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Possums are a major threat to nature, despite their cute rosebud noses. Photo/Getty

Pest Detective: Becoming a successful trapper

Rebecca Hayter turns trapper.

Some earthly pleasures are like Instant Kiwi for lifestyle-blockers: digging into the dirt to find the light-gold moon of a new potato, lifting the lid on the chook-house nesting box to find freshly laid eggs, or checking the trap to see the squished corpse of a rat – teeth bared in its final anger.

I know, sorry. I should have prefaced that with a parental warning because I set you up for bucolic poetry then slam-dunked into a grisly scene.

Despite my bravado, I don’t enjoy my pest-control duties. It’s tedious, swapping out old baits for fresh ones. It’s yucky removing the victim. It is demoralising when the trap is empty and I feel guilty when it’s full. But rats are breaking-and-entering native birds’ nests to steal eggs and chicks, and I’m on the beat.

This year we saw the biggest beech mast in more than 40 years; this refers to the amount of seeds germinating on beech trees. A high beech mast is good, because it means birds and insects have plenty to eat. But all those seeds are food for rats, too, which procreate to celebrate and enjoy a massive spike in their population. They eat birds’ eggs by the dozen. Worse, stoats eat rats, so stoats not only multiply because of the rat bounty but they eat birds, too.

I’m going into bat for the birds. It’s my way of saying thanks for the lyrical New Zealand birdsong and the opportunity to lie beneath the plum blossom as silvereye and tūī play gymnastics among the flowers. Occasionally a kererū comes in, spreading its feet as the branch bows beneath its weight. Fantails do acrobatics for insects so small I can see them only in shafts of sunlight.

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I decided not to target stoats, because they are so cunning they could stand for office, but I thought rats would be easy: bait trap, set trap, catch rat. They like to run along outer walls, so I set trap one by the tractor shed where the smell of rat pee tells me it’s Rodent Party Central. The bait was peanut butter, their favourite apparently, but it didn’t work so I tried dried cranberries. Then I read a report that found rats seek energy food, especially from fats, and prefer cheese, milk chocolate, Nutella and walnuts. The research pondered whether the government should invest in milk chocolate rather than 1080. No comment. Having an opinion on 1080 is almost as dangerous as eating it.

I set trap two near the garage where the cat does her rat work. The peanut butter and dried cranberries didn’t work there either, so I gave the rats what they steal from me anyway: sheep nuts (the kind I buy in a sack from the Rural Service Centre, that is, not the kind that grow on rams). I’ve had some success, but I doubt Rat HQ has me down as a serious risk.

My other major threat to nature is possums, which have cute rosebud noses and bright, intelligent eyes. For them, I have a guy I call Possum.

Possum is cunning as a stoat. He finds possums routes through the bush, their scratch marks in trees, their teeth marks in lemons and he can identify possum poo at 20 paces. He lures them with aniseed and flour, and sets cage traps above weka height. The end is quick: a pop of the air rifle and it’s done.

Traditionally, possum trappers skinned their catch and nailed the skins to boards to dry. Ugh. These days, Possum plucks the possum fur while the animal is still fresh. In winter, Possum can get a kilo of fur from 10 to 12 possums, but summer fur is lighter and it might take 20 possums to produce a similar weight.

Environmentally and economically, it’s a good model. The thick, soft fibres dye well in vibrant colours and are available only from New Zealand. It looks good, feels soft, helps to control possums and gives someone a job. We just need a high-priced market for rat-tail necklaces.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.