By Jessica Kany
'Tree huggers' always seemed to me a dismissive and misleading term for environmentalists. But when I tagged along on a recent Department of Conservation (DoC) rat-trap trip to Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara), I ended up not only embracing a tree, but French kissing it. That’s typical Stewart Island (Rakiura): you think you’re getting one thing, but you end up with something else more intense. Ask for an oyster and you’ll be served a sweet specimen the size of a child’s fist which you will need a knife and fork to eat. Head to the pub for a quick pint and six hours later you’re trolleyed in the courtesy car. I took the ferry down here looking to camp for a night - that trip turned into fourteen years, marrying a fisherman, and having two kids.
People often ask what I like most about the island. The answer is a splice (aptly a fisherman’s rope term): the natural wild beauty drew me; the people who live here charmed me. And what I love is the intertwine. Hunters, fishermen, marine farmers, tour operators, and environmentalists all share this space, sometimes elegantly, other times not so much. A bumper sticker on a local's wagon reads 'The only true wilderness is the space between a greenie’s ears'. But we are all greenies at heart, for to live here requires it. True ire is generally aimed at off-island DoC bureaucrats (doccies) and the conservation minister. But the local doccies are our neighbours, our mates, and rellies.
Last month DoC ranger Cherie Hemsley invited me to spend a day checking rat traps around the perimeter of Ulva Island. I know Cherie socially as a fellow mum (read: drinking inappropriate amounts of wine together at our kids’ birthday parties) but I had no grasp of how she spends her days as a ranger. “It’ll be awesome!” Cherie declared. I was a bit dubious hearing the words awesome and rat trap maintenance in the same breath, but I’d had a couple vinos and, while I doubted it would be awesome, I was hoping it would be tolerable. A few days later, on a bitingly cold July morning we donned waders and life vests and set out in a dinghy from Watercress Bay with DoC ranger Dan Lee.
We see headlines about rat incursions on Ulva; what we don’t see are the efforts behind the scenes to prevent and handle them. Keeping the wily rodents away is a massive undertaking: there are 47 coastal traps and 46 inland traps on the 270-hectare island, each checked monthly. Every three months a series of tracking tunnels are also checked and baited. And every time the rangers set out, they must do the health and safety paperwork and ensure every bit of gear has been through quarantine – that's an hour’s extra office work before a full day in the field.
If an incursion is detected, 96 additional background traps are set. It’s all go at DoC: code orange, drop what you’re doing, all hands on deck. Most island DoC employees are pulled from whatever task they’re at and sent to Ulva to assist. While finding a rat in a trap is hopefully (and usually) the beginning and end of the story, there’s always the possibility of more.
On jobbly days my thoughts on a small boat are pretty much a series of cartoon yows as the seat repeatedly kicks my ass. But on glassy calm days such as this, crossing the water of Paterson Inlet is nothing short of trippy. I think the same thing as I did on my first tour over a decade ago: is this really real? It’s a ten-minute jaunt and I try to imagine a wee rat swimming the journey. It seems an unfathomably ballsy undertaking to jump into the cold sea from Stewart Island and do a scrabbly little ratty-paddle across. And why, with all of Stewart Island to explore, risk a big swim to another island?
DoC manager Phred Dobbins answered these questions when he described seeing a rat in the water halfway to Ulva. He tried to grab it, but the rat dived under the boat, popped up again, then dived again and disappeared. And it wasn’t doing any desperate little ratty-paddle as I’d imagined. It was handling the waves just fine. Norway rats are also known as sewer rats for a reason: they are comfortable in water and capable swimmers.
It has always been the Norway rats that are caught on Ulva. On Stewart Island, rattus norvegicus compete with kiore (Pacific rats) and rattus rattus – ship rats. The latter species has the the upper paw. Shippies (there’s some rat lingo for you) are arboreal, and more aggressive than Norway rats, so they rule the roost on Stewart. It makes sense, then, that when the tempting smell of bird colonies wafts over and into a Norway rat’s sensitive snout, he might longingly look toward Ulva and the other islands of Paterson Inlet.
