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Back from the brink

by Paul Fraser, Blackall Range Birds Group

The Lord Island Woodhen is endemic to Lord Howe Island, and its current existence is considered to be one of the major environmental success stories worldwide. Lord Howe Island is a volcanic remnant located in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand and is officially part of New South Wales. The first settlers to the island were from New Zealand in 1833, and they became established by providing food to whaling and trading ships.

In addition to the easily sourced but seasonal mutton birds (Shearwaters), the Lord Howe Woodhen became an easy and plentiful source of food. The Lord Howe Woodhen is in the rail family and is about the size of a domestic bantam. They are flightless, inquisitive and having evolved without predators, they have little fear of human presence.

These characteristics made them very easy targets for the early hunters. This, combined with the claim that they were very good to eat, meant the Woodhen became a popular source of protein, well into the 1900s. In addition to hunting, introduced feral species (goats, pigs, cats and rats) were having a catastrophic effect on the Woodhen numbers. By the mid-1900s the Woodhen numbers were in serious decline and were no longer viable as a reliable food source.

By the 1970s surveys estimated that fewer than 30 individuals remained, and it was clear that drastic intervention was necessary if the species was to have any chance of survival. Feral pigs, goats and cats were eliminated in the 1970s/’80s, and a captive breeding program was established in May 1980, which ultimately bred and released 92 birds. By 2008 the population of adult birds was estimated at approximately 212 individuals, but was fluctuating up and down, mainly because of the presence of rats.

Following a very successful rodent eradication programme in 2019-2021, the Woodhen population has increased significantly, and is currently estimated at approximately 1200 birds. I recently travelled to Lord Howe Island, and it was fantastic to see this beautiful and unique species in such good numbers, and easily observed at close range having (somewhat surprisingly) retained their fearless characteristic.

This is an example of what great environmental outcomes can be achieved if sufficient will and determination exists, hopefully we will see many more examples in the future.


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