Press: Rabbit Peppers

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Press: Rabbit Peppers

Post by Mark » ... le-bunnies

Late last year, Moeraki locals said the grass in the township had been replaced by a moving carpet of rabbits — that is how bad the "plague" of the pests had become in their patch. Have some residents now resorted to magic? Hamish MacLean investigates.
It may sound like "hocus-pocus" to some, but some Moeraki residents hope the alternative pest control methods they are using will take hold soon.

After the township’s rabbit infestation made news across the country, Waitaki District Council Waihemo councillor Jan Wheeler was approached by a Coromandel man with lifelong experience in the Rudolf Steiner-inspired approach to agriculture — biodynamic agriculture.

And over the holidays a small group of Moeraki residents met the man and began biodynamic pest control, or "peppering", in the community. Peter Bacchus (77), a life member of the New Zealand Biodynamics Association, came to Moeraki in December and when the famously fertile pests were at their reproductive heights about half a dozen residents began burning rabbit skins, grinding them up and mixing the ash with crusher powder to spread about, or "pepper", the land that had become overrun by the unwanted lagomorphs. Cr Wheeler said she was "most interested" when she was approached by Mr Bacchus, but was apprehensive "the idea would be a bit pooh-poohed" if canvassed too widely, so she met a small group who donated money to pay for Mr Bacchus’ travel expenses. Unable to shoot or poison rabbits in urban areas, locals had been left waiting for the release of a new strain of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus to help control them, while the rabbits ran rampant.

And with the rabbit population problem as it was, Cr Wheeler said she had an "open mind" regarding using an alternative technique.

"This is a non-invasive thing to try and he [Mr Bacchus] has had results with it and it’s something the community could take part in," Cr Wheeler said.

"It’s very doable — it doesn’t cost anything. And if it has an effect, it could be used further."

The peppering was supposed to take about six weeks to work after application and so if it was successful Moeraki’s rabbits would start to disappear at the end of the month. Cr Wheeler was optimistic.
"I think there has been a change," she said.

"But we live in hope."

Mr Bacchus’ father went to Germany in 1933 to learn about Steiner-style organic farming techniques and in 1947 the family bought a dairy farm in Wharepoa, south of Thames, where Mr Bacchus grew up steeped in the methods. In biodynamics, rather than eradicating pests, the main idea was to create a balanced system where pests or weeds did not grow, but peppering was used as a last resort.

Near his Coromandel home he had had success controlling rabbits, rats, pukeko and possums — and when he saw Moeraki’s rabbit problem, the semi-retired, part-time biodynamics consultant said he wanted to reach out. Mr Bacchus said he did not really understand how the method worked, but it appeared the rabbits got a bit "dopey".

Instead of keeping a low profile in their burrows, in the first phase of the treatment rabbits left their burrows in droves and early on it would appear there had been a rabbit "explosion" — then the pests would disappear.

"A lot of people say it’s witchcraft and magic and all the rest of it, but basically witchcraft and magic are when you see something happening and you don’t understand why."

Mark Brady, who mows lawns in Moeraki, keeps the pepper at his place and counts himself among the township’s optimists.

"I thought it sounded a bit hocus-pocus sort of stuff — but it’s worth giving it a go."

Like Cr Wheeler, he thought there might have already been a drop in rabbit numbers on the peninsula, and even if the drop in rabbit numbers was simply a coincidence, the trial was at least "harmless to anything else".

Moeraki caretaker and groundsman Ross Kean was also optimistic this week.

"There are still plenty around, but I think there are less," he said.

"I was optimistic and certainly hoping that it was going to work — because something had to.

"Anything we could try as far as I’m concerned was a good thing. There are people who put their nose up at it, but you’ve got to try these things, don’t you?"

Moeraki farmer Doug Stalker said he was "one of the keenest advocates of giving it a chance", because as a farmer on the edge of the town he would be one of the biggest beneficiaries if rabbit numbers dropped.

And while initially he thought the treatment had an effect now he was not so sure as at this stage the rabbit population was pretty similar to what it was, he said.

"It was difficult to get a true response, because the town filled up with people for the Christmas holiday period," he said.

"That has an effect on the rabbit population — they sort of go to ground, because there’s people everywhere ... But at this stage, I am very sceptical."

Lincoln-based Landcare Research research leader Bruce Warburton said he, too, was a sceptic.

He was aware of one scientific trial of biodynamic pest control for possums but it had not been successful.

"I would like to think that I am reasonably open-minded, so if somebody can set up an experiment and apply Western science to it, and show that it works, then great. But that hasn’t been done," he said.

In November, the Otago Daily Times reported an application to import the new strain of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus, which infects only the European rabbit and no other species, had been made to the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Otago Regional Council director of environmental monitoring and operations Scott MacLean said at the time the virus, if approved, would be available by autumn and Moeraki would be a priority for its distribution.