Dan lands the boat on a beach near Post Office Cove. After a short march into the bush we reach the DoC bio hut to pick up an extra trap in case we find one that needs replaced. Then it’s back in the boat, cruising around the coast looking for pink flags tied to branches which mark the general location of the traps. Cherie also keeps an eye on her handheld GPS to ensure they don’t miss one. Some traps mean beach landings but many others are along rocky, jagged shoreline. Cherie must perch on the bow as Dan manoeuvres through thick seaweed and around rocks, minding the surge and the tide. Waders are handy because it’s often a jump to the shore, landing waist deep in water, then finding footholds on rocks and leapfrogging to the land. Locating the trap is a climb up rocks and slippery mud, or a worm wiggle through dense bush.
For trap maintenance, Cherie carries a box of supplies, refilling her bum bag every few stops. After locating the trap, it's opened by loosening two screws at the top. Then the mechanism is tested by lowering a bit of garden hose onto the trap. Cherie has a wire brush in case anything needs a tweak and scrub. Next, she replaces the bait. The coastal baits are extra-large hunks which can last for many moons. If it’s blowing over ten knots, a trip won’t be safe, and sometimes down here it blows, and blows, and blows. The bait is a non-toxic minty green substance in a white rind. In the name of science, Cherie and I sampled some – the outer bit is tough and potato based, and the chewy interior has a peanut-buttery sweet taste. You wouldn’t serve it to Gordon Ramsey but if you’re having a Robinson Crusoe meltdown and come across these particular rat baits, it’s good to know they’re edible and not too awful.
After the bait has been sorted, it’s time to re-set the trap. Cherie let me have a go and it was one part tricky, one part physically hard and ten parts super scary, especially knowing that if you screw up you could suffer anything from a severe pinch to a humiliating trip to A&E. After setting half a dozen traps it felt a lot easier, and after a dozen I fancied myself a pro, until Cherie diplomatically suggested I stay on the boat for the next few stops so we could make it to the Snuggery before 2pm. And yes, once I remained onboard with Dan things speeded up considerably: jump, land, scramble, SNAP, and a minute later Cherie’s back resupplying for the next trap, making this pro realise I’m just slo. As the day wears on, Cherie gets hotter and sweatier from all the jumping, wading and climbing, and dinghy-boy Dan gets icier with all the sitting on a boat in the wind. Ideally, the team would swap duties during the day.
The Snuggery sounds like a cosy English pub, but is in fact a lovely wee bay in the southern belly of Ulva. You’d think after so many years of human involvement that every nook and cranny of Ulva would be named, but not so. As Dan guided us between nuggets into one magical little cove he remarked it was his favourite. The morning was heating up and silver light caught in the mist. The place smacked of faerie folk and legend. Surely it had a name. “Nope,” said Cherie. Later she confided they call it “Dan’s Cove.” Checking rat traps might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but watching Dan absorb his surroundings I started to see that in Stewart Island DoC world, Ulva rat trapping is a coveted gig.
As the day progresses I get why. Walking up a beach toward the bush, Cherie guaranteed me I’d see saddlebacks. I’d never seen one before and was excited at the prospect of catching a glimpse of such a rarity. Five minutes later I found myself literally waving them away from my face and hands as I tried to concentrate on checking the traps. The birds are fearless of humans and very curious, bouncing along the branches next to our heads and hopping onto the trap lid, their squeaky-toy calls mingling with the high notes of tomtits. Tracks of kiwi and penguins crisscross the beaches.
A few traps later, Cherie leaves me to explore a cave of archaeological significance. There is a midden, a shelf for sleeping, and evidence of cooking fires on the walls. I hunker in the back for a while, take in the view, and contemplate all the people over time who have come to Ulva for various reasons: Ancient Māori to gather food and seek shelter; early European settlers who built a post office on the north shore; present-day visitors to see rare birds, and now these rat trapping missions to preserve the island’s predator-free status.
