ACT Party Environmental Policy – Right Idea, With Some Tweaks

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

Over the weekend David Seymour released a flagship ACT environmental policy – to sell Landcorp in order to build predator free sanctuaries. His ultimate aim is to ‘bring back the birdsong’ – restore the dawn chorus to what Cook intended. The ACT party may drag their feet when it comes to action on climate change but as far as Predator Free New Zealand goes this policy puts them way out in front. Seymour is barking up the right tree – although fenced sanctuaries may not always be the best way to spend the money.

Selling Landcorp

We have commented before that Landcorp shouldn’t exist. There is simply no rationale for the government to be involved with farming on this scale. Given the value of the land, and the fact they are projected to make a loss this year, the government could almost certainly get better value by selling Landcorp and putting the money elsewhere.

In the past few years Landcorp have also been involved with some of the largest conversions of forestry to pasture our country has seen, which has and will continue to have many negative impacts on the environment. These conversions have taken advantage of the crash in the price of carbon – thanks to a glut of fraudulent foreign carbon credits – to cut down tens of thousands of hectares of forest, vastly increasing the country’s emissions. Meanwhile the added cattle on the land will end up polluting the Waikato River for decades to come. This places the Crown in further breach of its Treaty promise to Tainui that the Waikato River would be made swimmable.

Landcorp have seen the error of their ways and are trying to make amends. They have set up an environmental panel, involving people such as farming expert Alison Dewes and scientist Mike Joy. They have also pledged to become carbon neutral within a decade.

While it is nice to see them turn over a new leaf, it doesn’t change the fact that there is no reason for the government to own Landcorp. There are plenty of excellent farmers out there in the private sector providing environmental leadership. While it is nice that Landcorp are now in that group too, that is no reason for public ownership.

Predator Free NZ is the right goal

If we did sell Landcorp, how should we use the money? David Seymour has proposed putting that money into predator free sanctuaries around the country. His intent is right, but fences may not be the best way to spend the money.

Our native species are in trouble. New Zealand has the highest percentage of endangered species in the world. According to our Threat Classification List we have 985 threatened species, and another 2772 at risk. In short, we have given our native flora and fauna a hammering. Given that tourism is now our biggest earner, it is long overdue to invest in this asset.

There is no doubt that eradicating predators carries the best value for money in the conservation space. Our native flora and fauna will flourish as long as we take out invasive mammal predators. That is what makes New Zealand unique – here conservation is actually about killing. This was one of the findings of the Our Far South expedition, which spawned the Million Dollar Mouse campaign to eradicate mice from the Antipodes Islands – that eradication will take place this year. This finding was also behind the Morgan Foundation’s funding of Predator Free New Zealand, which aims to rid our fair land of rats, mustelids (e.g. stoats) and possums.

Fenced sanctuaries not always the answer

Predator free sanctuaries such as Zealandia (Wellington), Maungatautari (Waikato) and Orokonui (Dunedin) have proven very popular. There are new ones popping up around the country all the time – such as the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary currently being built in Nelson. The big advantage of these sanctuaries is that they can bring back the wildlife to our main centres, and get people involved in conservation. You are now more likely to see native birds on a walk in Wellington than in some parts of the Tararua ranges or Westland’s National Parks.

However, the fences involved in making these sanctuaries are very expensive to build and maintain over time. They are not foolproof as they can be breached by smart critters around the ends or when a tree comes down in a storm – in short there no such thing as a predator ‘proof’ fence. And when they do regenerate the wildlife, those birds are still not safe beyond the fence – that is an issue Wellington faces with the small birds that fly out of Zealandia.


Depending on what we are trying to achieve, better value for money can be found elsewhere. The intensive use of traps and bait stations can produce good results without a fence, but this approach requires ongoing work to keep the predator numbers down. Trapping may not get rid of all the predators, but keeps numbers low enough for the wildlife to flourish.

This approach works well close in populated areas where there are a ready supply of volunteers to do the trapping – such as Auckland’s Ark in the Park. It should be relatively easy to suppress predators in urban centres if we can create a culture of trapping – that was the rationale behind the Morgan Foundation’s Enhancing the Halo programme in Wellington. Meanwhile in remote areas where there aren’t volunteers available, 1080 drops every few years can keep the predator populations suppressed.

Predator free islands

Ongoing trapping isn’t perfect – the ultimate goal is to make entire islands and peninsulas (and eventually the whole country) predator free. In other words, remove predators permanently from islands and make sure they don’t come back.

While predator free sanctuaries are great ways to engage the public, the bang for our conservation buck is so much greater when eradicating whole islands as there is no need to build a fence. Peninsulas can be great too as they are on the mainland and only require a small fence. The first cab off the rank after the Antipodes has to be the Auckland Islands. So take note Mr Seymour, and add that to your list.

After that, we’d of course love to see a Predator Free Rakiura, developing the technology to step towards a Predator Free New Zealand. Part of this challenge will be developing the technology to keep predators out of an area without a fence, which is the challenge facing the clever team at Zero Invasive Predators, another project  the Morgan Foundation is supporting.

In short, if we take action we can save our native species. David Seymour’s ideas are a welcome addition to the mix.

ACT Party Environmental Policy – Right Idea, With Some Tweaks was last modified: February 28th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.