Wed, May 1, 2024 12:45 PM

Echoes of conservation


Tessa Jaine

Justin Eade delves deeper into the intricacies of the Te Hoiere Bat Recovery Project, uncovering the stories of individuals like Monique Day, Nick Eade, and Clare O'Rourke, who each play a crucial role in this ongoing conservation project. Through their tireless efforts, they not only protect a species on the brink but also nurture a deeper connection between humanity and the natural world.

In the quiet corners of Marlborough and Nelson, a dedicated group of volunteers has been working on a crucial conservation effort: Te Hoiere Bat Recovery Project. Amidst the lush landscapes of Pelorus and Rai Valley, these passionate individuals have been diligently monitoring and safeguarding the dwindling populations of long-tailed bats, also known as pekapeka-tou-roa. Once abundant across New Zealand, these native land mammals are now ‘nationally critical’ (the highest threat level), making the preservation of their habitats a matter of urgent importance.

To the general public, bats can seem scary and unattractive, but to those who work with them regularly, they are amazing and mysterious creatures. With their funny little faces, puggish nose, tiny round eyes, and big ears, the volunteers consider them things of wonder, not ugliness. They even say they have ‘super powers’, weighing only 10 grams but capable of flying at 60kph, and using echo-location to "see" the environment around them.

Supported by Ngāti Kuia, the funding for the project is directed through Forest and Bird, and comes from the Marlborough District Council, Jobs for Nature, Transpower, and Lotteries. The project encompasses three main components: trapping to control predator numbers, monitoring bat populations, and habitat restoration. Over the years, this endeavour has brought together communities, families, and individuals, all driven by a shared commitment to safeguarding their natural heritage.

A bat with an aluminium band on its forearm to identify it.

Nick Eade - Bat Monitoring

Monitoring of the bat population uses the well-established “mark and recapture” method and has been ongoing for the last six summer seasons. Bats are caught and banded at both Pelorus and Carluke reserves, and over 100 known roost trees have been identified, but there are more to be found. The sixth monitoring season has just been completed.

Nick Eade, from Linkwater, is a bat monitoring team member and volunteer trapper. She grew up in Nelson but has lived in the Pelorus catchment area on and off since she was 20. Family going back six generations also lived in the area, and she loves the combination of forest, rivers, and coastal areas. For her, trapping involves a half-day per month at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, doing the M line in the forest, off-track, near the second waterfall.

Bat monitoring, however, entails an intense six-week period over January and February, working in small teams of two or three people. “We’ve been monitoring the bats for six seasons since 2019, and I have been involved in all of these, the first three as a volunteer and the last three employed as a contractor to Forest and Bird, who oversee the project,” Nick says.

She emphasises that because long-tail bats are classified as an endangered species, they can only be captured and handled by certified individuals under a permit issued by the Department of Conservation. The Pelorus bat monitoring project was initially led by Dr Gillian Dennis and more recently by Grant Maslowski.

Working with bats requires adopting their nocturnal habits, with lots of late nights, early mornings, and sleeping through the day. Nick explains, “Firstly we catch individual bats in free standing harp traps, and then we put tiny radio transmitters on suitable bats which allows us to track them to the trees that they are roosting in during the day. If we can identify a suitable tree, we then put up a trap high in the tree over their roost hole using a slingshot and a system of ropes and pulleys. We then have a good chance of catching a good sized group of bats at night when they emerge.”

A roost trap assembled high in a tree at Ronga Reserve to collect bats.

They lower the trap at about 10pm, then carefully process each bat, measuring and weighing them, determining sex and age, and putting a tiny, numbered aluminium band on their forearm so they can identify each bat subsequently caught over time.
They repeat this process as much as possible over the six-week season to build an idea of the bat population and demographics. Over subsequent years they can then work out survival rates and see if the population is stable, growing or declining.

Nick says bats are amazing creatures. Their forearms are adapted as wings making them the only mammal that can fly, and their flight is extremely agile and fast, matching most birds. And even though they are nocturnal, they have excellent eyesight. She says, “they can be quite feisty and will ferociously try to defend themselves when handled,” but mostly people would never know they co-existed with them unless they happened to see them flying at dawn or dusk.

