In this blog, Biosecurity for LIFE project executive Laura Bambini shares what the project saw and found out on a recent biosecurity study trip to Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf in New Zealand. In November 2022, the project visited islands and met with organisations involved in efforts to safeguard seabirds in New Zealand from the threat of invasive non-native predators and discussed awareness-raising campaigns, traps, rodenticide use, dogs, checks, signage… sounds familiar, right? We love that there is so much we can share with and learn from each other in island biosecurity, no matter where in the world we haul from.
Why we went
The idea for this trip came from conversations amongst island restoration colleagues over the years. We always seem to be drawing on examples from New Zealand, we are inspired by their successes and impressed by their robust methodologies and scientific research and innovation. Why are the Kiwis seemingly so much further along on their biosecurity journey? Are they doing things differently, or have they just been at it for longer? We were convinced there would be lessons to learn and even more inspiration to gain through a first-hand experience of biosecurity measures on seabird islands in New Zealand and from hearing first-person accounts about the work and effort involved in maintaining their islands predator-free.
Who was there and how were they chosen?
We would have loved to take everyone, but of course this wasn’t possible so we had to allocate places carefully. The participation of eight delegates (from the RSPB, National Trust, National Trust for Scotland (the Biosecurity for LIFE partnership), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Marine Scotland, and the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA)/GB Non-native species secretariat) on this trip was made possible by funding provided by the EU LIFE programme and DEFRA. We were also lucky to have two people to join us from the RSPB’s UK Overseas Territories programme, which was a great opportunity to share experiences and lessons even more widely.
As the purpose of this trip was to learn about island biosecurity, we wanted this to be an established part of the remit of the trip participants’ role. We also wanted to make sure that the participants would be able to share their learning and experience with others within their organization, and that they would be supported by their line manager in doing so. The group we put together was a mix of staff from conservation NGOs involved in biosecurity implementation on the ground and the development of new island restoration projects and initiatives across the UK [and the UKOTs], and representatives from government departments with programmes on INNS or seabird conservation, for which island biosecurity is a critical action.
Preparation for a biosecurity trip starts with… biosecurity checks, of course! The New Zealand Biosecurity Act imposes very tight restrictions and controls on what can be brought into the country, and all international passengers are advised to ensure that items of clothing and footwear are clean of seeds and soil, and that no materials of animal or plant origin are brought into the country undeclared. Our delegation was encouraged to thoroughly scrub and clean anything they wanted to bring on this trip – we were particularly concerned about the risk of transferring the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza which could be present for example in soil on the soles of footwear used on UK seabird islands where infected birds had been found that summer. These pre-departure checks and cleaning put us all in the right frame of mind and attuned to biosecurity messaging.
There was no need to be attuned, however (and to be honest, landing at 2 am after 27 hours of flights, we were starting to flag a little). Arriving in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the first thing you come across is biosecurity and it is impossible to miss it. It meets you already on the video messages on-board the flight; New Zealand treats biosecurity as if their life depends on it – “because it does”, a uniformed Ministry for Primary Industries official informs us on the video. Despite the jet lag, we were a little excited. This was already feeling different from home. Along with hundreds of others who’d landed at Auckland International Airport in the middle of the night, we waited in line to answer questions aimed at establishing what sort of a biosecurity risk each of us posed to the wildlife, economy and people of Aotearoa. We didn’t meet the biosecurity dog teams on arrival sadly, perhaps they let their sleeping dogs lie at night! Our boots and clothing in a satisfactory state of cleanliness and customs officials satisfied that we had taken our checks seriously, we were allowed in and after a few hours of sleep, embarked on a programme of island visits and meetings designed to introduce us to all aspects of biosecurity implementation on islands in the Hauraki Gulf and across New Zealand.