Throughout the day I can’t help but consider the creature least welcome here: bestia non grata. The DoC trappers had to consider this creature hard: the traps are placed in particular places along the coast and gridded along carefully planned lines, because to catch a rat you have to think like a rat, anticipating how they behave and travel when they reach an island. Traps must be placed on a flat surface, which isn’t always easy in jagged coastal terrain. Wind, waves, storms and fierce tides must also be taken into account. Studies and papers have been devoted to island-invading rat behaviour. DoC ratters refer to the New Zealand ecologist Dr James Russell, who wrote his thesis on invading Norway rats on NZ islands.
Phred recalls the years spent catching live Stewart Island rats and releasing them on Ulva fitted with radio collars. The rats had to be male Norways, big enough so their testes could be detected then removed before release. When let go, the rat wouldn’t move much for the first night as he was probably feeling “a bit ouchy” after his castration. But then he'd get going; one ventured on a six-km suss-out of the island in one night.
Another rat, after making it all the way to Ulva, started hopscotching off the island via nearby rocks. “Rats are neophobic and xenophobic,” explained Phred. The hub-bub of DoC activity might have driven the rat away, as well as the fact there weren’t any female rats around.
The 47 costal traps are located on some of the smaller islands near Ulva’s shores. Genetic testing and trapping over the years has shown rats using these places as stepping stones between Stewart Island and Ulva. On Tamihau Island, off Ulva's west coast, we smell the retchy fishy funk of yellow-eyed penguin nests. At the pinnacle of another island we come upon a mystery: dozens of mussel shells strewn about and a trap tripped and knocked on its side. Cause unknown.
We carry on. Cherie checks the GPS and says we have done 24 traps. “That makes twenty-something to go,” I calculate (not a maths pro either). At any rate, it’s lunchtime. Dan takes us out into the deeper waters of the inlet and we tackle our kai. Cherie had grabbed a kina earlier and cracks it open, offering fresh roe to me which I happily accept.
We make a random trio: a former Navy bloke from southern England who used to live on a submarine. A former accountant from Whanganui. A native New Yorker who took a ferry down here 14 years ago and never left. We discuss Brexit. We talk about my lunch (another unlikely trio: raw urchin, PBJ, and leftover birthday cake). Then we fall silent and watch the fluorescent pink jellies glide beneath the boat, the shags winging overhead, the occasional fairy penguin poking its head up for a squiz and then disappearing. (Or was that a rat?)
If a rat had a bumper sticker, what would it be? 'Let’s make Ulva Island Great Again!' Actually, I imagine a rat’s motto would most likely be 'Never Underestimate Me'. Genetic testing has shown that one Ulva rat likely originated from the Neck - a strip of Stewart Island to the east - so placing traps on Pipi Rocks, halfway between, isn’t as outlandish as you’d think. Throughout the day, my respect for DoC rat people has been growing. But my feeling for the rats has a weirder graph: alongside revulsion there is also respect.
Pipi Rocks: from fishing and recreational forays into Paterson Inlet, I’d been vaguely aware of these rocks, just as any punter on a boat can see a jutting and formidable formation, all white with splattered shag poo. All anyone needs to know about such a thing is go around it and carry on; thus it has always simply been an image in my peripheral vision. Pipi Rocks is basically on the other end of the spectrum of destinations from magical misty Dan’s Cove. So when a fellow birthday party vino-skulling mum invited me to tag along for a day at her work, never in a million years did I imagine we’d be pitching up to these rocks in a dinghy through a swell, leaping from the bow like crazy cartoon rats (to catch a rat you’ve got to act like a rat!) finding a place to grip, wader boots getting an F for traction, and clambering up the shit slicked sides. Remember how I didn’t say nice things about the yellow-eyed-penguin’s scent? Well, the nests smell like Clooney’s aftershave compared to Pipi Rocks. Every step I took was a scary slide in guano, so belly down and hands out I went, pulling myself up the rocks to the top where I stood swaying in the stench while Cherie located the encrusted traps and dealt to them. I couldn’t have helped if she’d needed me. (She didn’t.)
