Lesley ‘Buster’ Leith is disappointed his body isn’t prepared to spend most nights out shooting pests these days.
The veteran pest shooter retired this month after 38 years and 55,312 dead rabbits, 78,314 dead possums, 37,382 dead hares, and 111,864 shotgun shots later
He’s been doing it since he was a child, but officially he became a contractor for the Southern Pest Board in 1979, covering the Ferndale, Mataura, Warakiki areas, as well as the back of Venlaw Station.
“I enjoyed it, night shooting. We used to work Sunday night to Thursday nights those days … there was no rabbits here when I started here [Tokanui]. There was no rabbits here at all from here to Glenham.”
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In 1997 he started shooting in the Tokanui area, removing 157 rabbits between October and December that year.
In June 1998 he began as a contractor on his own with a motorbike in Tokanui.
“They were getting away back down in here. That’s why there were three of us working full time from Tokanui to Wyndham.”
Rabbits were growing in numbers in the Tokanui area. Since June 1998 to this month Leith has killed a total of 25,614 rabbits in the area, 232 of which were in the first four months of this year.
“I wanted it back to none before I retired but it wasn’t going to happen. I planned to work another two years but that’s not going to happen. The cold weather is getting to me and my hands are getting cramp in them at nights.”
Leith relies on a shotgun and his dogs to help him when he’s out shooting. A .22 rifle is too dangerous, he says.
“If you hit a rabbit in the head the bullet can go anywhere, it can just ricochet.”
Over the years, Leith has loved working for himself, and getting rid of pests.
“I can remember what they were like as a kid. They were everywhere.”
He also managed to get a light-coloured possum, something he says he has never seen in the wild again.
In almost 40 years, there have been many dogs – about nine in total. They were good companions and co-workers, and Leith still has Ben and Sue at home with him.
Two dogs were accidentally shot while working – “it was heartbreaking”.
While retirement has been a bit sad to get his head around, Leith isn’t going to be giving up shooting altogether and is still making plans to go out and shoot.
To keep himself busy in between those shoots he’s got plenty of bowls to play.
The Southern Pest Eradication Society was set up in 1996 after farmers became frustrated with the lack of rabbit control and a desire to avoid numbers rising to disastrous levels again.
Rabbits have been the scourge of the country since the mid-1800s. Original society committee member and life member Ken Buckingham, of Waimahaka, says some farmers and run holders were at their wits end and had to walk off their properties because of rabbits.
“There had been all sorts of schemes to get rid of rabbits but because some men were making a living from rabbits once the skins and carcasses could be exported it became necessary for the government to devalue the rabbit as they were being farmed in some areas. Trappers always left enough behind to quickly breed up so there would be another crop when they returned.”
Rabbit boards were set up throughout the country and the aim was to exterminate rabbits. The boards had variable success, Buckingham says.
“Usually the government went dollar to dollar with the levies charged to farmers.”
As a child growing up in the area Buckingham remembers entire hills covered in rabbits.
“I remember as a kid having my own rabbit rail where the pairs of rabbits were hung over a manuka rail, a scrim of jute was pulled over them to keep the flies off and the rabbit truck driver that collected them left the money in a tin tied to the post that held up the rabbit rail.”
Any house or garden had to be fenced with rabbit netting or it was a waste of time, he says.
Any turnips or young grass had traps set around the perimeter of the paddock and they were looked at morning and night.
“Occasionally my father would put out a poison. First it would be fed twice with oats and molasses then strychnine added. The next morning the sight would be unbelievable – rabbits lying everywhere. One wondered where they all came from.”
In Tokanui, rabbit board foreman Jim Morton was determined to get rid of every last rabbit in the area. He was successful, Buckingham says.
The Tokanui board was amalgamated with Waimahaka, and Morton was successful at getting rid of most of the rabbits there too.
Before Environment Southland took over from the rabbit boards the Wyndham area was also amalgamated into Morton’s jurisdiction.
“Jim died and the regional council kept on syphoning off our rabbiters to do possum work as the possums were being blamed as the feral vector of TB in deer and cattle herds,” Buckingham says.
“Local farmers who were old enough to remember the plague that rabbits used to be were becoming angry and frustrated to see rabbits creeping back onto clean country in the southern district.”
Regional councils had their own pest management strategy which put the management of pests like rabbits, back onto farmers.
The council’s job was to monitor infestations through counting population numbers and only act when rabbits were above a McLean scale three. They warned the farmer, and if they farmer did not reduce the numbers the council did and charged the farmer for the service, Buckingham says.
Southern farmers became more and more frustrated as they watched rabbit numbers begin to climb.
They held public meetings in Waimahaka and Tokanui but Buckingham says it was of little use because the council was firm about implementing its own pest management strategy, backed by the Biosecurity Act.
“In frustration with the council we set up the Southern Pest Eradication Society and levied farmers enough to employ three contractors to cover the Toi Tois area (this was the Mataura River to the west, sea to the south, Otago boundary to the east and north).”
The Southern Pest Eradication Society covers about 300,000 hectares, with about 100,000 hectares in Tokanui, Waimahaka and Wyndham.
“Our committee worked voluntarily so that all money collected went to the shooters who were responsible for all their own costs: vehicles, guns, ammunition, spotlights and dogs.”
Buckingham says the society made good progress but there were always a few farmers who weren’t “publicly minded” and did not pay the levies.
“Of course these farmers had rabbits but we couldn’t go onto their farms as they weren’t members. Everyone knows that rabbits don’t recognise boundaries so these rabbits would contaminate neighbouring farms.”
In 2004, the society had a big breakthrough – they were able to make membership compulsory.
Environment Southland began collecting the levies for the society and Buckingham says it meant contractors were able work the entire area.
“The regional council has become an advocate for our scheme as they say it is a good example of a community helping themselves.”
After 21 years the society is still going strong.
Buckingham credits the quality of its contracts.
“We have always wanted to pay our contractors more as their costs keep rising but we have to temper that with affordability of farmers and their desire to keep costs low.”
It seems the Southern Pest Eradication Society is here to stay. Buckingham says unless there is some radical breakthrough in methods, the society will remain.
“We know now we will never get rid of the last rabbit but reckon it is cheaper and easier to keep controlling them at very low numbers than do nothing and then try to deal with plagues.”
Leith, a contractor for the Southern Pest Eradication Society since its inception, says the society fulfils the needs of farmers in the area. Hayden Taylor has taken over his role.