Four-wheel drives modified with custom-built shooting cages and heavy bull bars rumble off State Highway 1, lining up at a roadside reserve near the South Canterbury town of St Andrews. Gorse-scarred men and women drag a cargo of carnage from the vehicles.
Severed wallaby heads are dumped by the sack-load onto the ground to be counted, then turfed into a trailer for disposal. Wallaby carcasses are disembowelled with an axe before being weighed. The sickly reek of death drifts across the reserve, intensified by the late-summer heat. The flames of a stubble fire crackle in a nearby paddock, casting a thick pall of smoke and an orange hue across the scene.
Welcome to the 31st South Canterbury Wallaby Competition, an annual event that is part pest control, part sporting event, part community gathering. But it’s also something else—a statement of defiance in the face of hopeless odds.
South Canterbury is stuck with an invasive pest that it will most likely never rid itself of—intruders which eat a huge amount of this farming region’s grass and threaten to wipe out native plants. This somewhat gory gathering may just be its way of thumbing its nose at the indomitable wallaby.
The bodies and heads quickly mount up behind the officials’ table. As the afternoon drifts on, there’s a wallaby-skinning contest, and running races in which each person hauls a dead wallaby around the track. The onlookers drink beer and watch awards being handed out. Heaviest buck. Smallest wallaby. Most heads. Best truck. Ugliest dog.
At last, the tallies are complete: 2198 dead wallabies. Organisers tell me just as many carcasses are probably lying uncollected in the hills. The competition has made a dent in numbers for another year, but no one is under any illusion. This doesn’t represent any kind of serious victory in the ongoing war on wallabies.
The gathering disbands, utes fanning out across the Canterbury Plains, back to farms, suburbs, pubs. The wounded sun goes down, closing out just another day of life in the containment zone.
Many New Zealanders may be surprised to learn we have wallabies here, let alone that they are a major pest. In fact, wallabies have been part of rural life in some parts of the country for almost 150 years. At least seven species were introduced between 1870 and 1920 by entrepreneurs with a view to establishing a skin trade, or by people who—like Governor George Grey on Kawau Island—just really liked the idea of them (see sidebar).
In 1874, a farmer released three Bennett’s wallabies into the Hunter Hills around Waimate. Their numbers soon multiplied, and they have been a major problem for farmers since the 1940s. Meanwhile, dama wallabies, originally introduced to Kawau Island by Grey and later released near Rotorua, also began to expand their range.
In South Canterbury, government culling between 1947 and 1956 killed almost 70,000, yet wasn’t able to keep their numbers down and may have even scattered the animals further afield. By the 1960s, up to a million wallabies were thought to be spread across 760,000 hectares of South Canterbury, eating roughly as much grass as 330,000 sheep.
The government set up the South Canterbury Wallaby Board to tackle the problem. Employing a dedicated team that went farm to farm, killing wallabies with poison and shooting, the board succeeded where the cullers had failed. For more than a decade, wallabies were held at very low numbers. When the board’s government funding was cut in 1989, farmers baulked at covering the cost—people with fewer wallabies on their land resented subsidising those with more. In any case, numbers by this time were so low that the animals no longer seemed like a threat.
So, in 1992, the Wallaby Board was scrapped in favour of a user-pays system. A 900,000-hectare containment zone between the Waitaki and Rangitata rivers was established, and farmers within it would be required to control wallabies on their land—or face penalties. The problem: some farmers were more motivated than others. And some “controlled” the animals by chasing them onto neighbouring land. “We were telling [farmers] they had to reduce the population,” says Brent Glentworth, the biosecurity team leader from Environment Canterbury (ECan), the regional council. “And we explained to them that poison is the best option to do that. But it would often be cheaper for them to move the wallabies rather than to bait them. We were chasing our tail trying to get farmers coordinated.”
Numbers began to creep up… and up. Meanwhile, dama wallabies in the Bay of Plenty were also on the march, expanding their range to include up to 400,000 hectares of the North Island.
According to a 2016 Ministry for Primary Industries report, wallabies cost the country $28 million annually, and that figure is expected to balloon to $83 million by 2025 if the plague can’t be contained.
