The intrepid trapper: Week six – 14-17 February

After a couple of very warm, muggy weather days, ex-tropical Cyclone Dovi moved in over the country early on the Saturday morning. It created havoc everywhere; trees down, power lines down, and a neighbour’s huge pine tree cracked in half and fell down a slope. Fortunately, no trees were down at our place this time, despite other neighbours also mentioning tree damage.

Unfortunately, two of our guinea fowl girls’ babies popped out a day (and the other a few days) before the cyclone hit. It rained non-stop, the wind was blowing a gale and the temperature dropped considerably. Timing could not have been worse. Despite the dads helping out by also sitting on the chicks, they couldn’t manage. Both mums and dads were drenched and finally the babies started trailing off and were left for dead. During the course of the day, and in terrible conditions, I was frantically searching for the half-dead babies all over our property, in tall grass, under trees, etc, to try and save them. Trying to find these tiniest of babies on a couple acre property is no easy feat. By nine at night Gerry picked up the last five and with the help of warm water bottles and a heater, all twelve came back to life. Sadly, three of them died a couple of days later.

Day 17 – Jim’s and the Deerford Loop

Very early on Valentine’s Day, Nina and I were off to collect the monitoring cards from Jim’s property. We stopped at his house in Apiti to fetch the keys to the gates taking us on private land. Arriving at the first gate, it was still drizzling and everything was wet. After the second gate, Nina cleared some windfall out of the way in order not to scratch the ute. We quickly collected the five monitoring cards, some of which were along the farm road, and the others on a private track. Four of the five cards had a decent amount of footprints, and the fifth card had insect prints only. Afterwards, we went back to Jim’s to return the keys, and showed them the outcome.

Then we were off to Deerford Track to insert monitoring cards to ascertain what sort of pests are roaming in the area. It was still overcast and quite cold. I had four top layers on, as well as a rainjacket and rain pants. As always, we had a stream-crossing early on. With all the rain, it was deeper than usual (calve high), and very cold. My feet were freezing, which was a reminder that I need to figure out a plan for winter. We’re still in summer and I’m already cold in the forest in wet conditions.

The previous time we tried to locate the monitoring tunnels, we couldn’t find them. But this time we were more lucky and found the first four relatively easily. The last one (which was the first one coming from the top, which we couldn’t find the previous time) was again a bit of a search. Lots of windfall made it even more tricky to negotiate the terrain off the track. We decided to create waypoints to make it easier for next time.

After placing the last monitoring card, we went around Deerford Loop to check all the traps, but found no dead pests. Some traps were set off due to windfall – large branches landing on the traps, others were without bait (critters and mice probably got to it before anything else could). We reset and rebaited everything that needed attention with dehydrated rabbit before returning to the car. The drizzle became a bit more persistent, and by the time we took off our wet rain clothes, shoes and socks in the carpark, it was raining.

Day 18: Team meeting/workshop

We drove to Ian’s for a team meeting and catch-up with the Dannevirke team. Ahead of their arrival, we counted out half (200) of the nuts and bolts to go with Rani, including trap mechanisms, for the traps they’re building on that side of the mountain.

Erana replaced Shawn on the team, and it was the first time I met her, and a chance to have the whole new team together. Rani talked about their side of things, progress, dealings with land owners, etc, and Ian explained what we’ve been up to.

Afterwards, Ian went through the TrapNZ site, showed some of the functionality; how to add traps, edit trap placement and info, the traplines, stats about animals being killed, etc. We discussed options for traplines, what an area might really be like when you get there, even though it sometimes looks fine on Google maps. Discussions ensued about the traps that are performing really well, the different projects in the Ruahine Forest Park (Northern Ruahine, Southern Ruahine, Manaaki, and Whio whio), and all things related to trapping.

Afterwards, we gathered around an outside table to have a first go at identifying the different footprints on the monitoring cards we’ve collected so far. I downloaded the PDF file with samples of the footprints of mustelids and other pests, including critters from the gotchatraps website. The animals that’s most prevalent in the traps by far, are hedgehogs, so it was no surprise that we found mostly hedgehog footprints. There were also rats, mice, possums, and stoats, and lots of critters. One card only had critter prints. We compared notes and mostly agreed on the prints we identified, but where there were disagreements, we rechecked and had a discussion about it to try and get to a conclusion. In one or two cases it was really too difficult to know what we were looking at, and it would be good to get an expert in to talk us through it.

While still outside, we did a five-minute bird count, and identified seven birds from either the sounds they make or from spotting them in a tree. Apparently afternoons/middays are not the best time of the day to do bird counts, but it was still a good opportunity.

