Tāmaki Innovation Campus

Doing the numbers on stoats

Patrick Garvey in the grounds of the Tamaki Campus.
A trip to South America inspired Patrick Garvey to turn his back on accountancy and undertake studies in environmental management and conservation.

When PhD researcher Patrick Garvey was asked what triggers his interest in ‘all things stoat’, he said understanding the relationships that organisms have with one another and their environment has enthralled him since childhood.

It took a trip to South America in 2007 to turn his back on the world of accountancy and undertake postgraduate studies in environmental management and conservation.

“My initial interest was zoology, especially ethology (the study of animal behaviour), but I realised if trends in species loss continued, there would soon be little wildlife left to observe.”

Undertaking his doctorate at The University of Auckland’s Tāmaki Campus alongside Landcare Research, has given Patrick the opportunity to work in an area he particularly enjoys, combining a feel good factor with contribution to natural heritage conservancy.

An Irish upbringing saw him spending a lot of his childhood wandering the local peat lands, which were ‘terrible for agriculture, but a haven for wildlife’.

“Although my family have always been involved in business, my parents encouraged me to follow my passion. Even with their support, I took the scenic route to my chosen career, as a degree in accountancy is not generally viewed as a natural stepping stone into science. Still, having these two disparate careers does have its advantages, as now I know both the price and the value of everything,” he says.

Patrick says luck and good fortune has also been on his side. “I have been lucky enough to travel extensively around the world, which influenced my perspective on life. I volunteered at a centre for confiscated wildlife in the Amazon jungle; spent three months in Kruger National Park monitoring bird communities; and have mapped coral reefs in Mozambique. I thought, given the presence of international volunteers, that the future for wildlife at these locations would have been secure, but unfortunately the situation has greatly deteriorated.”

Volunteering solidified a long held wish to work in conservation biology, with a particular interest in the consequences of introducing predatory mammals into New Zealand’s ecosystem.

“To conserve native wildlife, invasive species must be controlled, but managing them in isolation from each other can have unforeseen consequences. I’m looking at the role that competition plays in shaping invasive mammal communities.”

To date, he has undertaken pen trials at Landcare Research evaluating the behavioural responses of stoats to two larger invasive animals, the feral cat and the ferret.

“Clearly stoats increase vigilance, reduce food harvesting and significantly avoid interactions with the larger predators. These responses directly influence the distribution and abundance of stoats, which in turn has direct consequence for native species. Competition plays an important role in influencing the demography of predator communities and needs to be considered in conservation management.”

Nearly 40% of New Zealand birds are endangered, with the stoat considered to be ‘public enemy number one’ by the Department of Conservation (DoC). Patrick’s behavioural information will help improve capture rates.

Eighteen months into the project, Patrick is hoping the end result will be a coherent picture of competitive interaction between stoats and other invasive animals. Next he will look at trapping data already collected by Landcare Research and DoC. Modelling and analysing this will reveal the distribution of stoats, in comparison to other invasive species. The final step will be to undertake fieldwork to confirm observations made during the first two stages.

This article was first published in the June 2013 Tāmaki Update