New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2017) 41(1): 23-33

Conserving biodiversity in New Zealand’s lowland landscapes: does forest cover or pest control have a greater effect on native birds?

Research Article
Jay Ruffell 1*
Raphael K. Didham 1,2
  1. School of Animal Biology, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009, Australia
  2. CSIRO Land and Water, Centre for Environment and Life Sciences, Underwood Ave, Floreat WA 6014, Australia
*  Corresponding author

Effective biodiversity conservation in lowland New Zealand requires an understanding of the relative benefits of managing impacts of native forest loss versus controlling invasive species. We used bird count data from 195 locations across mainland northern New Zealand to examine how the abundance and richness of native forest birds varied across wide gradients of native forest cover (c. 0–100%) and intensity of invasive species control (‘eradication’, ‘high-intensity rat and possum’, ‘low-intensity rat and possum’, ‘periodic possum’ and ‘none’). Most response variables were significantly affected by forest cover, and this effect was typically non-linear: response variables declined rapidly below c. 5–10% forest cover, but were relatively invariant to forest cover above this point. Pest control was found to affect surprisingly few species, with only kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) and tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) being more abundant at pest controlled than uncontrolled sites for any pest control category. Species richness and ‘total abundance’ (abundance of all species combined) also increased at pest controlled sites, but effects were largely driven by responses of tui and kereru. Effects of eradication were far larger than effects of other pest control categories, while it was unclear whether ‘low-intensity rat and possum’ or ‘periodic possum’ control had any effects at all. Our results suggest that both managing levels of forest cover and controlling invasive mammals can benefit native forest birds, but the occurrence and magnitude of these benefits will be context-dependent. Managing forest cover may be relatively unimportant in landscapes with >5–10% forest cover, while benefits of pest control may be limited unless intensive methods are used. Moreover, even intensive pest control may only benefit a small subset of species unless coupled with reintroduction of locally-extinct species. Combining these results with knowledge of the financial, ethical, and social constraints of different management options should provide a solid foundation for effective conservation decision-making in lowland environments.