Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who Flung Dung

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New Zealand has every reason to be proud in its “Clean Green” reputation abroad. The rural sector has however, not such a good reputation at home when it comes to water quality. There is increasing evidence that animal waste, from the rapidly rising numbers of dairy farms, is putting pressure on the quality of our air and water supplies.

A lot of research effort is being directed to this problem and a recent proposal to try a very “clean green” solution is gaining government support. A grant of $400,000 from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) Sustainable Farming Fund is being used to investigate the impact of introducing Dung Beetles to clean up animal wastes.

In many countries, generations of Dung Beetles have been munching their way through cowpats for thousands of years. They are seen to be to be an effective way to remove animal wastes from the countryside and might be able to reduce the 80% loss of nitrogen on New Zealand farms down to 10%. Another useful plus will also be the reduction of drenching required to cope with flies and parasites.

Choosing the right species will be a complex and time consuming process and the MAF grant will last for three years. Performance will not be the only factor to be taken into account. Prospective Dung Beetles will have to satisfy the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) that there will be minimal detrimental effects on New Zealand’s ecology.

Dung Beetles can be usefully classified into three groups: tunnellers, rollers and dwellers. Tunnellers obviously bury their precious booty underground and lay their eggs there. Rollers make dung balls, move them somewhere else and stay to guard their young from rivals and predators. Dwellers like to stay at home where the food is and some species have been seen to use polarized light to navigate around the pasture.

We could soon be seeing some very interesting beetles in our gardens after they are released into the Rodney District. Some Dung Beetles are very colourful and others, like Rhinoceros Beetles, are particularly horny. Local craftspeople might even be inspired by them to try new designs. The Ancient Egyptians revered Scarab (Dung) Beetles as symbols of resurrection, which is why these beetles appeared on their beautiful jewelry.

Most Dung Beetles go after herbivore waste but a few have got adventurous enough to get a taste for primate and human dung. Who knows, farmers near tourist localities might one day be able to employ some of these Dung Beetles to clean up the stuff that freedom campers leave behind.

Research scientist Hugh Gourlay has been reported to say that Dung Beetles will bring, “One of the biggest changes to our farm management since we first imported cows into this country.” If he is right, then hopefully it will no longer be necessary to ask ‘who flung dung’ into our waterways and we will keep our environmentally friendly reputation that gives farmers a price premium in world markets.

A Stunning New Trap

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Anyone driving along New Zealand roads at night is sure to notice that we share this district with thousands of possums. They might look cute, but they ravage our orchards, gardens and the wildlife in our few remaining native forests. They also spread diseases like Tb to farms and so a lot of effort is going in to get rid of them - or at least control their numbers to tolerable levels.

The Department of Conservation has been using a poison commonly known as 1080 very effectively, but its use has provoked negative criticism from environmentalists. Research to find alternatives has been going on for some years and the Government has recently funded a $4 million trial to test some promising new traps.

These have been designed by a new Wellington company called “goodnature” and manufactured in Napier. The traps are quite different from the ones now in service and introduce some interesting innovations. They kill the target animal rapidly and can automatically reload up to twelve times. Traps currently being used have to be manually reset and therefore require more field workers to maintain pest eradication projects.

The target animal is attracted to a feeding compartment and then a compressed Co2 gas canister drives a rod that delivers an instantly lethal blow to the head. The dead animal falls away and the trap then reloads and waits for the next encounter. Like bait stations, they are attached to tree trunks and this should minimize the unintentional dispatching of cats etc.

Commercial trappers might find them useful too. I can see that it would be very feasible to locate the traps using GPS co-ordinates and then tally the kills on a hand held receiver. The current trials are focused on stoats and possums, however the very effective basic design will be adapted to other pests like weasels, ferrets, rats and rabbits.

The ‘goodnature’ company has three partners: Craig Bond, Robert Greig and Stu Barr. They met while studying industrial design at Victoria University and came together some time later with the intention to set up a company that focused on good ethical and environmental standards.

The ‘goodnatured’ trio are proud that their possum traps have achieved an A Class kill that conforms to the New Zealand National Animal Environmental Committee’s guidelines. In a phone interview with me, Robert Greig, described ‘goodnature’s approach as “holistic and environmentally friendly”. Their products aim to not only complies with a customer’s functional needs, but also must comply with goodnature’s ethical standards.

If all goes well, we will be able to see one of the first trials of ‘goodnature’ traps taking place in Trounson Kauri Park, Bushy Park (Whanganui), Te Urewera and Nelson lakes.

The future looks good for this new eco-friendly company that is determined to create a high quality design and build operation in New Zealand. For more information visit their website at http://www.goodnature.co.nz/ and see videos of the traps in action.