Edward Duff is a legend and an inspiration who radiates enthusiasm in his role as the Eastern Bays Songbird Project's possum eradicator and scourge of predators in general. His bright blue eyes light up at the mention of a possum sighted anywhere in the Ōrākei Local Board’s (OLB’s) area. A phone call to the householder or landowner concerned and Edward is on the hunt.
Recently I joined Edward on a mission that turned out to be a red-letter day in his possum-trapping history. We went to collect what Edward thought must be “the last possum on the Glendowie cliffs” and ended up bagging two!
Tanned, fit and wearing shorts and a t-shirt as he does year-round, Edward opened the boot of his modest grey Toyota Camry to show me the arsenal of tools and materials he has on hand for his two-pronged work eliminating both predators and weeds. There are saws and loppers to cut down hardy weeds, spades to dig out weeds and bury possums, a variety of traps, and even a bag of apples to tempt possums to enter the bright yellow plastic Timms traps.
Accompanying him as he checked a series of traps on his round, I learned a lot about both possums and Edward himself.
A statistic he’s proud of is that “in the last five years we’ve taken out 1500 possums between Glendowie and Parnell.” Of those, Edward can lay claim to having personally “taken out” 500. “The level of possums kills has stayed almost the same at 200-300 a year, but that’s because we’ve expanded from our original territory of Orakei, Mission Bay, Kohimarama, St Heliers and Glendowie to now include Panmure, Glen Innes, Wai-ō-Taiki Bay, Remuera, Meadowbank and Parnell,” Edward said.
Edward and his wife Helen moved to Glendowie 11 years ago. He joined Friends of Churchill Park and “someone mentioned there were these two crazy guys [John Laurence and John La Roche] starting a new group.” The new group was the Eastern Bays Songbird Project (EBSP). Edward joined at the inaugural meeting.
Initially an EBSP volunteer for Churchill Park and Tahuna Torea, Edward soon agreed to be a voluntary possum controller one day a week. An accountant by profession, he was working for Gymnastics New Zealand and had previously worked for 13 years as an accountant for Greenpeace. When his Gym NZ job was disestablished, and EBSP asked him to carry out possum control four days a week, it was a no-brainer. Although there’s some financial compensation from Auckland Council and Ōrākei Local Board, it’s much less than what he once earned. But Edward is happy. “There’s a large element of giving. You feel like you’re making such a difference,” he said,
Edward’s work includes a close relationship with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. He spends most Tuesday mornings checking trap lines or removing pest plants on iwi land, with no weed-killing poisons allowed. He often trains up Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei “newbies”, either at Pourewa Valley or Whenua Rangatira. “We seem to be on top of the pest animals, but the pest plants are a real problem, including Japanese honeysuckle, privet, elaeagnus, ginger, wattle, woolly nightshade, moth plant and blue morning glory — just to name a few.”
During the last five years, Edward has enthusiastically gathered allies, recruiting local people to host and monitor traps at or near their homes in the quest to rid the Eastern Bays of possums and other predators.
However, volunteers look after only about a quarter of the 100 possum traps in the project area. Ideally, they’d all be looked after by volunteers who live nearby. “We are always on the lookout for more volunteers to host and monitor traps,” Edward said.
The first dead possum Edward collected on our tour had been reported by a volunteer household in Karaka Bay. The Timms trap they host on the deck of their bush-clad house had caught a possum overnight. We turned up mid-morning to find a sleek, well-fed male possum cleanly killed after putting his head in the trap to eat a tempting half-apple. It was a whopper — Edward estimated it weighed at least 6kg.
Ideally, volunteers would dispose of the kills by burying them or by putting them in a black plastic rubbish bag and adding them to their weekly red-top rubbish bin’s contents. However, Edward understands that while some people are happy to host and bait the trap, they are not so keen to dispose of the carcass, so he’s happy to do that job for them.
Outdoor security cameras, which are increasingly common in home gardens, reveal the nocturnal predation of possums and rats. This often comes as a surprise to householders who, before the cameras were installed, would have sworn their gardens did not have any predators, let alone possums.
Possums — introduced from Australia in the mid-1800s in a misguided attempt to establish a fur industry in New Zealand — destroy every level of the forest ecosystem. They strip and kill trees, predate the eggs and chicks of our native birds, and eat wētā and other native insects. It’s not just what they eat but how they eat. Possums will return night after night to a single tree, systematically stripping it bare before moving on to another of the same species. By doing this, possums change the overall structure and composition of our native forests. At any one time, about six plant species will make up 75 per cent of a possum’s diet. Possums will eat more than 70 types of native tree species, but their clear favourites are often tall canopy trees like pūriri, pōhutukawa, tawa, rātā, kohekohe, kāmahi and tōtara. Placing traps or bait stations near or on their favourite trees increases the success of possum control.
In a report by Forest and Bird looking into the impact of introduced predators on the climate crisis, it was found that browsers like possums also significantly impact the ability of our native forests to sequester carbon.
After collecting the 6kg whopper, Edward decided to check another trap mounted on a tree nearby in a public bush area. “Wait in the car,” he told me. “I’ll just do a quick check.” Half a minute later he returned, running. “There’s another one!” he yelled “Two in one day — that’s a record!” I accompanied him to see Possum #2 - a female this time, almost as big as the first, and apparently also caught overnight. Edward gave both carcasses a bush burial.
Next, we went to Glover Park and walked up the steepish path at the St Heliers end to see the spot where Edward caught his first possum five years ago. “The cliffs from Glendowie to Ōrākei were teeming with possums then,” Edward recalled. He took out 50 possums from the Glendowie cliffs bordering luxury homes. “The cliffs are lined with pōhutukawa, and possums love pōhutukawa,” Edward said. “They like eating the leaves and feel safe if the pōhutukawa is clinging to a cliff that humans can’t reach.”
Edward routinely checks several other sites where there are trees whose fruits are particular favourites of possums, including the Moreton Bay figs on Tamaki Drive at St Heliers and a grove of pūriri on a roundabout in Cliff Road. Fruit trees (including olives) in private gardens also provide banquets for possums.
But our tour revealed there’s been progress. Five years after his first catch in Glover Park, Edward checked the exact spot and found an untouched apple and an empty trap. All good signs. He also found a long-expired rat in the DoC 200 trap.
There’s been a huge change in public awareness and willingness to help achieve the target of making New Zealand predator-free by 2050 — an ambition announced by then-Prime Minister John Key that coincided with the establishment of EBSP. Householders in the OLB area now host over 3800 rat traps and over 500 possum traps.
Edward is optimistic that Auckland will reach the Predator-free 2050 target. “But there’s an urgency to it,” he said. “Wellington is about 10 years ahead of us — they’ve got kākā flying everywhere,”
However, the signs are that Auckland can catch up. “All our Hauraki Gulf islands are now predator free and native birds are starting to spill over from the islands to bush areas on the mainland. I’ve a gut feeling that now places like the Glendowie cliffs are free of vermin, the birds might fly over from the islands and find them good spots to hang out. The islands will act as incubators for populations of native birds. I truly believe we can catch up to Wellington.”
Edward is turning 60 this year and hopes to be alive in 2050 to see Predator-free New Zealand become a reality. He’ll be 87 by then. What’s the betting he’ll still be here to celebrate? My money’s on Edward!
Story & photos by Jan Power