Letter to editor, Sunday Star Times

May 3, 2012

I write to correct a number of inaccuracies in Rosemary McLeods’ article “Bird Sanctuary Needs Help”, 29 April 2012.

McLeod quotes Maggy Wassilieff, a member of Otari Wilton’s bush who, like us, staunchly opposes the Eco-City proposal. McLeod seemed unaware that Wassilieff’s constant accusations have already been patiently addressed by our guardian Colin Miskelly and founder Jim Lynch in the Dominion Post, early April.

Wassilieff’s report of 70 dead weka is, as Mark Twain put it, greatly exaggerated. We temporarily housed 48 weka from Kapiti Island in 1996 during their rat eradication, returning them in 1997. We then joined Forest & Bird’s captive breeding programme, transferring surplus offspring elsewhere and retaining just nine weka after our fence went up in 1999. These were confined to the valley’s northern end to minimise potential impacts on sensitive species; weka are known to prey on birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Weka populations suffer significant declines for various reasons. Ours bred successfully but their small number, limited genetic pool and environmental factors such as drought may have contributed to their demise 10 years later. Zealandia has translocated 17 species over the years, with weka and tomtit the only species no longer present – tomtit bred successfully but were out-competed by robin.

Another claim from Wassilieff, that fenced projects have uncertain effectiveness, was inspired by an article published in New Zealand Journal of Ecology by Canterbury Museum Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Paul Scofield. Respected scientists Bruce Burns, John Innes, and Tim Day have countered Scofields claims in an upcoming paper extending their 2011 publication “The use and potential of pest-proof fencing for ecosystem restoration and fauna reintroduction in New Zealand” which concludes “[conservation fencing] must now be considered an important component of any national conservation strategy. […] Fencing has certainly enabled rare and valued biodiversity to be much more accessible to the public and is fulfilling an important advocacy role”.

The late Sir Paul Callaghan used his last public talk to champion Zealandia and put forward an ambitious nation-wide pest-eradication challenge using techniques developed both here and elsewhere.

The resurgence in Wellington’s tūī population was another target for Wassilieff, who claimed their comeback could be due to opossum poisoning by local Council. In 1999/2000 we had to put feeders in the valley so that people could see the tūī – they were so rare. Within a very short time we took them away because there were so many. Miskelly estimated a 600% increase in 3 years of OSNZ counts – a significant increase directly attributed to the exclusion and removal of predators and competitors. Zealandia has never claimed that the tūī increase was solely due to its endeavours, but certainly the significant and rapid boost in population here allowed for expansion and dispersal into neighbouring areas benefiting from pest control.

Wassilieff fears funding for smaller projects will be “swallowed up” by Zealandia. In fact, we have cut costs back to the bone and request comparatively little from Council. As McLeod points out, the ongoing cost Council would face to manage the sanctuary if Zealandia were gone is $600,000 per year – just $100,000 less than we requested. A Council takeover and governance merger would surely be looking at more generously funded organisations to tighten their belts.

McLeod chose not to highlight our valley-only entry prices, as if our $28.50 combination pass were the only one:
Valley-only admission: $18.50 adult, $9 child, under fives free.
Furthermore she didn’t mention the best deal for locals: annual membership:
Membership: $63.50 for an adult, $101 for a family of 2 adults and up to 3 children.
These prices compare very favourably not just in global and national comparisons but also with local attraction Wellington Zoo:
Zoo admission: $20 adult, $10 child, under threes free.
Membership: $70 for an adult, $99 for a (1 child & 1 adult) family.

McLeod’s editorial was somewhat (forgive the pun) “on the fence”. If she’d given us a call we feel sure she would have landed on our side.