Macquarie Island: pest free thanks to hard work and dedication
LAST week’s declaration that Macquarie Island is pest free is a testament to the hard work of many public sector workers over many years.
The project has a long history. Cats and rabbits recorded on the island in the 1800s, and rats and mice soon after. These pests caused severe problems for Macquarie’s many seabirds and their habitat. Parks and Wildlife started managing the island back in 1972. Since then teams of Parks workers have worked hard to eradicate pests on the island, rodents, cats and rabbits. The pest free status is no miracle, it’s the result of dedicated public sector workers.
We talked to two CPSU Parks and Wildlife Service Members about their time on this inhospitable island. Lionel Poole and Luke Gadd both worked on Macquarie at different times and at different capacities but towards the same goal of ridding the island of pests.
Lionel Poole’s 11 month stint on the island was back in 1999 from early January to December, when he worked in the cat eradication program. Lionel’s post was in the fifth year of the six year project targeting feral cats. The cats were nothing out of the ordinary, just “normal old moggies gone wild”, many were tabby, which was the dominant gene.
“Our main role was to get rid of the cats through a mix of leg hold traps, cage traps and spotlighting and shooting. On the island there were about 750 traps, all which needed checking every 24 hours. There were six of us doing that job.”
The project successfully whittled away the feral cat population threatened the island’s animals and environment.
“In previous years the teams got about 200-230 cats per year, in our year we found 98, and in the last few months we really struggled to find a cat. In 2000 they caught one cat, which was the last one.” That year the island was declared cat free.
Luke Gadd spent between 18 months to two years on the project over quite a few of trips.
His first five month trip was in the summer of 2004. He returned again in winter 2006 for a further nine months and on a number of other trips since then. He also helped with the aerial baiting side of the project as well as biosecurity on the ship.
For 12 months before going to the island Luke was the Assistant Project Manager working on logistics and approvals, which are crucial a project like this. “You can’t forget anything; everything has to be lined up before you go. You can’t just duck out to a hardware store if you forget something!
The difference in the environment is evident since Luke’s first trip.
“In 2004 and 2006 it was probably at the peak of the rabbit population and rabbit damage. The land was completely trashed from grazing and the impact of the rats and mice.
“My last trip down, a resupply last year, we’d had two seasons of growth after the rabbit eradication. The growth was amazing in that time, with lots of regeneration. I’d like to get back again in three to four years to see the change again.”
“During winter in 2011 my job was to lead the team that was working to minimise the impacts of the aerial baiting on the non-targeted species to reduce secondary poisoning. We were walking around collecting carcases of rabbits and burying them, taking samples from birds and reporting numbers. It was out in the field all day every day for months. It’s not the most glamorous side of the job but it was necessary. Everyone on the team was highly motivated to reduce secondary poisoning, and as you’d imagine spending day after day picking up dead rabbits, it can be psychologically tough.”
No ordinary job
Working on Macquarie Island is definitely not your average 9-5 job.
“Once they dropped you off you were there until the boat picked you up again. We worked about 28 days of the month out in the field. Our accommodation was huts and ‘googies’ out in the field for the bulk of the time.
“Once I went four weeks before going back to base and three weeks between seeing another person. I had some contact with the outside world, talking on the radio every night, but it was still hard going.”
“It was physically hard, there was a lot of walking; our knees were shattered by the time we came home from walking around on the rough terrain day after day carrying a backpack. We all lost a lot of weight. Mentally it was just as hard, being away from family.”
Even getting to the island is a slog. “Straight sailing from Hobart is two and a half days, but if you’re going on a tourist ships it can take weeks. The first time I went down we went via the Antarctic, via Casey Station. Waving off the ship when you’re on Macquarie and knowing that you’re not going to see another ship for nine months over the winter, it can be quite isolating”.
The food supply for 12 months is taken on to the island at the start of the year. “It’s all tinned and dried. After walking for hours, you really look forward to coming back and eating a big bowl of pasta or something similar. You also get very creative with your cooking down there. All the walking around means you lose weight and build up muscle. You also come back looking very pale. When you’re down there you need to take Vitamin D supplements.”
As well as helping to eradicate pests, both men worked on other projects during their time on the island.
“We helped out with some of the research projects, rabbit counts, and penguin work and flora programs. We helped with the monthly surveys, where they catalogue what’s washed up on the island and where it may have come from. It gave us a bit of variety and helped the researchers out a bit at the same time.”
