Biological Invasions

, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp 1811–1823 | Cite as

Pandora’s box down-under: origins and numbers of mustelids transported to New Zealand for biological control of rabbits

Original Paper

Abstract

This paper describes one of the world’s first large-scale experiments in biological control of a major vertebrate pest of agriculture, which was tried in New Zealand during the second half of the nineteenth century. Starting from the late 1860s, pasture damage in Southland and Otago by European rabbits was causing serious reductions in productivity of sheep (wool clip and lambing percentages) associated with malnutrition of the breeding ewes, and a consequent decline in the value of pastoral land. In response, and despite repeated local and international warnings, ferrets, stoats and weasels (Mustela furo, M. erminea and M. nivalis) were liberated on the worst of the rabbit-infested pastures. They were perceived as the ‘natural enemies of the rabbit’ but (unlike foxes) too small to threaten lambs. Over the 50 years after 1870, upwards of 75,000 ferrets, most imported from Australia or locally bred, were released in the South Island. Over the decade 1883–1892, at least 7838 stoats and weasels arrived from Britain. At least 25 shipments are known, with an average of only 10% mortality per shipment. Of the 3585 animals listed by species, 73% were weasels. The total cost of the ferret programme cannot now be estimated; that of stoats and weasels alone was at least £5441, probably twice that, or >$NZ 1–2 million in today’s money. Mustelids (and cats) killed many young rabbits, which was helpful because rates of change in rabbit populations are sensitive to variations in juvenile mortality, but in the most rabbit-prone semi-arid lands, mustelids could not remove enough rabbits to prevent the continuing damage to sheep pastures. The era of deliberate introductions of mustelids to control rabbits in New Zealand was short, expensive, and unsuccessful.

Keywords

Invasive species Biological control New Zealand history Oryctolagus cuniculus Mustela furo Mustela erminea Mustela nivalis 

Notes

Acknowledgements

This project would have been impossible without the help of many people, especially Ken Ayers, who did much of the early archive searching both in New Zealand and in UK. Librarians: Judith Holloway (Hocken), Cheryl Ward (Waikato University), Emma Knowles (Otago Early Settlers Museum), Rachael Gardner and Marion Lowman (Bodleian), and staff at the libraries of the Zoological Society of London, and Cambridge University. Archivists: Chris Meech (Waitaki District Archive), Katherine C’Ailceta, Donal Raethel, Trish McCormack (Archives NZ, Wellington), Kas McEntyre (Alexandra), Rebecca Smith, Sonya Johnson (Invercargill), Anne Maguire (Arrowtown) Fiona Passi (Auckland), many staff at National Archives (Kew), National Maritime Museum (Greenwich), Berkshire Record Office and Museum of English Rural Life (Reading). Information: David Allbones, Ken Ayers, Dawn Coburn, John Dyer, Nigel Fisher, Peter Holland, Frank Leckie, Rachel Letofsky, Fay McDonald, Tessa Mills, Maxine Moerbe, Mark and Claire Strawson, Evan Tosh. Graphics: Max Oulton, Conrad Pilditch. Hospitality: Daphne and Bill Lee (Dunedin), Anne Sudell, Jeff and Kate Booth (Wellington), Joan Moerbe née Allbones and Maxine Moerbe (Brigg), Wolfson College (Cambridge), Lauren Harrington (Oxford). Helpful comments on drafts: Ken Ayers, Tom Brooking, Peter Holland, Daphne Lee, Andrew Veale, and the Editor and two referees.

Funding

University of Waikato RTCF Grant 2016/104615. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Research Institute, School of ScienceUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand

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