Possums beware: Maggie 'biggest killer' Barry wants you dead

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry (Getty)
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry (Getty)

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry is confident her "Apollo moon shot" at wiping out New Zealand's predatory species can be done.

"I'm known as the party's biggest killer," she proudly told Paul Henry on Tuesday morning.

"The Department of Conservation is very, very good at killing pests and predators, and I think we can do this."

The Government yesterday launched its campaign to rid the country of rats, stoats and possums. It's put $28 million into a new company, Predator Free New Zealand - not to be confused with philanthropist Gareth Morgan's trust, Predator Free NZ.

"It's unbelievably ambitious, but we're enhancing, protecting our natural capital which is arguably our most important, not just environmental, but economic asset," Dr Morgan said, adding that he was delighted the Government borrowed the trust's name.

Ms Barry says last year the Department of Conservation killed 25 million rats, but recent developments in science and technology will help them kill even more.

"We have an international reputation for being able to trap and poison, but science and technology really brings us the most exciting elements of this.

"Five years ago when [scientist] Paul Callaghan suggested that we do this, that this was our Apollo moon shot, it was going to be very difficult. We didn't really have the science and technology. Now we're starting to get it."

One strategy that's showing some promise in the lab is the "Trojan female" technique. According to Dr Morgan's Predator Free NZ, it's a genetic mutation in the female which makes all their male offspring infertile. The gene is passed down through the generations, so over time more and more females are producing infertile males.

So far the technique has only been used on fruit flies, and there is research underway to find the equivalent gene in possums and other predators.

"Our aim and ambition is to within 10 years get rid of at least one small mammalian predator," says Ms Barry. "We're trying for rats, but possums, probably because of the rate they breed at, are going to be an easier target."

There are currently no plans to hit Dr Morgan's pet peeve - feral cats - any harder.

"We're sticking to the top three at this stage… feral cats are an issue and DoC will continue to deal with those."

The Green Party has backed the move, but doubts it can be done without a $9 billion injection.

"The Government seems happy to once again put out the begging bowl to the private sector to fund what should be taken care of by the Government," says spokesperson Kevin Hague.

Ms Barry dismissed Mr Hague's criticism as "Green mathematics".

While New Zealand First says "no human society in history has succeeded in exterminating the rat", and doing so could upset an ecological "uneasy equilibrium".

The party also questions the company model of Predator Free New Zealand, saying a "profit-driven private enterprise" can't be expected to "exterminate the very source of its income".