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Sutton Speech: National Possum Control Agencies

Sutton Speech: National Possum Control Agencies meeting, Wellington

Ladies and Gentlemen: thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.

The possum is one of the most serious pests we have in New Zealand. Ironically, it is endangered in its home country of Australia. It's an example I keep in my mind for those times when people say there is no need to carry out large-scale eradication attempts for some new invader because "it's just a minor pest in its home country". So was the possum, so was the possum.

In fact, when the possum was first introduced into New Zealand, the Crown made it a protected animal. It had that status till 1947.

It was introduced as a fur-bearing animal. Now, while it has a lovely fur, and many people make splendid products with it, this culling is not sufficient to keep it to numbers that do not damage our native forests or our native bird species, and it threatens the export potential of products such as beef, venison, and dairy products.

There has been a lot of debate lately about whether there are 70 million possums out there, or 35 million, or 50 million. I don't think it's useful to get into such debate.

Regardless of exactly how many are out there, it's too bloody many.We have evidence that they're not doing any good. Possums are a significant vector for the spread of bovine tuberculosis and this disease is a potential threat to our export products.

In New Zealand, we place a lot of stock in rules-based international trade. It's why we belong to the World Trade Organisation. Small countries such as New Zealand don't have a lot of power on the world stage and we need an enforcement body such as the WTO to make big countries obey the rules.

That doesn't stop nations trying to block our trade over obscure details on labels. If it wasn't for the badgers of Britain and their Bovine TB status, as well as our active controls on the spread of Bovine TB here, I think we would be likely to see trade barriers erected against our products because of this disease.

The Crown has learnt a lot since 1947, and now we are significant funders ? along with local authorities and industry ? of the control of possums and bovine tb.

As with anything, minimising costs is important.

These sorts of seminars are vital, in my view, as ways of transferring information and technology to ensure that the national possum control agencies continue to develop smarter, more cost effective, more efficient ways of controlling the possum threat.

The work of the National Science Strategy Committee for Possum and Bovine Tuberculosis Control is an important part of achieving your industry's goals. The NSSC draft strategy has many good ideas, and I'm sure you will be talking about some of that work during this seminar.

It is clear that poisons and traps will continue to be the main control methods for some time yet.

Innovation in poisons, their formulation and delivery systems, and in trap design, will be an important focus. It will be particularly important to continue to develop improved methods for the use of 1080 and to improve public understanding and confidence in its use.

The recent controversy around the use of 1080 disturbs me.

This poison is used the way it is because of the unique situation in New Zealand ? where our forests and native species are under attack from a voracious predator with no natural enemies. It is the safest we have ? breaking down rapidly in the environment, not accumulating in water or in the body, and particularly dangerous for possums and unfortunately dogs while at the same time not so hazardous for humans and other animals.

I would hate to lose one of the most effective pest control measures we have because of a non-scientifically-based furore.

Having said that, our current possum control systems are not perfect: there is room for further improvement.

For example: a system to help the relatively new competitive pest control industry to become more effective needs to be developed.

Better detection of Bovine TB infection in cattle and deer is an ongoing issue which needs further attention. There is also a need for more proactive surveillance and monitoring of the TB status of different areas, through methods such as wild animal surveys.

More work needs to be done to address the role of other Bovine TB vectors such as ferrets. These animals are to be banned from being kept as pets next year when the Biosecurity Amendment Act is passed. I want to see possums banned as pets as well. It seems strange to me that we spend so much money and effort on dealing to these animals, yet people can still have them at home and breed them as pets.

Significant resources and energy are being directed to deal with all these issues.

I have confidence that TB control is on a sound footing. The goal of official freedom from Bovine TB is well worth pursuing.

The main objective of the Animal Health Board's proposed amendment to the Bovine Tuberculosis Pest Management Strategy is that it now aims to "reduce the numbers of TB-infected cattle and deer herds to 0.2 per cent period prevalence by 2012-13". Maintaining that low level period prevalence for three years would allow us to claim official freedom from Bovine TB.

Other significant proposals to that strategy involve disease control measures, vector control measures, proposals on how the costs will be met, and suggestions about who should pay.

These have been subject to an independent board of enquiry, and an internal MAF report on the findings of the board of enquiry. I have just received these and am considering my response.

On another tack: within the next few weeks, MAF will be publishing a discussion document on the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee's proposal to ban certain types of leghold traps.

Earlier this year, NAWAC recommended that the Lanes-Ace or gin trap, the Victor No 1 and a half hard jaw trap, and the Victor No 3, as well as all similar traps, be banned from use. It also recommended a phase-out period, the ability to exempt some people from the ban in certain circumstances, and a ban on importing these traps be considered.

The key animal welfare concerns with these traps are the injury and distress to the animal that is trapped, the potential for it to escape while injured, and the exhaustion from lack of food and dehydration if the animals are held in the trap for a long time.

I am sure this discussion paper will generate public interest. Some of the proposals may concern you. There is sensitivity around some of the proposals because of concerns about reducing options for pest management, compliance costs, the difficulties around enforcing new trapping rules, and general animal welfare issues.

This discussion paper is not an indication of the Government's or MAF's views, and it doesn't make any decisions on the merits of the NAWAC recommendations. Rather, it is a way of finding out what the public think about these proposals.

I hope you will make submissions.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I would like to finish by congratulating you on being here. It is important that you exchange information, keep up to date with new developments, and forge partnerships with each other.

I wish you all the best for a successful seminar. I look forward to answering any questions you have.

Thank you.

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