That cost is due to wallabies eating grass that would otherwise be available to sheep and cattle, and the damage their grazing wreaks on native ecosystems.
To understand just why the wallaby is so disastrous in New Zealand, we need to understand something of its biology and evolution. The roots of this invasion lie deep in the Pliocene epoch, three million years ago, when parts of the Australian landscape were transitioning from damp forests to arid grasslands. As trees receded, marsupials left the groves where they lived in pursuit of new opportunities on the ground. These animals—the ancestors of kangaroos and wallabies—developed strong, high-crowned teeth for grinding down grass, and the females evolved embryonic diapause, the ability to put their pregnancy on hiatus and postpone the birth of their young until conditions are just right for bringing up a baby. Diapause also allows for a back-up baby, should the previous one die young. Female wallabies have two uteruses, allowing them to be almost constantly pregnant, and can support three young at a time—a developing embryo, a joey in the pouch, and a semi-dependent joey at foot.
The resulting eating-and-breeding machine is tough enough to survive in a wide range of conditions. It’s perfectly suited to a mosaic environment of grassland, shrubland and open forest. A landscape, in other words, just like modern-day New Zealand.
On the dark plain below, Waimate sparkles like a galaxy, the two dairy factories at Studholme and Glenavy lighting up the expanse to the east and south. This town has lived with wallabies for a century and a half. It has despised and embraced them, made pets and pies of them, adopted them as a mascot (“Hop in for a Visit”), and slaughtered them in their millions.
I’m here, at the heart of the South Canterbury containment zone, with photographer Julian Apse, and we’re bouncing along the farm tracks that traverse the Hunter Hills in farmer Nick Ruddenklau’s utility terrain vehicle. Following the beam of the headlights, we crest a ridge, then drop into a valley in which we’re sheltered from the cold nor’wester.
Ruddenklau switches off the engine and pulls out his .223 rifle, which is equipped with a thermal imaging scope, the latest technology in the battle against wallabies. He gets out of the vehicle, then leans against it and scans the scrubby hill opposite. He passes me the rifle, and through the scope I see the wallabies standing out as bright white blobs amid the gorse and mingimingi. There are at least a dozen on the hill’s face, chewing their way through Ruddenklau’s precious grass.
We’re not here for sport. This is a search-and-destroy mission. Ruddenklau has brought a spotter with him, who also carries a thermal scope. They work together in utter darkness, with the practised, purposeful ease of military professionals. I gaze up at the Milky Way arching overhead and listen to the wallabies die.
“There’s one, up just to the right of that mob of sheep.”
“Got him. Another just below, and to the left.”
“That one got him.”
Wallabies breed in the commercial pine forests that neighbour Ruddenklau’s farm, he tells me, then raid his pastures at night. Keeping them in check requires constant hunting—he and other farmers patrol these hills throughout the year. In winter, when the wallabies need more food and are therefore more active, the farmers are out here shooting most nights.
It’s a fight Ruddenklau doesn’t expect to win any time soon. For every wallaby he shoots, there are ten more in the gorse.
Half an hour inland from Ruddenklau’s place, Bob and Meghan Sutton farm sheep, beef cattle, wheat and clover in the backblocks of the Hunter Hills at Waihaorunga. Here, wallabies are so common that the Suttons drive cars fitted with bull bars.
“My car is so dinged,” says Meghan. “They actually bounce into you. They don’t seem to bounce away from you.”
“It’s just like driving into a ball of lead,” says Bob.
Among the wallaby-weary farmers on the north side of the Waitaki River, most of whom have been “born and bred with the bloody things”, as one tells me, I discover a resigned acceptance of wallabies as a part of farming life. Most say wallabies are not the worst pest they face—local farmers also battle hieracium, wilding conifers, nassella tussock and their old foe, rabbits—but wallabies do make farming a lot harder and a lot more expensive. Some farmers spend up to $80,000 a year controlling them.
The Suttons budget carefully for wallaby control. “It’s ongoing,” Bob tells me. “And that’s where the economics of it comes in. It’s an annual cost. You’ve just got to keep doing it.”