The first place we visited was the predator-free Rangitoto island. Rangitoto and Motutapu, which are connected by a narrow isthmus, were cleared of stoats, possums, rats and more and have, since 2011, been a wildlife sanctuary and a popular destination for day-trippers from Auckland and further afield. To get there, we boarded one of several ferries operating in the region under the Auckland Council’s Pest Free Warrant, a certification system that requires ferry operators to maintain traps onboard their vessels and request that passengers clean their footwear and check their bags before boarding. Without a Warrant, vessels aren’t permitted to land on predator-free islands.
On Rangitoto, we were shown round by Clare from the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s (DOC) biosecurity team who told us about the work that goes into making sure the island remains predator-free. The island, like all the predator-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf marine park (more than 50 of them) is protected by a network of surveillance stations and traps that will document evidence of (or, ideally, catch) any incurring mammals. These are checked monthly by DOC rangers, or more regularly if an incursion is suspected. Not only that. If an incursion is suspected, or worse, confirmed, teams across DOC are mobilized and a response is initiated without delay. Incursion responses are a planned and resourced part of the biosecurity systems in New Zealand, because many of the islands they are trying to protect from predator incursions are within swimming distance of source populations of stoats, and even rats. The cost of these is high, but the costs of not acting are deemed higher still.
What is different about New Zealand, compared to the UK, is of course the complete absence from the native fauna of predatory land mammals. The endemic flora and fauna of Aotearoa found only here are an integral part of the culture and traditions, and of great significance to the Maori. In the centuries of human settlement on these islands, the introduction of these animals has led to the extinction or near-extinction of several endemic species. This is perhaps why the Kiwis take biosecurity so seriously – they have seen what the consequences of predator invasions are.
In recent years, the Predator Free New Zealand 2050 initiative has supported community initiatives and formed partnerships to remove invasive non-native predators from increasingly challenging locations – mainland peninsulas, vast enclosures, urban areas – and invested heavily into research and development of better and more efficient tools for this work. The aim is the complete removal of rats, stoats, possums, ferrets and weasels across New Zealand, by 2050. On another island we visited, Waiheke, a stoat eradication is underway and rat eradication is planned by the Te Korowai o Waiheke – the aim is for Waiheke to become the world’s first predator-free urban island. We marveled at their ambition as we watched ferries unloading vehicles and passengers onto the island which gets more than 900,000 visitors a year. ‘How will biosecurity be managed?’, we ask the Auckland Council official we meet at one of the ferry ports on the island. “The same as now, people know what they need to do” comes the answer.
Dogs and ports
But it isn’t enough to trust that people know what to do and do it. Auckland Council have a very visible biosecurity presence at the Auckland waterfront. Biosecurity signage can be seen everywhere, and boot cleaning stations are ubiquitous. Biosecurity dog teams (consisting of a handler and a conservation detection dog trained to find unwanted species) also patrol the area and stop to have chats with passengers waiting to board the ferries. Spot checks using dogs are carried out on vehicles queuing for the car ferry, or when groups are booked to go to an island.
We had the opportunity to watch these dog teams at work, chat with the handlers and even get a cuddle with the dogs themselves! These furry biosecurity officers are great ambassadors and conversation starters (everybody seems to love a biosecurity dog!) and we learnt that the handler role is as much about having those biosecurity conversations as it is about maintaining the dog at peak performance and ensuring the checks are thorough.
The dog teams undergo extensive training and certification and are supported throughout their career by the DOC conservation dog programme who run training camps for over 100 teams operating across New Zealand. Alongside their routine work in prevention, these conservation dog teams take part in incursion responses, and are in fact the secret behind the success DOC and partners have had with removing incurring animals from islands. Using dogs, the incursion response teams are able to track down the precise location of any incurring animal which allows them to target their efforts very efficiently.
