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

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.
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King, C. M. (2017). Pandora’s box down-under: origins and numbers of mustelids transported to New Zealand for biological control of rabbits. Biological Invasions, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-017-1392-6
© 2017 Springer International Publishing Switzerland.This is the author's accepted version. The final publication is available at Springer via dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10530-017-1392-6