Control research urged

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Rabbit populations are causing concern across Central Otago and the Lakes district and the Otago Regional Council (ORC) needs to be open to new solutions including genetic modification, newly elected councillor Gary Kelliher says.

The ORC had received 57 queries and complaints about rabbits in the year to date, compared with 40 recorded for the whole of last year.

A regional council spokesman said it was not funding, or considering funding, research into genetic engineering for pest control.

But Cr Kelliher said the problem “isn’t getting better. It is getting worse.”

The Alexandra farmer raised the issue of pest control during his campaign, and now he had been elected to the Dunstan constituency, he wanted to see the council do more to tackle the problem.

Growing up on the family farm in Springvale, Cr Kelliher had first-hand experience of the rabbit problem.

“I was shooting rabbits as a kid . a lot of Central Otago children are brought up with their parents hunting rabbits.”

Although many landowners were “doing a good job”, others were doing less to reduce rabbit numbers, Cr Kelliher said.

“Some people have the best of intentions but don’t do enough, and then there are some that don’t do anything.”

Cr Kelliher was “very keen to keep an open mind” towards new science-based pest control methods, including gene editing.

Genetically modified options might be “a challenge” within the current political environment, but scientific possibilities should not be ignored, Cr Kelliher said.

“I have an open mind towards anything that will help us with this pest.”

Another option he was interested in exploring was laying contraceptives in the same way poison was distributed to reduce pest populations.

Prof Neil Gemmell, of University of Otago, said controlling pest populations using genetic modification was about finding a way to “interfere with some key aspect of their biology”.

This could be their fertility or susceptibility to disease. For example, if every male rat was made infertile “then that population would collapse”.

A Queenstown Lakes District Council spokesman said rabbit numbers across the district were high.

“We have had a number of requests for service for complaints on QLDC land, but this information is hard to pinpoint as we also get a lot of general inquiries about rabbits on private land,” he said.

ORC spokesman Ryan Tippet said the council had not investigated the viability of genetic engineering pest solutions, and was not funding, or considering funding research, into genetic engineering for pest control.

ORC team leader for biosecurity and biodiversity Richard Lord said the council had received 57 queries and complaints about rabbits in the year to date, compared with 40 recorded for last year.

The increase in rabbits observed in some areas was not uncommon for this time of year, but could also be attributed to low rainfall and an easy winter, he said.

In a briefing to the Prime Minister on a report on gene editing from the Royal Society, the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Prof Juliet Gerrard, said gene editing presented special challenges because it made targeted modification of genes increasingly routine.

“This new tool expands the repertoire of genetic engineering to allow more precise modifications to be made more routinely,” Prof Gerrard said.

“This presents some urgency to create a clear framework to enable New Zealanders to make ethical decisions about its use, as is happening internationally.”

 

 

Genetic modification

 

Genetics is a tool that can be used to control pest species, University of Otago professor Neil Gemmell says.

An example was to genetically modify animals in the lab to produce only male offspring, then release those animals into the wild.

The animals’ natural instincts to mate would then spread the modification.

“Let’s say it’s a rat. It would probably produce something in the vicinity of several hundred offspring, maybe thousands, and that will pass on that mutation to 90% of its descendants.”

For pests like rodents that bred quickly, the numbers became very large, very fast.

“Apparently, two rodents, if left unchecked, could produce about a million descendants in just over a year,” Prof Gemmell said.