It was the story that circled the globe – giant rats, writhing across Titirangi. But rats were here long before it was fashionable or “newsworthy” – as were rat hunters. Don Rowe talks to Phil Brown, Auckland Council’s head of biosecurity about the realities of fighting rats in the big smoke.
Last week I journeyed west from Spinoff HQ, deep into the forested hamlet of Titrangi village in search of rodents. There I found an infestation – not of drum circles, yogis or chakra prophets, but fat, wet, Norway rats. They scuttled and scampered, twisting over one another to grasp at husks of grain left out for the village chickens. But the patchouli rats infesting Colin McCahon’s old turf aren’t the only vermin plaguing the nation. From Whangarei to Wellington, Cambridge to Christchurch, the nation is facing a mast season like we’ve never experienced. And as conservationists are warning, the warmer things get, the more mast seasons we’ll face. These would be beneficial to native birds in a better time, but every pink rat fetus squirted onto the pavement in our rapidly warming climate is another juvenile rodent thriving on the flesh of young tui, pīwakawaka and kererū.
Like any war, the council is utilising a combined arms approach, poisoning and trapping vermin in their thousands. More than $30m has been set aside to deal with the ecological fallout of this, one of our hugest mast seasons, but a scorched earth strategy remains both impractical and politically unpalatable, with household pets and natives too vulnerable.
I spoke to Phil Brown, Auckland Council’s head of biodiversity, about the reality of the front line of pest control this mast season.
Phil, what’s the latest on the plague? How bad are things on the ground?
We’re growing our biosecurity team as fast as possible, but a lot of the talk at the moment is how do we also grow our biosecurity programme so that more Aucklanders can do a better job of protecting our wildlife from rats. That capability is what I’m focusing on, but our teams are out there dealing with the rat issue, which is obviously pretty bad.
Recently my in-laws bought a house that’s a bit rural and the rats were so big and numerous that they were creating paths across the lawn so you could see during the day where they’d been running at night. The first night I went out I was going to be the big man and get in amongst these rats, but they were climbing out of every hole and on every tree and I had to go back inside to get my dog to come back out again because the rats were so big I was slightly worried for my safety. I don’t know if it’s quite got to that stage in Titirangi but it sounds like people are concerned that’s the way it’s heading.
What about in the CBD? It’s more bush out there in Titirangi, but what’s happening in the city?
I think every autumn we get a big boost in rat numbers, because it’s the end of the breeding season and there’s a lot of food around in autumn, and then as we get into the later end of the season and it gets cold then they start getting back into places where people see them. And so in the city people will probably notice at this time of year more rats around. Not that they’re rampaging down Queen Street or anything. Not yet anyway.
You might spot them in greater numbers in some places but they’re not affected by the abundance of the wild food like they are in Titirangi, where there’s also these people feeding the chickens. Obviously we’re encouraging people to make sure they’ve got their control in place, both because it stops the nuisance problem of the rats but it can also really protect our wildlife as we come into spring again, because if there are less rats around it protects the new eggs in their nests.
What methods are being utilised by the council when you’re called in to deal with a rat problem?
We have a whole big menu of options and so we’re always trying to use the most effective option for the site. We have to make sure that it’s humane and that it’s safe for people and any other non-targets. It’s always dependent on the location of course – I have three traps in my backyard that I can handle no problem, but if you’re doing the entire Waitakere Ranges where you need 300,000 traps it’s a bit more of an ask.
We’ve been using 1080 in the Hunua Ranges and it’s super effective in those large wild areas but it’s clearly not suitable for Titirangi or downtown in Queen Street.
There were concerns from some people that the rats were in fact a conspiracy theory to encourage the use of 1080 – was that ever even on the table?
It just couldn’t happen. We have very tight controls in New Zealand over how 1080 is used. It’s a very effective toxin, and clearly there’s a lot of concern about it, but used properly it’s completely safe. That means keeping it away from houses so we have an exclusion zone of something like 200m from houses – in the Hunua Ranges any house that’s up in the bush we had to fly right around it. It’s just not possible to use it in a place like Titirangi.
People were talking about these rats being as big as cats and then the next person said they’re as big as small dogs. What are some of the bigger rats that you’ve encountered?
Well, there are two types of rats that you will see around Auckland. There are the ship rats which have a really long tail and people sometimes think that they’re big because they can see this really long tail as well as the rat, but the ones that get bigger in the body are the Norway rats. I’ve seen some pretty big Norway rats, but they’re not as big as a cat. When they’re getting into that kitten size though they are pretty scary. Those are the sort of rats I’ve seen. They’re much chunkier and they can be quite intimidating if you’re not used to seeing them.
You don’t want to see a plague of them running at you and leaping like they’re going to take you down. I know the feeling and it’s not nice, but it’s not usually the case. Usually they’ll run away. But sometimes they’re not so shy.
Have you had staff request to not be put on the rat round? What is the attitude at the coal face?
We’ve got some good, tough staff and fantastic contractors that like a challenge and yeah, sometimes the work that we do… But we’ve got all the traps and so on out and there’s a large number of rats, so it can actually be quite satisfying to get rid of them. You can really see the impact of your work. We’ve got guys out there now and you know, good luck to them. They’re are chomping at the bit.