Bob and his sons spend hundreds of hours killing wallabies every year, through poisoning with cyanide and shooting. Without this effort, he says, life here would be “subsistence farming”. He wouldn’t be able to make enough money to both live here and protect the land from other pests. “Economically, we’d be buggered,” he says.
Marking the southern edge of the South Canterbury containment zone is the Waitaki River—a natural boundary that was supposed to stop the southward spread of wallabies. It hasn’t.
There are three big hydroelectric dams on the Waitaki, two of which have public roads crossing them, and wallabies have been hopping across these dams in the dead of night. They have probably also used the road bridge at Kurow to get across the river. As a result, they have now infiltrated the Otago hill country south of the river, and are also pushing west into the Mackenzie Basin and north across the Rangitata River. For farmers in these regions, who have no experience of wallabies, Bob Sutton has a blunt message: “They should be shitting themselves.”
Since 2014, there has been a dramatic surge in wallaby sightings throughout Otago. And while it’s likely some wallabies have been deliberately (and illegally) moved by hunters, or by people who have tried to keep them as pets, the frequency and geographic spread of the sightings also point to a natural spread. In other words, it’s an invasion.
Forty kilometres south of the Waitaki River, Ossie Brown’s kitchen in Naseby doubles as a war room. Through the window, he can see the occupation front: the hulking brow of the Hawkdun Range. From up there, the wallabies have a clear view across 70,000 hectares of pristine snow-tussock country—the Oteake Conservation Park—and the agricultural sprawl of the Maniototo Basin to the scrubby hillsides at the base of the Southern Alps. Brown, a veteran pest controller, reckons Otago must look like the promised land to a hungry wallaby.
The regenerating scrub and tussock grasslands of the South Island’s interior provide plenty of the shelter Bennett’s wallabies like to hide in. “They love snow tussock,” says ECan’s Brent Glentworth, “because it provides such a good shelter. They’ll hide in the little grey scrub communities of matagouri, coprosma and mingimingi in the valley bottoms and they’ll take those seedlings as well. In wintertime, it’s quite evident that they love the Celmisia mountain daisies.”
Wallabies will also range high into the alps, where they mow through rare native alpine plants. “You’ll see them going over bare rock ranges,” says Glentworth. “Knowing that they come from Australia, you wouldn’t think they would be able to handle steep hill country, but they handle it very well.”
Brown has spent 50 years battling rabbits, but he says wallabies are an even bigger problem. “If you’ve got bad rabbits, they’re quite easy to deal with,” he says. “They don’t go anywhere. They’re on a certain part of a property and they stay there.” Wallabies, however, behave differently.
“These little critters will range from the top of the hill to the middle of the floodplain. They’ll live anywhere and they’ll thrive anywhere.”
Until recently, Brown managed Maniototo Pest Management (MPM), a co-operative owned by local farmers that has successfully kept rabbits in the area low. He’s now passed over the reins of MPM to Kevin Allan, who joins us for a cup of tea at Brown’s place.
“It’s the last stronghold in Otago—or maybe even in New Zealand—where pest control’s being done properly,” says Allan, “where they didn’t rely on that user-pays system. You don’t have to go far further into Central to see where it hasn’t worked.”
Elsewhere in Otago, Allan tells me, rabbits are once again reaching plague levels.
In Allan’s previous role with the Otago Regional Council, he authored numerous studies that documented the steady stream of wallabies into the ECan-controlled area south of the Waitaki River. These reports contain photographic evidence of wallabies using the dams as a breach point over many years. A containment fence built to stop them proved ineffective, as the wallabies pushed their way under it. Now they’ve arrived in Otago, the big problem is figuring out exactly where they are.
“They’re extremely difficult to find,” says Allan. “The country is just too big. You could wear a pink elephant suit and walk right through the Maniototo and not be seen by anyone, because there’s nobody there. So, you know, a couple of wallabies sneaking around the willows, they’re just not going to be seen.”
Once wallabies start successfully breeding in Otago, he says, the scale of the problem will increase exponentially. “If you can’t get on top of them, there’s nowhere in Otago that’s not suitable for them. So they’ll occupy the entire region. That’s going to put Southland at risk, and Westland to a certain degree.”