As a familiar fishing boat steamed past, I imagined how we appeared: humans popping up on their peripheral rocks. I experienced one of those rare moments in life when you see a place through multiple sets of eyes: boats and fishermen, ancient Maori, DoC rangers, working mums, shags, rats. It’s a peek at the interstices between all the strands of rope, something shining through, hard to describe with words or put my filthy finger on but I reckon I glimpsed it from the top of Pipi Rocks. It could’ve been just the winter sunshine sending dazzles off the sea chop, or watching too many episodes of the TV series Vikings, but standing up there made me forget my worries about how I would get back down. Revulsion and anxiety were overridden by something bigger and brighter.
Maybe this jubilant high primed me for what came next. We had more traps to test and at the next one I asked if there had been a fire – the trees were pitch black. Cherie perked up, as if she’d been waiting for the question. “Oh, that’s sooty mould,” she said. She went on to explain that the mould grows on some trees, including Ulva’s manuka. She invited me to have a closer look: there were white whiskers growing from it. On the end of each whisker, a droplet. “It’s sweet,” said Cherie. “Like honey. Have a taste.”
I don’t normally just mouth random stuff in the woods. But the day had begun with the surreal crossing, and then there was the faery cove, and fairy penguins, and my weird excrement-covered exultation at the rocks, and by 3pm everything was feeling sort of loose. The branch bent at an awkward angle, so I had to step up and wrap my arms around it and cock my head and dive in, tongue probing, to get a proper taste. And it was sweet.
Cherie explained that this honeydew helped to sustain island birds such as kaka, tui and bellbirds. Honeydew, what a lovely compound word, much more appetising than non-toxic rat bait. “So this is honey?” I said, licking my lips and scanning the bark for more miniscule orbs of sweetness. Cherie replied that scale insects burrow into the black fungus on the bark of manuka trees, hoover up the tree sap, and then they excrete (yes, from their teeny tiny bums) a substance known as honeydew. To the naked eye this appears as tiny white whiskers extruding from the black bark, with a bead of dew on the end. At this point I’ve stopped looking for more honeydew and I’m watching Cherie as she finishes her spiel. “Honeydew is very nutrient-rich and the birds here love it.” She seems to be struggling to keep a straight face because not only did I snog a tree, I licked a bug’s bum. Truth: tag along with someone to their workplace and you learn new things about them. Dan likes misty coves and particular outcrops of rocks. Cherie likes to encourage punters to sample “honeydew”.
Late afternoon was upon us and I had to pick up my kids from school. Dan brought me back to Stewart Island. Ty, another DoC ranger, picked me up at the wharf. He made small talk on the way back. “So, how was rat trapping?”
At rapid speed, images zigzagged across my mind: saddleback, kina, cove, midden. I thought of the two greenies I’d spent the day with who I now saw in a new light. I thought of the poop on my hands and the bug I licked.
Burnt on my brain pan was the picture from atop Pipi Rocks, the particular viewpoint from just outside the entrance to the rat trap: Stewart Island, Ulva Island, Paterson Inlet, the glitter of light. Not bad for the final vision of any island-hopping rat whom I simultaneously respect and wish death.
How was the rat trapping?
I wipe my crusty palms on my dirty waders and turn to Ty in the truck. “It was beautiful.”
Jessica Kany was born in Manhattan and now resides on another magnificent island: Stewart Island/Rakiura, New Zealand (pop 380). Married to a local lobster fisherman and mum/mom to two boys, she keeps busy editing the Stewart Island News which she has done for the past decade. She has also authored many articles on various Stewart Island topics, and wrote the children’s book Seaberry Stomp: Charlie’s Play Date on Stewart Island. An avid runner, Jessica writes weekly tales from the trails on the FB page Rakiura Runners.