This past 10 months have seen 13 cats caught in live-catch traps on or beside Biodiversity Focus Areas (BFAs) in our local area. Five of these have been Domestic/Pet cats.
These areas include Karepiro Beach and the globally rare Cheneir formation at Stillwater. They are ecologically significant sites that need high management to protect these indigenous ecosystems and the species dependant on them. They provide a home for a number of endemic species and migratory wading birds.
Pāteke/Brown Teal have bred on the Stillwater Chenier in recent years. These small brown ducks are usually found behind predator-proof fences or offshore island sanctuaries, so we are very lucky to have them here. Another ground nesting bird now present in the area is the secretive banded rail or moho pererū, which is also very vulnerable to mammalian predators.
The Stillwater Chenier is also a major roost site for kūaka/bar-tailed godwit in the summer and for tōrea/pied oystercatcher in the winter. There have been about 200 kūaka at the Chenier this year.
Karepiro Beach is also an important ecological site that kūaka use in the summer and tōrea and tōrea pango/variable oystercatchers use in the winter. Tūturiwhatu and tōrea pango also breed here. The wetland/hay paddock behind the beach is also utilised by poaka/pied stilts and kōtuku ngutupapa or Royal Spoonbill.
Two of New Zealand’s endemic shorebirds – the tūturiwhatu and tōre pango have successfully bred on the Chenier in years past but have failed to breed in recent years. Sometimes they’ve laid eggs, but these nests have failed, and no young have been raised. This breeding season the pāteke pair were sitting on a nest but haven’t been seen in over two weeks. There are many possible reasons for these, but we suspect that cats may now be the major cause.
Of the 13 cats caught in the past 10 months, 8 have been feral adults and 5 have been domesticated cats, so nearly 13% of the catches so far this year has been someone’s furry family member.
Of the five domesticated cats that have been trapped, four were caught behind Karepiro Beach, and the latest one just last week at the Stillwater nesting Chenier. The very same Chenier that our pāteke and tūturiwhatu are currently trying to nest on.
Microchip registration & social media posts returned four of these to their owners, the fifth was not microchipped and the owner was not located. One of the pet cats was caught on two separate occasions behind Karepiro Beach. Of the domesticated cats whose owners were located, all of them so far have been Stillwater Residents.
If one of those Stillwater Residents lived at the Stillwater Community Hall (the closest property to the Cheniers) that’s an easy 2km stroll out to the Chenier of an evening while its human owner sleeps.
Those caught out behind Karepiro Beach would have likely travelled between 2.6 and 4 kms one way, with their owners completely oblivious to the carnage their beloved pet is causing on our native taonga & their breeding success.
This is actually nothing when you bear in mind research done with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research of cat movement in the eastern beech forests of the South Island. One cat they were tracking (whom they named the “Black Panther”) had a home range of over 23kms (1).
As to the cat caught on the Stillwater Cheneir, the owner reported it being at home the afternoon before, and not missing over the previous week (when we first noticed signs of a cat on the Chenier) meaning it has travelled out to the Chenier and back in one night, and had it not been caught, the owner would again have been completely oblivious to the native taonga their cat has been hunting.
It’s not just birds we are talking about either. All cats, regardless of whether they are feral or domestic can and do kill endemic insects including our wētā, tuna/eels, koura/native crayfish, and endemic lizards (2).
Back in 2010 the Department of Conservation reported one cat alone had killed 102 endemic pekapeka/native bat as per photo below (3). Last year scientists and a DOC advisor reported a cat regurgitation found by a dog walker in Otago contained the remains of 28 native lizards (4).
Live catch trapping requires a humongous effort on behalf of volunteers. To protect the welfare of any animal caught a volunteer must travel out and check the set cage every single day that it remains set. When a cat has been caught it must be carried back out (in the case of the Cheniers this again is a further 2km walk carrying an unhappy domesticated pet back to the carpark) where the volunteer then has a 9.5km drive to the closest Vet Clinic (thanks must go to The Vets at Animates, Stillwater) to check whether a tame one has a microchip so they can be safely returned to their owners. Then follows a further 9.5km journey home for the volunteer if they themselves are a Stillwater Resident (or in some cases a 14km journey for those volunteers that reside, for example, in Okura Village). In the case of cats caught behind Karepiro Beach it’s a 22km round trip made by our volunteers to get them to the Vet Clinic.
It’s all down to the hours of volunteer work trapping predators that makes it possible for New Zealand’s ground nesting birds to successfully rear young. It would be far easier for our volunteers (and a better use of their time) to check kill traps aimed for cats than to be checking live catch traps & trying to return pets to their owners. That time could instead be spent on killing feral predators including the possums, mustelids, hedgehog’s and rodents that predate upon our native species.
Responsible cat ownership needs to be legalised, and cat owners living so close to Biodiversity Focus Areas need to start acting responsibly yesterday, not waiting until a legalisation comes through. Cats are predators and need to be contained between dusk and dawn at an absolute minimum to protect our taonga.
With the future increase in housing coming to the area behind Karepiro Beach we are worried that this incidence of wandering pet predators will increase, and more volunteer mahi hours will have to be diverted to catching and returning pets. Even more funding will be needed for cat traps and the increasing cost of petrol as we try to return these pets to their owners.
It will be a great pity if these Biodiversity Hot Spots and prime breeding locations are abandoned by our taonga because of wandering pets, in addition to all the feral predators Aotearoa is dealing with as a nationwide problem.
Joanna Crawford, Bernard Michaux.
All avian photos by local photographer Martin Sanders.
Cat photos by volunteer trappers D Aitken & J Crawford
1. Ivor Yockney, Laura Young, Cecilia Latham. Biosecurity Bonanza: Movements of feral cats in the eastern beech forests of South Island https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tK_sPRbU6U
2. Feral cats: New Zealand animal pests and threats
3. Cat nabbed raiding the mothership: Media release 22 April 2010 (doc.govt.nz)
4. Calls for tighter cat controls after cat devours 28 native lizards | Stuff.co.nz