We all moved to Ian’s garage where he keeps frozen samples of mustelids (which I unfortunately forgot to take a photo of): a ferret, stoats and weasels. The ferret was quite smelly, despite being frozen, but had quite an interesting fur.

From there we walked down a ridge on Ian’s property to look at different types of traps, from smaller versions for rats and mice, to self-resetting ones for stoats and weasels, to catch traps for cats. In two of the traps there were dead mice. At the far end, away from any buildings and in the forest, we did another five-minute birdcount, and again counted at least six different birds. Some of them, like tui, mimic other birds, making it hard to know which is which.

Afterwards, we took a group photo, before we went our separate ways at the end of the day.

Day 19: Carrying traps up Shorts Track

Not sure how it came about, but as we were leaving the previous afternoon, a quick decision was made for Nina and I to carry more traps up the mountain. We are less than ten traps away from the top, and I was under the impression that the top ones would be dropped at the top to be carried down, rather than us killing ourselves to get it all the way up there from the bottom. Understandably, we need to identify quantities and traplines, and have enough traps ready and everything consolidated to be dropped off by helicopter in one go instead of paying for multiple trips.  This has unfortunately not been finalised yet, so in order to not twiddle our thumbs, we keep hauling traps up the mountain.

Late the previous night, I collected the pack-frames from Anthony (from the Manaaki project) who kindly let us use his.

Early in the morning, we met in Feilding for the trip out to Limestone Carpark. Although it wasn’t very cold, I had a thermal top on for the first couple of kilometres. The track is a familiar site by now, and after the first few hundred metres, we reach the first stream-crossing. Going up Knights Track, meant we have another crossing a kilometre or so down the track. To not spent the entire day with soaking wet feet again, I took a pair of trail running shoes for the first couple of kilometres until we crossed the second stream. These I hid in a bush, while putting on semi-dry boots and socks. The boots did the same stream-crossing on Monday, so wasn’t completely dry yet.

And then the relentless hill carried on up the mountain for the next four kilometres. With each trap weighing just shy of 6kg, of which we each carried two, plus a backpack containing emergency gear, warm clothing, raincoats, first-aid, food, snacks, water, bait, spanners, tongs etc to service the traps with, I reckon all up I carried 16-17kg up the mountain. Normally on tramps I try not to go over 10kg for my size, weight, age, etc, which already makes the tramp less enjoyable than when carrying a lighter weight. Needless to say, this was hard work.

We made good progress on the constant uphill, and after about 4km of slogging up the mountain, my shoulders and shoulder blades started to be really uncomfortable and sore. Another kilometre and a half, and we’d dropped off our four traps (#9, 8, 7, 6 from the top down – 1 is on top of the mountain) and were at the highest point for the day at 1300m.

While catching our breath (my heart was racing like mad, and I guess the altitude might also have played a small part), we had a bite to eat and a sip of water. There’s no access to water on the mountain and everything has to be carried up.

On the way down, we checked and serviced all the traps, and only one contained a hedgehog that looked like it was going to explode. We used dehydrated rabbit as bait, and one thing I noticed is that a lot of it gets eaten by, presumably, mice. Which is a terrible waste at almost 50c per piece, me thinks.

On the upside, Nina chatted to a chicken farmer about a possible sponsorship, and they are keen to get on board, which is fantastic. Details need to be ironed out still, but we should be sorted with eggs as bait for a while for a lot of the traps in future.

We passed Teddy Bear slip again, and I tried to see from the top if it is possible to get an idea of what it looks like, but by the looks of it we were standing on its ear. A massive chunk of land slipped and when viewed from Jock’s farm on the other side of the valley, it apparently looks like a teddy bear. Will definitely see if I can spot it when next we’re out that way.

Nearly back down the mountain, I changed back into my wet shoes for the last two kilometres and two stream-crossings. Less than a kilometre from the car, and on a reasonable well-groomed track, I stepped onto a tree root or something, and ended up on the side of my foot with my ankle bent at a 90 degree angle to try and stay upright, which of course didn’t happen and I landed on my arse. I had visions again of my friend breaking her leg on a track 2k from the car, and what an ordeal it was getting her down the mountain and to hospital. Fortunately (in other respects unfortunately), I have ‘floppy joints’ making it possible to bend joints quite far before breaking them, I guess. However five days later, the ligament (?) on the side of my leg was still quite sore.

