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New Zealand’s constant battle with invasive species

Agriculture is considered New Zealand’s primary industry, but the incursion of disease and pests poses a constant threat to farmers on the island nation

Biosecurity doesn’t get much cuter than this, and the Kiwis know it.

Floppy-eared beagles, with patches of tan and white fur, greet visitors and returning locals alike as they disembark at any of New Zealand’s international airports.

But the friendly and curious canines play a vital role in New Zealand’s intense network of biosecurity measures, aimed at protecting the country’s fruit, honey and livestock industries.

“The beagle is the face of biosecurity in New Zealand,” said Brett Hickman, detection technology manager for New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries, or MPI, which is responsible for all aspects of agriculture on the island nation.

“If you come into the country, you’ll see us here at the border, it’s one of the first things visitors see, but it is only one part of our multi-layered system,” he said. “It might be the most visible, but the detector dogs work as part of our bigger biosecurity system.”

Even before visitors see the beagles — which are trained to detect any sort of fruit or vegetable, along with honey and animal or fish products — they are instructed to “dispose or declare” all such items. But Hickman said not everyone does.

Some people aren’t familiar with the concept of biosecurity, others forget about the banana in the bottom of their bag, and a few just believe the rules don’t apply to them, said Hickman.

However, maintaining biosecurity is crucial for New Zealand. The country is already dealing with dozens of invasive plants, rats introduced by Polynesian settlers hundreds of years ago and a rabbit-killing virus. It was purposely introduced by farmers frustrated with the government’s response to the rodents, which are themselves an invasive species. And that is to say nothing of the possums, which are devastating some areas of the countryside, giving rise to a market for possum wool in an attempt to encourage the hunting and trapping of the destructive species.

The current fear is that fruit flies will make it onto the South Pacific nation and devastate the country’s orchards and vineyards. And the possibility of foot-and-mouth disease is never far from the minds of producers.

“As an exporting and trading nation, protecting our economy is really important,” said Nathan Guy, minister of primary industries. “We’re petrified of getting a disease into this country that could cause major ramifications.”

Formerly mammal free

And not just commercial production would be affected — native plants and animals — especially birds — have also been affected heavily by invasive species. When people first arrived on the land mass now known as New Zealand around the year 900, only two mammals species existed on the island — both were bats.

Guy notes that while economic impacts are a key concern with biosecurity, conservation is also a priority, as is protecting the country’s tourism industry. An industry that relies on both a rich ecological diversity and the knowledge that tourists can return to their own countries without fear of bringing a disease back to their homes and farms.

“So we know we have to do our utmost to keep those pests and disease out of New Zealand, and that’s why we have a real focus on biosecurity,” said the minister.

However, biosecurity doesn’t come cheap.

Last week the New Zealand government announced it would be introducing a border levy to help defray the expense of its costly system, although, the details of that levy have yet to be released.

“That means that instead of the taxpayers paying for border biosecurity and customs, it will be on you as travellers coming to New Zealand,” said Guy.

Dogs have a Facebook page

Part of that new revenue stream will be used to train and implement more detector-dog teams, which also patrol docks, cruise ships and the country’s international mail centre in Auckland. Twenty more dogs will be added over the next year, bringing the total to about 60.

Hickman said the dogs do much more than just detect meat and produce, they have also become valuable public relations and education tools.

The beagles have their own Facebook page and have been featured in nationwide naming contests, giving MPI an opportunity to engage the public and make sure people understand the seriousness of biosecurity threats.

“It’s been great, because yes a lot of dog lovers go on Facebook and look at the dogs, but then they also start to ask about biosecurity and what they can and can’t bring into the country. So for us it’s brilliant,” he said, adding the decision to focus on beagles was also a strategic one.

“They tick every single box for is and they’re as cute as can be,” said the border officer. “And when I say they are cute and cuddly, that is actually really important for us, a lot of people don’t like dogs, and we want people to be comfortable if the dog comes up and smells their bag. Some people are very averse to dogs and they will back away, and we don’t want that.”

The beagles also appear regularly on the TV show “Border Patrol,” which follows New Zealand customs officers as they defend against biosecurity incursions and other threats. In its 11th season, the show now appears in a dozen countries and Hickman said many people who breeze through New Zealand customs reference the show, indicating they knew exactly what to bring and what to leave at home because of it.

Of course, it’s not just beagles that greet land and sea arrivals in New Zealand. Uniformed quarantine officers also speak to each individual, asking questions about food, shoes, farm and animal exposure, and even if visitors are bringing in camping gear.

“Many people don’t think about outdoor kit, but soil on shoes or tents can pose a serious risk as well,” Hickman said. The final step is to X-ray all baggage to ensure nothing has been missed.

“So we have many, many broad layers,” he said, noting that MPI is also responsible for surveillance, management and destruction efforts should a breach occur and a biosecurity threat, such as a fruit fly, makes it into the country.

“We’re trying to keep the country safe for our primary industries and for tourism,” said Hickman. “And that can be a vey complex endeavour.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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