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Protecting endangered gulls

Protecting endangered gulls

Environment Canterbury today reported moves to protect endangered black-billed gulls (tarāpunga) on the Ashburton River. Protection work had been ramped up following interference with the colony late last year which this week had its sequel in court.

Biodiversity Team Leader Jo Abbott welcomed the one-month jail sentence handed down to Samuel John Townhill, who pleaded guilty to Department of Conservation charges of destroying nests and disturbing a protected species when he drove into a 3000-strong colony last November.

“This behaviour was totally unacceptable,” Dr Abbott said. “Unfortunately it’s not the first time a motorist has driven on to the river bed and destroyed nests and eggs of a very vulnerable species which deserts its eggs or chicks if disturbed.”

The black-billed gull is the most threatened gull species in the world. Disturbing protected birds and destroying nests is an offence under the Wildlife Act 1953 which can result in imprisonment or a fine of $100,000.

Many organisations are working to protect these species and improve biodiversity in the Ashburton area - the Ashburton Canterbury Water Management Zone Committee, Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, the Ashburton District Council Biodiversity Action Plan Group, the Ashburton River/Hakatere Mouth Action Committee and Environment Canterbury.

“They have put a lot of work into improving the habitat and health of the river, including predator control funded by Environment Canterbury, and into raising awareness of the black-billed gull colony and lobbying for its protection,” Dr Abbott said. “We must not allow the actions of a few to spoil this work.”

A number of steps have been taken to bolster protection and enhance the gulls’ habitat. For example, the Environment Canterbury Biosecurity team undertakes pest control and river engineers blocked access to the site as a result of the vandalism. There are prominent ‘Endangered Bird’ signs at a number of locations along the river.

The Biodiversity Officer for the Ashburton Canterbury Water Management Zone Committee, Lyndsey Husband, is exploring options for two access points to the Ashburton River which were temporarily blocked during last year’s nesting season, working with river users and the local community to identify a solution which will protect nesting birds and also enable recreational use outside the nesting season. The option currently being considered is gates which would be closed when birds are nesting and open for the rest of the year.

“We also always need members of the public to keep an eye out and report to DOC or the police if they see any disturbance to the birds,” Jo Abbott said.

Environment Canterbury is continuing its support of BRaid Incorporated (Braided River Aid), an umbrella organisation set up in 2006 to protect braided river ecosystems in general and birds in particular. BRaid believes that education of and information to community groups, territorial authorities and other agencies active in braided river management are vital to the protection and recognition of braided river ecosystems. It ran a highly successful course in September 2012 and is planning another in September this year. For course information contact val.clemens@xtra.co.nz.


Black-billed gulls (not to be confused with the larger, more numerous and aggressive red-billed gulls) are classified as “Nationally endangered” and internationally as “Endangered”, making it the world’s most threatened gull species. They are braided river specialists and only nest in river beds, whereas red-billed gulls are a coastal species.

In November 2007, the Ashburton River colony was attacked by vandals who killed over 100 birds.

The Ashburton River is one of the most significant rivers for braided river birds in Canterbury. The Ashburton District Council has identified the river as an Area of Significant Nature Conservation Value in its district plan.

However, due to factors such as weed encroachment, flow changes, predation and disturbances, all bird populations have declined. Historically the Ashburton River had some of the highest counts of black-billed gulls of any braided river, but numbers have fallen substantially in recent years.

Environment Canterbury has a wide variety of responsibilities in relation to braided rivers – managing riverbeds, and water flow and allocation; flood control works; biosecurity and biodiversity pest control; encouraging sustainable management, and habitat protection and enhancement.


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