On the trip back home, we discussed the next day’s work. The monitoring cards we installed on Monday had to be fetched from Deerford (they usually only stay for three days). I wasn’t meant to work (I only work three days a week, normaly Mondays to Wednesdays), but offered to go with Nina, as she cannot go in the mountains by herself, and Ian had a meeting. It is a health and safety precaution, as anything can happen at anytime, and being out in the bush by oneself is never a very good idea.

Nina offered to carry more traps up the mountain, but with a somewhat crook ankle and sore shoulders, I wasn’t up to it. Instead I would check and service the traps as we go, on the way up.

After fetching Gerry from work, we took the packs-frames back to Anthony, as they needed it again. This is something we really need to buy for ourselves, as we cannot keep borrowing from others. It is, on top of everything else, a terrible waste of time fetching and returning borrowed stuff. The time and money on fuel spent on that, could have bought us a couple already.

Day 20: Carry more traps up Shorts and service the trapline

We met bright and early again in Feilding, and drove to where Ian was waiting with traps and old tramping backpacks. Nina took the one backpack, and two traps.

The trip to where we work, is usually about an hour’s drive. The weather was really good, sunny (even though we drove through fog) and warmer than the previous days. When she tried to strap the traps onto the outside of the backpack (it couldn’t fit inside either), only one could fit. One is better than none, and we were on our way. I took the soaking wet shoes again for the stream-crossing, after which I changed into my semi-dry boots for the slog up the mountain on Shorts Track.

These two tracks follow on from the Deerford loop, and both goes to the ridge at the top of the mountain. Knights track is on the left (North) and Shorts is on the right (South). Whereas Knights track sort-of eases into the steep climb, Shorts Track gets right too it. Both are super steep, making the going slow, especially carrying a heavy weight.

With all the traps from the bottom up already in place, the only ones remaining are the ones above the tree line. I was huffing and puffing up the mountain again. With both of us being runners, we are servicing traplines rather quickly, so can cover more ground and get more traps checked, in more difficult terrain.

At 1300m altitude again, we set the new trap, caught our breath, had a snack and a drink of water before starting on the way down again.

En route we collected the five monitoring cards on Deerford of which one had no prints, and another where something (hedgehog?) went into the tunnel, seemingly not happy with dried rabbit, as it was all still there, and went out again on the same side. Bizarre. It’s a narrow tunnel and makes sense for something to walk through. Must be a clever animal who knows that if it goes for dried rabbit, it will die. Haha.

At the stream, I swopped back into my wet shoes for the last kilometre, before swopping back into dry shoes for the drive back home. There seems to be a lot of changing gear going on with these trips. I guess that’s how it is if you work in nature; sunny, cold, rain, rivers, etc.

After picking Gerry up from work, we went to the Summerhill trails to collect kawakawa for balm I’m making for our project launch.  I’m using the cold extraction method, so the leaves will have to stay in the oil for at least a week. Nina is making a cake, decorated with kiwis, which I can’t wait to see, and I will throw in some gluten free, chocolate cake on the side, just to cover our bases. Looking forward to the event next Thursday.

The intrepid trapper: Week three – 24-26 January

Day 8

With 24 January being a public holiday, we had a long weekend, so Gerry and I finished digging a trench through part of our olive grove and installed a drainage pipe. Some of the trees suffer from wet feet, and with all the rain we had late spring, they don’t look all that good. Digging trenches and carrying gravel up a hilly property is no easy feat, giving the old gal a bit of a hammering.

On Tuesday morning, Ian met Nina and I in Ashhurst for a trip back to farmer Jim’s property to check the traps there. On the way, we picked up Jim in Apiti to show us the way around his property. Ian brought along a few new traps and some mechanisms to replace any faulty traps. The ones on farmer Jim’s are about fifteen years old, some quite rusty and others just not in good nick anymore. Ian will service these to be deployed on a public road that’s part of the project area. The rationale is that, being old and rusty traps, they are less likely to get stolen or vandalised. And if it does happen, the loss is somewhat smaller.

Jim’s property is such that there are two separate traplines. One with 16 traps and another stretch with 20 traps. Ravines, hills, and steep valleys separate the different sections of his farm. Both lines run along fence lines bordering on paddocks. Although it is very steep up and down, the going is easy on grazed grass. But with the rain the previous night, it didn’t take long before my feet were soaking wet. We also had to jump the fence a few times as having traps on the other side of the fence means that the sheep will not kick and accidentally set them off. 

Jim and Sandy’s farm is beautiful – huge areas of indigenous forest with some giant red beechwood trees dotted all around the property, with ravines, valleys and little streams. Since Sandy also has a horse trekking business, this is perfect for scenic treks with clients.

