'A nasty place at the moment': Lord Howe Island tense as rat baiting begins

After 20 years of arguments, the eradication plan that has split families and divided neighbours will finally go ahead

For the past few weeks little plastic boxes have been popping up on Lord Howe Island. By mid-May the boxes will be filled with poison-laced grain pellets as part of an ambitious attempt to eradicate rats and mice from the world heritage-listed island.

They cover the island like a net, 2,400 points laid out at 10-metre intervals throughout the accessible, human-occupied areas and running along waterways.

The rest of the 1,400-hectare (3,500-acre) subtropical island off the east coast of Australia, and its surrounding islets, will be covered by baits scattered via helicopter in early June and then again about two weeks later. The bait stations will be topped up for two months.

A few weeks, it is hoped, will be enough time for the rodents to accept the bait stations so they are not suspicious when they suddenly fill with food.

Gaining acceptance from the island’s 350 human residents will be harder. They were first told about the plan 20 years ago. A plebiscite, testing the views of everyone in residence on polling night in 2015, was 52% in favour of complete rodent eradication.

An aerial view of Lord Howe Island.
An aerial view of Lord Howe Island. Photograph: Tourism NSW/AAP

Tensions over the project, at a low hum since the first bungled meetings by scientists in the early 2000s, have split families and divided neighbours. One vocal opponent of the project was allegedly assaulted at the golf club on Good Friday; he has spent the past few weeks at a hospital on the mainland. Many residents would only speak to Guardian Australia on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a nasty place at the moment,” a hotel owner says. “We are a small community. It’s very distressing to see the level of anger and distrust over this issue.”

He was once opposed to the baiting; now he’s just resigned to it.

“At this stage I am in support of [the baiting] going ahead – I just want it over with,” he says. “It would be a wonderful thing if the rats could be eradicated from the island but I have some misgivings about it. It just was not well-handled at the start.”

The naturalist and tour operator Ian Hutton moved to Lord Howe Island in 1980 as a weather observer, and never left. He has been involved in the project since 2002 but says the early meetings were mishandled. “It got off to a bad start and it’s very hard to turn it around,” he says.

Most islands where similar eradication projects have been carried out, including Macquarie Island south of Tasmania – declared pest-free in 2014 – are either unoccupied or privately owned.

“Public servants do not have an awareness of living in a small community where families have been here for six generations,” Hutton says. “They have a lot of knowledge about the island, they have a lot of ownership of the island, and some, not all, are a bit resentful of people coming in and doing things to their island.”

He says the fears of those who oppose the project – that it will impact the local bird or marine life, pose a risk to human health, or simply not work – are unfounded.

“We have probably got the best team in the world here to carry out this plan,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a great future for the island without rats.”

Lord Howe Island is in the Pacific Ocean, about 600km off the coast of New South Wales. It’s governed by a board of four locals and three people appointed by the NSW government.

Cargo steamship SS Makambo which ran aground off Lord Howe island in 1918 and was the original source of the black rats that proliferate on the island.
Cargo vessel SS Makambo which ran aground off Lord Howe island in 1918. Photograph: Samuel J. Hood/Australian National Maritime Museum

Black rats were introduced with the shipwreck of the SS Makambo, a steamship that ran aground on Neds beach on the northern end of the island in 1918.

They have been implicated in the extinction of five endemic bird species, 13 invertebrates and two plants. The most famous casualty, the 20cm-long Lord Howe Island phasmid, was rediscovered on the nearby islet of Ball’s Pyramid in 2001 and on the island itself in 2017.

Tests conducted in 2007 found that only two of the more than 200 bird species on the island, the currawong and woodhen, were at risk of being poisoned.

Staff from Sydney’s Taronga zoo have rounded up 85% of the woodhen population and 50% to 60% of the currawongs into a new enclosure, where they will remain for about three months while the baits are active.

The involvement of non-locals in the eradication project is a recurring theme for a third-generation islander, Clive Wilson. The 86-year-old is one of the most vocal opponents. “The project idea did not come from islanders, it came from public servants and people in New Zealand,” he says.

Tracks in mud
Woodhen footprints surrounded by feral rat tracks. Photograph: Suzanne Long/Alamy

Wilson is a member of the Lord Howe Island First Peoples Association, which has made two attempts to have the project ruled invalid by the NSW administrative appeals tribunal.

The last challenge was set aside last month by the deputy tribunal president, Brian Rayment, with a finding that the AAT did not have jurisdiction to challenge the permit on the grounds proposed.

Wilson is disappointed by the verdict and outraged the baiting will extend to private property, regardless of the owners’ opinions. He has deferred to his wife, who holds the title to their home, to let the officials in. It’s a concession, he stresses, made only in the name of peace. “Some families have been divided, the community generally has been divided,” he says.

He says both the population of and damage caused by rats have been overstated. “I can only tell you that I have got tourist friends who have been coming here for over 60 years who have never seen a live rat,” he says.

The Lord Howe Island woodhen, which is classified as endangered by the IUCN.
The Lord Howe Island woodhen. Zookeepers have rounded up 85% of the woodhen population to keep them safe while baiting takes place. Photograph: Environment NSW

Negative publicity about the project has affected some local tourism operators, who have reported cancellations attributed to those reports.

“I have had a couple of cancellations from this situation,” a hotel owner says. Larger resorts on the island typically close over winter.

She does not support the project but says it’s too late to stop it. “The people doing it believe that it’s going to work long term, but most of us would say that it certainly isn’t going to have that effect.”

The Lord Howe Island Board says the program has gone through “a rigorous and independent assessment process to ensure the impact to people as well as domestic and native animals is minimised while giving the best chance for rodents to be eradicated”.

“Biosecurity measures on Lord Howe are being further strengthened to ensure rodents are not reintroduced following eradication and the island is protected from the introduction of other invasive species that could affect its world heritage values.”


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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