Check, clean, seal and repeat
Whilst all predator-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf benefit from through biosecurity checks and measures, there are also islands where biosecurity is taken up a notch. On these islands, the aim is to keep out a much wider range of species, and this means a wider range of checks and measures. To prevent the spread of Kauri dieback, a disease that has decimated the endemic Kauri trees of New Zealand (a stark reminder of the Ash dieback disease we have seen in the UK), and invasive skinks which lay their eggs in soil and aggregates, DOC now mandates that all vehicles, containers, equipment and personal items destined to a conservation island is cleaned and disinfected and undergoes quarantine checks at a dedicated facility. We were very excited to visit one of these and learn about the quarantine process and protocols.
A few days later, at the end of our week-long programme, I had the opportunity to experience these checks first-hand. I was watching with trepidation as a DOC quarantine officer went through my clothes (yes, including the underwear), shoes, binoculars and everything else I had carefully cleaned and disinfected in preparation for a visit to the legendary Little Barrier Island, Te Hauturu-o-Toi, where the once-thought-to-be-extinct New Zealand Storm Petrel breeds. My research permit (which one needs to visit this special place) states that I would be there to observe biosecurity protocols. Over the next few days, I go through other people’s stuff as part of on-arrival checks in another sealed room on the island itself. But first, an Iwi induction, for the island is taonga and of huge cultural significance and value to the Ngāti Manuhiri.
Tuatara and the wisdom of a ranger
On Hauturu-o-Toi I get to glimpse into what Aotearoa might have looked like before mammals took over. There are endemic birds everywhere, walking around on the lush grass and noisily flying from tree to tree, feasting on the native flowers of the Potuhukawa tree. This island is one of the few places where the endemic Tuatara is thriving – we see one on the first evening. The place is otherworldly, spellbinding. The induction has given us some understanding of its significance to the local Iwi but I think all of us can feel that the island is special.
In the evenings, as we sit on the field station’s veranda, I hear from the builders working on the island about the biosecurity checks they (quite happily) do before a stint on the island. I especially wonder how the driver of the digger, a guy everyone calls Shrek, gets on with cleaning his machine before bringing it on the island. “It’s what you do”, he shrugs, “these places are special”. A kākāriki flies by, the tūī squabble and flit about in the tree canopy above us, and the builders get excited. One of them tells us about the endemic birds that have increased on his land after he started his own predator control programme.
The next day, I sit down with the Head Ranger, Richard, and we go through their biosecurity plan, the protocols and systems in place. The surveillance network circling the island. What happens in the event of a suspected or a confirmed incursion. I’m impressed, it’s all very clearly laid out. Contemplating the effort that must go into all these checks, the staff time and expense involved, I wondered how they manage. With such a big island to look after, with such a small team, how do they find time for all this biosecurity? Richard looks at me quizzically for a moment, then, in the most unassuming way states the obvious: “Without biosecurity, this place wouldn’t be here. It’s the most important thing we do, the whole point of us being here”.
The most lasting impression we all had from New Zealand was that biosecurity is part of business-as-usual there. Checks are mandatory now, but for a long time they were only encouraged, with the help of biosecurity support systems and infrastructure that was built up over the years. Since the introduction of the New Zealand Biosecurity Act in 1993 and more recently the regional pest management plans, a strategic, government-led and targeted programme to manage invasive species has been gathering momentum across the country. The can-do attitude of the Kiwis and the threat of losing their precious and valued native wildlife must have helped to create, and now support, the impressive and comprehensive biosecurity systems we saw in operation across the Auckland region.
So, what can we learn from this, what can we try at home? Going forward, we will continue to use conservation dogs in biosecurity, and no doubt swap ideas with our New Zealand colleagues for awareness-raising and public engagement programmes. We can streamline our protocols, more in line with how they do things down under. The pest-free warrant system for vessels, which started off as a voluntary scheme and became very popular, sounds like a great idea to try for some of our special seabird islands.
But echoing in my ears are the words of the Ranger, Richard. Without biosecurity, we risk losing our seabirds. Biosecurity for seabird islands, when you think about it, is obvious. It’s just what we do.