He showed us a few landmarks, or attractions that are part of a horse trek outing, among others an old cedar tree stump that still contained slits cut into the trunk as foot holds for the tree fellers to saw higher up the trunk. There’s also an abandoned old blue Bedford truck hidden in the bush since 1983 (last date on the licence) when the owner parked it for good. It is completely overgrown with lichen and hidden in plain sight right next to the road. A bizarre, but quite amazing sight, with an interesting history, I’m sure. Even though there are quite a few massive red beech trees on the farm, one giant in particular is a favourite landmark on the horse treks.

We also installed five monitoring tunnels on this stretch, which took us on a private bush track that forms part of the horse trekking route. The monitoring cards will be placed at a later stage, as they have to be collected again after three days. Doesn’t make sense to place them if collecting them means having to go back on the weekend.

The second stretch of traps finished at a private hunter’s hut on Jim’s farm. We could get these checked, and reset by lunchtime. Jim offered to make us tea while we had a quick bite to eat on the porch of the hut. A light drizzle started and I decided to don a rain jacket for the walk down to and up Cone Creek. It runs parallel to Knights Track, but is located a bit more north, and on private land.

This section had to be ground-truthed, so a spot was identified every 100 metres as the crow flies, where a trap will be placed at a later date. Jim showed us the way down to the creek from the hut and back up on a different track. Although it is very pretty, it is also very steep, and will be quite slippery when wet. Down at the creek, we just followed Jim who knew which side of the creek is the better way to walk at any given point. A few landslides and some waterfalls forced us to make detours around them, and I fear I might not be able to find the exact, easiest path by myself.

By the time we got back to the hut, we’d marked about 12 new spots for traps. The light drizzle persisted, but almost not worth bothering with a rain jacket. Back up and out of the valley, we gathered our stuff to make our way back to Jim’s, as it was getting late in the afternoon.

On the way back to Jim’s place we caught up with Sandy who was tending horses, so Jim decided to catch a ride with her. While chatting, the drizzle turned into rain and the mountain disappeared even further under a thick cloud.

All up, we got six hedgehogs and a rat on the 36 traps. He also has a few possum kill traps in trees, and we saw at least one dead possum.

Day 9

Nina suggested we go back to Deerford to move the traps that were left at the junction below the loop the previous week, further up the mountain.

Luckily Gerry could juggle his working hours, so came with us to help carry traps. The weather forecast didn’t look too flash, but it turned out quite nice for most of the day. We each carried two traps (#5-10 on the trapline) to their spots on Shorts Track, some 3km and 450 metres elevation from where we left them the previous time. The first bit is a reasonable gradual uphill, but then the climbing starts in all earnest on some super steep sections. Carrying the weight of two wooden traps and some emergency gear, food and water, is hard yards.

After baiting, setting and tagging the traps, we made our way down the mountain for another round before the weather turned for the worse. This time we took the traps only to the start of Shorts Track (1.6km and 270m elevation), past Deerfort. Just getting there is in any case one of the steeper sections on the trapline, and about halfway to the peak. On the second round, the wind picked up and the clouds grew darker. After dropping off the traps, we decided to take the other side of the Deerford loop back down, to check the traps on that side. Some windfall blocked the road in a couple of spots where one either has to clamber over multiple huge fallen trees, or take a detour.

On this stretch we cleared out a hedgehog and a rat, and had to reset some traps that went off without killing anything.

My legs went from tired, to sore, to cramping, to screaming by the time I’d made two trips up and down the mountain carrying the heavy weight. By the time we got back to the car, the clouds were thick, and the cool wind was blowing quite strongly.

We have 53 traps planned for these two traplines on Knights and Shorts Tracks, and have deployed 25 traps so far.

The intrepid trapper: Week two – 17-19 January

Day 5

The week started off with another trip to Mid-Pohangina Track. The goal was to distribute a few more traps, particularly in the flat section on either side of the river, as well as the newly cut track, and to collect the monitoring cards from the middle section of the trapline.

For the task, it was only Ian, Nina and myself. We decided that both Nina and I will each carry two traps from the ute down and up the river, from where Ian will ground-truth, place and bait the traps. In the meantime, NIna and I made our way up the mountain again to collect the monitoring cards. 

When we parked in the paddock, it was super windy. The sun was out though, and the gloomy weather prediction from the previous week, was fortunately a miss by MetService. As we walked down the farm track, it became evident that it might be a hot day. Down by the river, criss-crossing, getting properly wet, we got to the point where Nina and I had to start following the track. We dropped the packs with traps and were on our merry way.

The newly cut track is so much easier to navigate and made for a far more enjoyable trip to the start of the Ruahine Forest Park. 

