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Breeding colony . . . A black-billed gull nesting colony has been spotted on the Ashley River. Photo: Grant Davey

Conservationists throughout Australasia have recognised the work of the Ashley Rakahuri Rivercare Group (ARRG), to protect the unique braided river environment of the Ashley-Rakahuri River in North Canterbury.

It has been awrded the Australasian Wildlife Management Society (AWMS) annual award for practical wildlife management.

Endangered . . .Wrybill chicks have been spotted on the Ashley River. Photo: Supplied

It won the award from eight finalists from throughout Australasia, for its practical work to protect and enhance the populations of endemic braided river birds in the Ashley-Rakahuri River such as threatened species like the wrybill, black-fronted tern, black-billed gull and the banded dotterel.

All of these birds nest on clean shingle banks and islands within the river environment.

ARRG Chair Nick Ledgard says what he likes most about the award, which is in recognition of outstanding best practice in wildlife management, is that the judges would have known nothing about the group before it entered.

“We were told we had won from a strong field of entrants. The AWMS goes out of its way to support applied conservation research and management. I was told we were exactly the sort of community group they wanted to support.”

For 14 years, ARRG has run a predator trapping programme along an 18km stretch of the Ashley-Rakahuri River from just West of Rangiora to where the river crosses state highway just north of Waikuku Township.

Additionally, the group has annually surveyed the population of braided river birds in the protected area, compiling an important record of bird population and nesting success data.

It has also conducted extensive public awareness campaigns to advocate for the protection of the riverbed and its inhabitants. One of the results of its advocacy is a local agreement to keep off-road vehicles out of the river during the bird breeding season.

Nick Ledgard says one of the requirements for accepting the award is attending the AWMS annual conference, this year at Hobart from December 3 to 6.

Nick says there were more than 100 presentations at the annual conference and it was clear conservation challenges in Australia were quite different to ARRGs, because of the presence of native land mammals in Australia, an issue New Zealand does not have (apart from two species of bat).

“The most talked about predator of interest to us was the feral cat, which is arguably their major problem and, of course, in a river that runs through urban areas such as Rangiora, a major problem for us too.”

Nick says one of the main ideas he took from the conference was the use of trail cameras to not only measure the activity of the protected animals, but also of their predators.

“The trail cameras show behaviour we don’t normally get to see. This is particularly the case for feral cats which are most active at night.

“Knowing how, where and under what conditions feral cats predate our birds would be a great help in designing methods to maximise our control of these predators.

“I was also shown some thermo-imaging cameras. Open riverbeds would be ideal for these, and at night we could get to know every visitor (right down to mice). But the cost is still huge for the best gear and obtaining funding for such equipment would be too much for us.”

Nick says ARRG’s biggest challenge for the future is keeping on top of the invasive weeds which can quickly reduce suitable bird feeding.

“I felt it was keeping on top of invasive weeds, which can quickly reduce suitable bird feeding and breeding habitat. Our surveys show that we can keep on top of the predators in the controlled area with trapping, but weed control is an ongoing and repeated issue if we are to maintain the clean shingle areas the birds need to breed.”