten and Don Watson had the chance to buy a 123-hectare dairy farm on the shores of the wild and rugged Kaipara Harbour they leapt at it.

Their three sons Riley, George and Josh have thrived there in the six years since.

The farm is on the interface between the vast expanse of water – the largest natural harbour in the southern hemisphere – and the hills of the South Kaipara Peninsula.

Josh uses meat from a rabbit shooting trip for bait in one of the traps.

Low lying, tidal wetlands and mangrove stands separate the farm from the water, with the paddocks drained by a series of ditches. Eels and whitebait abound in the Taumara Creek that runs through their place, and while there is no beach as such, being able to launch a ‘tinny’ into the creek sees them fishing and netting on the harbour.

The flats are also home to different varieties of resident and migratory shore and wetland birds, who share the paddocks with the cows. The largest number of birds in the paddocks during summer are immature and old South Island Variable Oyster Catchers – left when the main flock flew south to breed.

During winter after they have returned, around a thousand of them become part of the pasture rotation, moving into paddocks as the cows vacate them. They are joined by godwits, Caspian terns, spoonbills and others.

Permanent residents include ducks, pukeko and lots of kingfishers.

Seeing all of these birds really captured their middle son George’s imagination when they first moved on to the land.

He went along with his grandfather to a trapping workshop at Waioneke Primary School run by The Forest Bridge Trust in association with the South Kaipara Landcare Group.

There the kids were shown how to protect the local native birdlife, by trapping for stoats, weasels and the like. Eight-year-old George was hooked.

The trap he was given at the workshop was thrashed and more soon followed. His enthusiasm and perseverance made him a minor celebrity for a time with a couple of articles written about his trapping, and an appearance on iconic rural TV show Country Calendar.

Like most kids his enthusiasm has waxed and waned over the years, Kirsten says, depending on how much he’s caught recently. This saw his brothers and parents step in to fill the gaps, so that trapping and baiting – for rats – to protect the birds, is now just part of their family culture.

Being a dairy farm they’ll periodically see wild cats about, especially around the milk room looking for milk. If too many ferals start turning up they’ll borrow a live cat cage.

“We’re close to lifestyle blocks so we have to be really careful with cats. We know who the neighbours’ cats are and you can tell which are the wild ones. We caught one neighbour’s cat in the middle of our farm once, and had to drop it back off to them.”

But some wild cats can be wary of the cages.

“We’ve got one wild cat we’ve never been able to catch – he’s called Big Lion. He’s huge and has been around for a long time.

“You’re never going to catch everything, you’ve just got do your best.”

This is one of the best pieces of advice Kirsten says she can give anyone thinking of trapping on their own place.

Acknowledge you’re not going to feel really enthusiastic all the time and just make it as simple and enjoyable as you can, she says.

One of the biggest ways to keep the momentum going is to put the traps in places you drive or walk past every day.

They have about eight traps in all and five or six bait stations and put some of these along the creek on one of two 95ha runoffs next to the dairy farm. Don drives past them almost every day.

The wildlife on the farm has a much easier time of it these days with predator catches few and far between. This has seen a big increase in the numbers of ducks and pukeko on the property.

It has also seen one of their biggest hopes from the trapping in the last couple of years come to fruition this spring.

When they first moved on to the farm they’d occasionally see a large heron about – an Australasian bittern. Dan would see it more often on the 95ha runoff block – one of two connected to the farm – which has a wetland in it.

While once abundant there are now fewer than 1000 Australasian bitterns left in New Zealand and it’s rare to see more than one at a time.

Over the years another two bitterns have turned up.

Then a month ago Dan spotted a couple of rather goofy and gangly looking birds in the paddock – bittern chicks!

Thrilled, their enthusiasm is back in spades and they are determined to keep them all safe.

Although, with George and Riley both now at boarding school and only home weekends and in the holidays, Josh may have to step up more.

The flow-on effects from that original trapping workshop, organised by The Forest Bridge Trust and the South Kaipara Landcare Group have had a big impact on their family and farm, and the lives of several other families in the area who have also become regular trappers, Kirsten says.

The positive benefits for the wildlife in the area should also make it easier for more people to come on board over time and see this grass-roots farm conservation effort grow.

Forest Bridge Trust

The Forest Bridge Trust started life around the kitchen table of Kaipara beef farmers Gill and Kevin Adshead.

Long time conservationists, their predator control efforts saw kiwi released on to their farm in 2013. The vision is that the kiwi on their Kaipara Harbour farm sanctuary could eventually move safely through healthy native forest and connect with other kiwi at the mainland Sanctuary at the Tawharanui Regional Park on the Pacific Ocean.

To do this a forest bridge of fenced off bush remnants on farmland and other land holdings would be needed with predator control at its core.

This has seen them connecting willing landowners with groups interested in funding these fencing projects, showing the owners how to control predators or organising through community groups to do it for them. Educating and encouraging youngsters to get involved with pest control through school workshops and programmes is also part of the deal.