It was 11am when the phone rang. I was on the hill servicing traps at the time. The day ahead was planned and things were ticking along nicely. That all turned to custard in one short phone call.
“Hey John, we’ve picked a mortality signal from___________. What should we do?”
That is the kind of call I dread, but one that is becoming increasingly common. When I started Backblocks a few years ago, I had a couple of predation events under my belt. Within a short space of time, I had faced and resolved several more. That trend has continued. At the time of writing, I have personally resolved 15-20 predations and incursions, plus advised and helped on a bunch of others. I am aware of six happening right now.
Finding and removing one animal in a large landscape is like playing cards. You show your cards one at a time, try with your lowest options and work progressively upwards, and never play your ace first. And at the heart of everything, you must not alert the animal to your presence and desire to remove it.
The end of the road for this ferret and a huge relief for me and so many people involved in this project.
The biggest issue in this space is that we often underestimate a predator’s will to survive – and we pay the price. We treat these animals like they’re dumb, like they want to die. We subconsciously think that even an average trap and trapping regime will be good enough. Unfortunately, that is often incorrect.
This is at the very heart of what we are facing more and more in New Zealand. The seasons seem to be changing, driving prey species and predator numbers up. Sometimes with more trapping, predators are getting wiser through bad experiences with sub-standard traps, so they’re getting harder to remove.
When a predation event occurs, I go hard and fast – but carefully and quietly. Time is of the essence. I treat predation events like a fire. I am equipped and ready to go: my base plan is already in place and my support people are trained and ready. The methods I use I have developed and honed over the years. The trick is reading the situation and being able to adapt as you go, for the fastest and best result.
Sometimes you check every trap expectantly for days … and then one morning there it is. The feeling is hard to describe.
I can’t really describe the feeling of coming around a corner and seeing an animal, that until that point has been a ghost, in front of me in a trap that I have worked hard to lure it in to. I feel a mixture of elation, sadness for the animal, sadness for the animals lost while I hunted the predator, relief, pride in a job well done, satisfaction, and so many other things.
If we are tasked with protecting vulnerable taonga somewhere, there is a high chance that a predation event could land squarely in our backyard at some point – so we need to be ready. We need to better train and equip our people to in turn, better protect our taonga.
So, what does that look like in a nutshell?
- Have a predation/incursion response plan in place.
- Have a good monitoring system running so you know as quickly as possible when it happens.
- Have your key staff trained and ready. This is the biggest one. Equip and support the right people.
- Have an expert with lots of experience in successful predation resolutions on speed dial to help direct your ground team.
- Have a small, nimble and proven advisory group ready to support that person if needed.
- Have a plan to look after your key people as they work hard. Have trained relief on standby. Health and safety, and wellbeing are both vital here.
- Leave ego and politics at the door and work as a team.
- Have a comms plan and know who needs to be informed at which stage of the predation process.
- Have budget capability to respond quickly and appropriately.
- Have your response equipment well-maintained and ready to go. Never loan it out. Look after it.
- Have any discussions that need to happen with big organisations well before a predation event occurs, so you don’t have to ask for permission and wait for responses when it does.
- Ensure that large structures and people who like lots of meetings don’t slow you down.
If you read back over these points, you will notice one thing: a predation response is mostly about equipping, supporting, and managing people. It’s also important to remember that bigger is not always better. Small, nimble, low-key, and precise is often the way to go.
Above all else, do your best to leave emotion at the door and be rational and methodical. Predation events are exhausting. But if they’re handled badly, they can be devastating for the taonga you’re protecting. In order to respond quickly and get the result you need, your team needs to work together.