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The lady and the trap

Image of the July 2022 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
July 2022 Issue

Around the Central Plateau, women are leading conservation groups to restore native wildlife. By Michelle Campbell

My trap line is one of many around Ohinetonga Scenic Reserve which borders Tongariro Forest Park and with clear blue skies, today was a perfect day to check it. 

I smiled as I slid a once-beloved pair of BBQ tongs into my backpack. After a year with my local conservation group, Owhango Alive, my kitchen utensils have taken on an all-new purpose. Together my trusty tongs and I have cleared out the remains of unlucky rats, the occasional stoat and the springtime rabbit. 

Alongside the tongs I have found a cast-iron stomach to be essential, particularly in the summer months when much of the traps’ kill becomes fodder for maggots. The thought of clearing predator traps may have some rethinking their lunch, yet I have discovered something deeply satisfying about this mahi. My Wellington friend Kimberlee decided to join me but I wondered if she would soon regret that decision – our first task required crawling under a live electric fence while carefully avoiding dung heaps courtesy of the local cattle. The trap line is set along a farm boundary which borders the Whakapapa River. Paradise ducks honked in our direction and a toutouwai stood guard at the first trap, bounding around and begging us for some scuff marks. 

Kimberlee took charge of drill duty – unscrewing the trap lid before taking a step back and turning her head in apprehension. It was empty. I cleared it of mouldy dried rabbit and rotten eggs and replaced the mouse snatched lure – a new mayonnaise-based product we have been trialling aptly named eggscellent. We checked all traps but all 15 were empty. There is debate in conservation circles as to whether this is a good or bad thing. Have predator populations simply decreased, or are they eluding the traps? Kimberlee just seemed happy that I didn’t get a chance to flex my BBQ tongs. 

We meandered through the bush in the hope of spotting some whio; Whakapapa River’s pristine waters are a favourite base for the bird. On the waters edge, we could just make out a white speck before some movement. A whio pair suddenly took flight, a blur of midnight blue before they disappeared down river. 

Colette Taylor and Shirley Potter check a trapline for Project Tongariro

I had also recently joined Project Tongariro volunteers Shirley Potter and Collette Taylor near Opotaka Pā for a few hours to clear one of their lines around the Central Plateau. Shirley has been with Project Tongariro for nearly 13 years. It all started when she noticed the walnuts on her property being pilfered by one of Aotearoa’s most problematic pests. Over the years she has dealt to nearly 3000 possum but has ensured that the resource is not wasted. She learnt how to make fur pelts and had the skins tanned to make cushions. Her passion for conservation grew from there.

“One day I was watching this beautiful pīwakawaka nest and three tiny pīwakawaka appeared. They weren’t ready to fledge but the next day they were gone,” Shirley says. “That’s when I knew my work had to extend beyond possums. I went to DOC knowing I had to start tar-geting rats and other pests.”

In the surrounding area of Opotaka Pā, including Rotopounamu and Pīhanga, over 250 DOC 200 traps have been put in place by Project Tongariro to target possums, stoats, weasels, ferrets, rats and cats. Over the years, this has extended to weed control and as soon as we left our cars Shirley and Collette shook their heads at the amount of heather on the roadside.

Once on the old surveyor road, they had their tools at the ready, clearing our path. I followed behind. They kept thwack, thwack, thwacking for an hour as we replaced a couple of stolen traps and partially cleared what is known as the ‘Six hour line’. The lure of choice resided in a bag labelled ‘rabbit spare parts’.

“They love it,” Shirley assured me. “Fresh rabbit is great but I also recommend rubbing the bum of any freshly caught stoat around the trap. Gets ‘em all.”

I found this tidbit very interesting and quite specific, and immediately began to rethink the eggscellent.

I asked Collete what she enjoyed most about trapping and a broad smile spread across her face.

“It’s hard to explain, it’s very grounding being out here and somewhat spiritual,” she said. “It helps me feel connected. You could be having a real bad day and then you come out here and everything melts away.”

How did she begin? “Shirley infected me!” she joked. Collette is, of course, talking about the trapping bug and I understood.

Since starting Owhango Alive, Sally Lashmar has noticed an abundance of birdlife

There is something infectious about the very nature of a conservation group. I’d not seen such fever pitch until I joined Owhango Alive after a recent ferret incursion. New trap lines were installed, people were on watch, captured ferrets were couriered off to Zealandia for necropsy. The group was in a frenzy and at the helm was Sally Lashmar, who started Owhango Alive in 2011 with fellow local Tania Dewitt. Since then the group has grown to over 30 volunteers who contribute to conservation work in Ohinetonga Scenic Reserve. Owhango Alive manages 17 trap lines and holds several community events each year including conservation talks, native tree planting, noxious weed clearing and an annual World Rivers Day celebration.

And it all grew from humble beginnings.

“I think the locals thought we were crazy greenies,” Sally says with a laugh. But Sally’s passion and commitment to conservation work remained steadfast despite her initial efforts being met with scepticism.

“It wasn’t easy trying to convince people that we were doing the right thing back then,” she said.

But with a current trap record of 6300 predators including rodents, mustelids and possums the group has ensured that Owhango is not merely ‘Alive’ but thriving. Ohinetonga Scenic Reserve is now home to a plethora of native flora and fauna which includes a healthy population of whio and colonies of pekapeka. Occasionally in spring, there have been sightings of the elusive pipiwharauroa/shining cuckoo.

“I’ve noticed it first hand,” said Sally. “The volume of bird life, the song. Compared to when we first started it’s amazing to see the growth and the abundance.”

And as Kimberlee and I made our way home through the lush canopy of ancient tawa and tōtara after an afternoon of trapping, we sensed the abundance that Sally speaks of – four juvenile kererū thrashed their wings as we spooked them from a nearby karamu tree, a humble reminder of why my BBQ tongs no longer turn corn cobs over summer; these days they have a much greater purpose.