While the short-tailed bat has a role in pollination, the long-tailed bat is insectivorous only and perhaps doesn’t perform any particular ‘function’. But says Nick, “we don’t always know everything about the interconnectivity of the natural world, and not everything has to benefit humans - perhaps all species deserve to survive and thrive regardless.”

“Do we really want them to become locally extinct in Marlborough and go the way of other species like Kiwi and Whio (blue duck) which were here only a few decades ago, before predation and habitat loss wiped them out? We want to see this small and vulnerable population of bats survive and hopefully grow and thrive over time. They are part of the wider ecosystem and utilise the forests and waterways of the area. We don’t want to lose more species on our watch if we can help it.”

Clare O’Rourke - Habitat Restoration

Clare O’Rourke is the team lead for Te Hoiere Bat Recovery Project, administered by Forest and Bird. She lives in Whakatū/Nelson, and works in the three pillars of conservation: the removal of pest plants, the removal of predators and habitat restoration through revegetation.

She says the field team is small, four people plus additional support in the upcoming planting season. They work in three reserves in the Rai Valley, and one in Pelorus. “The trapping project at Te Hoiere is supported by my team but is mostly volunteer led (and has been for years). There are approximately 40 people on the current roster, people who trap individually or with their friends, and many families. We are actively recruiting more volunteers for a variety of traplines – commitments are normally once a month.”

Clare is fairly new to conservation as a career. “I returned to New Zealand in the 2020 lockdown, retrained with the DOC Kaitiaki Whenua Trainee Ranger course, and here we are. I’ve been hunting and fishing since I was a kid and am stoked to finally work in New Zealand’s outdoors.”

Clare O’Rourke checks for stoats in a DOC200 double set trap box.

Clare says she takes joy from a small job done well, and conservation is just loads of small jobs done well. “If you look at the Old Man’s Beard problem in the region, it’s overwhelming. If you look at one catchment, still overwhelming. One reserve, the same. But one small section of Old Man’s Beard strangling a seven-year-old Tōtara – that’s doable. Then the pocket of bush that tree sits in - also doable. Sometimes I think about the bats that might roost in that Tōtara in 50 years’ time, given the opportunity.”

Clare believes there is a direct link between time spent in nature, and well-being. “I’m grateful I get to do cool work, doing good, which makes me feel good. It’s really gratifying quantifying the success of your work in a reduction in predator numbers, trees in the ground and increased bird song or bat roosts discovered.”

Monique Day - Trapping

Since 2010, under the guidance of the local Forest and Bird group, keen volunteers from both Nelson and Marlborough have set up and maintained a weekly trapping programme to reduce predator numbers at Pelorus, protecting both the bats and bird species. Over 11,000 volunteer hours have been contributed, resulting in the control of more than 12,000 predators, including rats, mice, stoats, possums, and some feral cats.

Monique Day, a manager from Nelson and longtime volunteer, is part of a large team of trappers who are on a monthly roster, ensuring each line is cleared once a week. Her family is responsible for the C trapline at Pelorus Bridge for the Bat Recovery Project. Once a month they walk through the forest clearing rat, stoat and possum traps, and cleaning, setting and baiting as they go.

Volunteer Monique Day clears a trap at Pelorus Bridge.

“We enjoy doing it as a family as we live in Nelson, Havelock and Blenheim, and get to catch up and contribute to this significant conservation project.” Monique says her family have always enjoyed swimming and camping in Pelorus and regularly gathers there over the summer. They saw the volunteer recruitment poster posted in DOC kitchens and thought it would be a great way to help conserve the local environment and stay connected. “We’ve now been trapping for over 10 years with three generations of our family involved.”

They hope for the continued success and health of the forest and bat populations due to the predator control programme. She says one day there may be no need for continued trapping as the methods and monitoring become more effective with new technology.

“The Pelorus forest is an amazing remnant of native forest. We hope it will remain a thriving ecosystem for generations to come.”

To get involved in the bat project, contact Dr Daria Erastova:

To get involved with DOC volunteering generally,

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