“It’s the biggest catastrophe I’ve ever seen in pest destruction,” says Brown. “Farmers in Otago haven’t got a clue what’s knocking on their door. I’ve put my working life into pest destruction. You think you’ve achieved something. But these wallabies, holy shit. They’ll just be devastating for Otago.”
If you want to see just how much wallabies can destroy a landscape, the best way to do it is from the air. “The way you know there’s a lot of wallabies there,” says helicopter pilot Craig McMillan, “is that the whole face is grey. As in, there’s nothing really left on it.”
By eating seedlings, wallabies rob the forest of its next generation of trees.
“I liken them to a little handheld vacuum cleaner,” says Ron Keyzer, the central North Island wallaby programme leader, “cruising around the bush grazing all the palatable species, such as māhoe, hangehange, kānuka and mānuka. So, over time, the forest structure is changing, and you’re going to end up with a different forest.”
Keyzer is tasked with getting on top of dama wallabies in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions. Without control, he tells me, there is nothing stopping them inhabiting the entire North Island. Dama wallabies are a smaller, more secretive species than South Canterbury’s Bennett’s wallabies. They hide in forests during the day, then at night slip out onto pastures to browse. As they spread, they’re heading for the densely forested hillsides of the Kaimai Range and the misty heights of Te Urewera National Park. If wallabies settled in Te Urewera, says Keyzer, it would be “dire”.
Nationally, alarm bells are ringing. The government has earmarked $27.4 million over four years for wallaby control under the National Wallaby Management Programme, a collaboration between Biosecurity New Zealand, the Department of Conservation, regional councils, Land Information New Zealand, iwi and farmers. It’s hoped the funding will represent a turning point—the Normandy Invasion of the war
The national programme aims to push wallabies back into containment zones in Canterbury and the Bay of Plenty. “It’s firstly about doing surveillance so we can track down where there are populations we might not have heard about,” says Sam Beaumont, who runs the programme. “And then it’s focusing on those buffer areas around the edge of the containment to lower the population of wallabies. In some cases, we’re actually looking at fencing as well.”
There’s a right way and a wrong way to hunt wallabies, as the government cullers discovered in the middle of last century. Do it badly, and the animals learn quickly and become harder to hunt. In areas where wallaby numbers are low, shooting and pursuing the animals with dogs can chase them into new territory.
ECan plans to drop 1080 poison on 22,000 hectares of land around the edges of the South Canterbury containment zone, a bombardment that will be followed up with ground shooting. In the Bay of Plenty and the Waikato, Keyzer’s teams will use indicator dogs, cameras and a drone fitted with thermal cameras to survey areas for wallabies. Once they know where the animals are, they’ll use a combination of shooting, cyanide and 1080 poison to try to wipe them out.
It’s also vital that local landowners join the effort. Scattershot wallaby control is worse than pointless, says Kevin Allan. “You’re just wasting your time, unless the whole area gets involved. You may as well just shovel money into the log burner.”
Containment is the operative word here. Not one person I talk to entertains any idea of eradicating wallabies from New Zealand. Barring some massive technological leap in pest control, we’re almost certainly stuck with them. “They’re established here now,” Ossie Brown says, “and there’s no way in the world we’re ever going to get rid
Brent Glentworth, however, is more positive about eradicating wallabies from Otago and pushing them back into the containment zone of South Canterbury. “I believe we’ve got a really good chance. It’s going to be a long job. It’s not going to be done in a couple of years.
“If we don’t make a stand now, we’re just going to get more and more land inhabited by wallabies, and the job will become insurmountable.”
“You are leaving Wallaby Country,” says the sign on the southbound approach to the Waitaki bridge at Kurow. I can’t help but wonder if the most recent wallaby to hop across this bridge stopped and had a wee chuckle at that.
I look out at the mute hills and I know that, under cover of darkness, the wallabies are on the move. Already they have been sighted at Lake Onslow, in the golden tussock country of the Lammermoor Range, just 140 kilometres away from my place in Dunedin.
It seems to me that the main challenge of the National Wallaby Management Programme won’t be to kill wallabies—rather, it will be to get everyone working together in a way that will knock wallabies back to manageable levels. And, most importantly, keep them there.
I cross the bridge at Kurow and head south, leaving Wallaby Country while I still can.