Northland is currently wallaby-free, Biosecurity New Zealand says, but sightings aren’t uncommon. Photo / 123rf
A Whangārei man says he was jogging through a popular city centre forest when he spotted what he believed to be sparring wallabies crashing through the flora.
The potential sighting of a pest has sparked
an urgent response from the country’s biosecurity stewards, some of whom believe the animals may have been hares.
Their concerns are driven by the marsupials’ preferred diet of native seedlings and pasture, which makes them a serious risk environmentally and economically.
Around three weeks ago, Angus Blacklaws was on a Saturday morning jog in the Pukenui Forest when he “got a bit of a surprise” about 400 metres from the Amalin Dr entrance.
“I heard some banging and crashing,” he said.
“I was about 20 to 30m away, and I saw a couple of large brown objects tussling.”
Their shape and size made Blacklaws think they were dogs.
“I saw glimpses of one of their heads and thought – ‘that’s not a dog’.”
Blacklaws slowly walked another 10m toward where the pair went “screaming” off the track, leaving a crashing sound in their wake.
“When I got near the bend I heard a bit of a rustling, and 10 to 15m away were two juvenile wallabies staring at me.”
The apparent joeys eventually broke eye contact and “took off at a great rate of knots” into the forest.
“It was crazy,” Blacklaws said. “I couldn’t believe how quick they were.”
The last time he had seen a wallaby was “many, many years ago” on Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf, east of Warkworth.
Large numbers of four types of wallaby – the dama or tammar, Parma, swamp and brush-tailed rock wallaby – call the island’s 2000 hectares home.
Blacklaws was saddened by his potential sighting, as he knew how destructive wallabies could be and thought the Pukenui Western Hills Forest Trust had done a “fantastic job” restoring the area.
Neither Biosecurity New Zealand nor the Northland Regional Council had received any reports of wallaby sightings in the Pukenui Forest.
NRC biosecurity manager Don McKenzie said while Northland is officially wallaby-free, there was always the potential for them to enter the region via illegal releases.
“There have been several wallaby sightings reported in Northland in the past, and NRC takes any reporting of potential sightings very seriously,” he said.
The last high-profile ‘wallaby’ encounter was in May this year when someone spotted what they thought was a wallaby on the side of Babylon Coast Rd, near Dargaville.
Biosecurity staff investigated and ruled it a case of mistaken identity with a hare.
John Walsh, Biosecurity New Zealand’s director of readiness and response, said they would set up targeted surveillance to investigate the Pukenui Forest sightings.
McKenzie elaborated, saying NRC partners with tangata whenua, the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for Primary Industries to search for scats, chewing and/or other signs of wallaby activity in areas where they may have been sighted.
“Wallabies are unwanted because they eat native and exotic seedlings and pasture, making them potentially costly to the farming and forestry sectors and posing a risk to native bush, too, as they can limit the regeneration of some species,” he said.
Pukenui Western Hills Forest Charitable Trust chair Wayne Wrack said the forest’s rangers and a Department of Conservation staff member believed the wallabies were in fact hares, based on their behaviour.
“They’ve dubbed him King Jack, he is so big.”
Wrack said that from time to time, people would come across large hares in the forest.
The problem they faced was not wallabies, but dog owners not keeping their canines out of the forest, he added.
Former Northland Regional Council biosecurity and Biodiversity Working Party chair Jack Craw said earlier this year that a hare’s head is of a similar size and skin colour to a wallaby’s.
They also had much larger ears, but it can be hard to tell, he said.
“[…] and when a large hare sits motionless, it’s understandable how mistaken identity can occur.”
NRC’s McKenzie stressed the importance of reporting all potential wallaby sightings.
“We don’t want wallabies here, so if anyone thinks they have seen a wallaby, or signs of a wallaby in Te Tai Tokerau, they should report it as soon as possible by filling out the online sighting report form by visiting reportwallabies.nz.”