Managing visitors was another part of the role on Macquarie, with Luke estimating the island sees 1000 tourists on up to 12 tourist ships a year. “The Rangers monitor the quarantine side of things, especially now there are no longer any rats or mice on the island, and also guided the tourists, answered questions and provided some interpretation on the island as well. Visits are all very tightly controlled. They also generate income for Tasmania, there’s a landing fee charge for every boat that comes to the island.”
Although beautiful and World Heritage listed, Macquarie Island is no easy environment to live and work in.
Lionel said the experience was both the hardest and best time of his life.
“The weather down there; sometimes you go weeks without seeing a crack of blue sky in the winter time. It was cold, wet and miserable.”
“On the other hand, when the sun came out and the albatrosses were around, and you had rookeries with hundreds of thousands, even millions of penguins there isn’t a better place on earth. Even though it was hard physically and mentally, it was also gobsmackingly beautiful.
“It’s very wet, there’s precipitation 320 days a year, either rain or snow. It’s extremely windy. Winter is very dark, you can hardly see to walk at 8 o’clock in the morning and at 3.30pm it’s pitch black.
Summer is the other way around, with daylight at 10 o’clock at night and then again at 4.30 in the morning.
“The island has a plateau on top, 250-300 metres above sea level, which you can only access by climbing. We were climbing up and down hills all day to get from bay to bay, with most of our traps around the coastline.”
Luke agreed the terrain was difficult, coupled with the weather and lack of tracks, safety was vital when checking for pests.
“You’re walking along and all of a sudden you fall through into water and it could be ankle or knee deep, even waist deep on occasion.
The change of seasons is dramatic. “If you’re going in the summer, you arrive in November when there are thousands of the elephant seals on the beach and weened pups; there are lots of penguin chicks just hatched and lots of albatross. This continues until about March when it starts to empty out for the winter. You really need to be there for the whole 12 months to appreciate the cycle the island goes through, both with the wildlife coming and going, the changing flora, the weather patterns and daylight hours.”
The temperature is generally about zero in the winter, with -16C the coldest Luke encountered on Macquarie. “The worst weather I experienced was in the 2011 winter. It was -10-15C and blowing about 30-40 knots. Walking along the coast about 30-40 metres inland, as the surf broke on the rocks; the spray that hit us was frozen.”
On April 8 Macquarie Island was declared pest free, news that meant a lot to Lionel, Luke and no doubt the many others who’ve worked towards restoring the island over the years.
“I feel very privileged to have been part of it, even though it was back in the earlier days. Maybe I’ve contributed something to restoring the island back to what it what it used to be – the most magical place I’ve ever been too. There’s something very special about it, it just gets into your system.
“It took a lot of hard work and very dedicated people helped achieve that and I found all the people down there were extremely dedicated to the cause.”
“It’s always a relief. I was also the project manager for the cat eradication program on Tasman Island a few years ago, so I know how big a call it is to make that you’ve got no pests left.”
Luke said dedication and motivation were the keys to working on the island. “The project manager, Keith Springer, did an amazing job. There were a lot of hurdles along the way and setbacks, and Keith really focused on the end goal, which is what was needed.
“The team on the island worked for two years without seeing a rabbit, so they were out there looking every day in bad weather and short daylight hours. Success is not finding anything, which is completely different to most other jobs, so you really needed a motivated team.”
Macquarie isn’t the only island that’s being regenerated, with others also requiring attention. Tasman Island is now cat free, and the island is pest free, with the seabird colonies recovering.
“We’ve got rabbits on a number of other islands around Tasmania, so we’re looking at using some of the dogs that were on Macquarie on those. At the moment we’ve got a project on Dart Island off Taranna, which has rabbits on it and rats. We’re looking at eradicating the rabbits this winter and then moving up to some of the other islands, like Betsey and Sloping Island, which also have rabbits on them.”
Serving the community
As well as the mammoth Macquarie Island project, Parks and Wildlife employees work in many other ways to benefit Tasmanians, visitors and our state’s beautiful environment.
Lionel’s the Ranger in Charge at the St Helens Field Centre where along with a team of 12, he looks after an area that includes Mt William National Park and Bay of Fire. Luke’s a Ranger on the Tasman Peninsula where he works with three other full time staff.
Varies are diverse for both Lionel and Luke, which is also part of the job’s appeal. At this time of the year planned fuel reduction burns are a major part of their work and the busy Easter holiday period means visitor management and maintaining camp grounds are also important. In the summer fighting fires is a priority. Track maintenance is another important, ongoing job.
The CPSU congratulates everyone who worked hard over the years on Macquarie Island – it’s an achievement worth celebrating!
Find a detailed timeline of the project here.
Photos: courtesy of Lionel Poole
Additional source: http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/