Thankfully it didn’t rain and things dried out since last week, which also made the going more comfortable. By now I’m getting used to the sketchy bits, and try not to look down the ‘straight down the mountain’ stretches. Unfortunately, I had yet another brush with Onga Onga. This seems to be my nemesis – I manage to get zapped by this pest way too often.

I also carried a rope in to attach on a tree at a gnarly spot that goes straight up/down on eroded soil. We’ve thus far managed to clamber up by hanging onto the grass next to the eroded bit, but a rope to hang onto will make it far easier, especially going down. Fingers crossed it stays there, and someone doesn’t decide to take it down for whatever reason.

We reached the far end in about two hours, collected the monitoring cards (near traps 20-24) before turning around to walk back the way we came. The day just got hotter and the wind less, so an enjoyable walk in the valley.

Back at the ute, we packed up and was ready to make our way out on the rugged farm road. Ian had to speak to a couple of farmers, so we drove to a neighbouring farm to catch up with Travis and George. They seem keen and are on board with the project, and also offered to help distribute traps with their four wheeler. So all good on this front.

Now just to get enough traps made so they can be distributed in the project area. While we can build the wooden boxes, the trap mechanisms are manufactured in Auckland, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, they have not been able to keep up with the demand. This is somewhat problematic, but at least Ian still has quite a few ready and waiting at his place. Carrying traps into the mountain at only two per person, is in any case slow and hard work, and not something that can happen overnight.

Day 6

The evening after our day in Mid-Pohangina, Ian was painting the Ruahine Kiwi logo on the remaining traps at his place. With this job done, the next step was to check the traps. The traps are made for free by some folk at the Ryman retirement village, which is awesome, as every trap they make is a huge task taken off our hands, for which we’re grateful. Before the traps can be distributed on the mountain, they need to be checked and tested to make sure everything works perfectly. The occasional adjustment may be required.

In the morning, we all (Nina, her son, and myself) met up with Ian in Ashhurst, from where we took his ute to his farm in the Pohangina Valley. Rows and rows of traps were laid out on his front lawn, which we wheelbarrowed to the shed for checking and adjustments. Every so often, the mechanism of a trap would be too close to the side, rendering it useless. But moving it a wee bit solves the problem in a tick.

By lunchtime we were ready to get 40 of the traps into Knights Track, at the furthest northern edge of the project area. On the way, we stopped at local farmer Jim and Sandy’s. Sandy also run a horse trekking business in the area. Jim offered to take us through his property, which borders on the DOC land, shaving off a few hundred metres of carrying traps. Jim also offered to carry a few traps up to the junction on Knights-Shorts and Deerford Tracks, which was very helpful. We did three trips and managed to take 30 of the traps to the junction. The others we left at the forest park entrance.

The walk starts with a short stretch downhill, after which we cross a stream before going up a steep little hill. Parts are narrow, with fallen trees across the path and of course a little Onga Onga bush right at my eye level. Luckily Nina warned me about it, so I could miss it with each trip out and back. She tried to break it off with a piece of stone to no avail. Will have to bring secateurs to get rid of it.

The day was super hot, and we spent half of it in the sun. But the part in the forest park was mostly shaded and a lovely, albeit steep, walk.

Day 7

While the weather gods remained kind, we decided to go back and start moving the traps up the mountain. Gerry had a day off, so he volunteered again. We left before seven in the morning to pick up Nina in Feilding. After buying a quick coffee to go, we set off driving out to the Limestone Road carpark, a kilometre or so past Sixtus Lodge.

We collected six of the ten traps we left at the park entrance the previous day, for the trip up the mountain. And boy is this mountain steep. From the stream-crossing we walk the first very steep stretch to the junction (the same stretch we did the previous day multiple times), before heading left around the Deerford track. Although the track still goes uphill, it is not as steep as the first bit. But after this short respite to the junction on the other side of Deerford Track, the mountain climb starts in all earnest. The relentless uphill had us puffed (pooped!) and winded. It makes for slow going with the weight of the traps, but I think we did well, moving 15 traps into their resting places. Nina made three trips, and Gerry and I did two, while also baiting and setting the traps, and signposting their positions. A numbered pink triangle goes on a tree where the trap can be found, to make future check-ups and documenting easier. Each time something gets killed, it is noted on a website containing the network of traps, to keep up-to-date stats on the killings and progress. Quite cool, really.

Another good, full day of hard grafting in the mountains. If I can keep this up, I’ll be fit and strong in no time.

For this week, I covered about 30km and 2180 elevation.