Position: Wildlife Ecologist, Landcare Research, Hamilton.
Field: Small mammal and bird ecology, threatened species recovery, pest management.
John began his career in wildlife research with a study of ship rats in Palmerston North in the late 1970s for his master’s degree, and he is still preoccupied with them 30 years later.
It’s people who make things happen, and working with the diverse array of wonderful people who manage New Zealand’s wild landscapes is what I enjoy.
He started work with the New Zealand Forest Service in 1980. Kōkako were politically significant birds then as potential victims of logging in their forest habitats. Research on the kōkako began, and John’s involvement with them continues to this day.
His first project researched the effect of aerial 1080 operations on kōkako populations (no impact was noted). Then followed 15 years’ work that showed that predation by ship rats and possums was the key cause of kōkako decline.
When he later did similar work with kererū and tūī, John realised how mammalian predation was a significant problem for many of our native bird species.
One of the most exciting moments of his career was seeing possums eating kōkako eggs (on video) for the first time. At that stage, there was not widespread acceptance that possums routinely ate the birds’ eggs and chicks. It turns out that about three-quarters of all nesting attempts by all native forest birds in New Zealand fail, mainly because of predation by pest mammals.
The key challenge of his career now is convincing people about the magnitude of pest impacts, since most of it happens at night and up trees, unobserved by humans. John says that he is sometimes frustrated that pest impact on native fauna and flora is so little understood by New Zealanders.
The Forest Service, along with the Lands and Survey Department and the Wildlife Service, were replaced by the Department of Conservation in 1987. John joined the Ministry of Forestry until Crown research institutes (CRIs) were formed in 1992. He then joined the CRI Landcare Research at its inception and works from its Hamilton office.
John now works on a wide range of restoration projects. These include getting tūī and bellbirds back into Hamilton and surrounding environments. Environment Waikato has used research he has been involved in on tūī movements, behaviour and nesting success to develop the Hamilton Halo project. This has resulted in rat and possum control where tūī nest, spectacularly increasing tūī numbers. John monitors the abundance of tūī and other birds in Hamilton.
He also leads a wider programme looking at restoring populations of various iconic native species and ecosystem sanctuaries. The sanctuary movement – fenced and unfenced – is particularly interesting to John because the ventures are so dramatic, bold and challenging, such as the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust project in the Waikato. There is a 47-kilometre predator-proof fence around 3,400 hectares of native forest. John is involved in hosting a national website and annual workshop aimed at improving science-based understanding of the ecology and sociology of sanctuaries.
When enough research is enough, John enjoys fishing or hunting somewhere clean and green with good friends. He also plays in a Celtic band that performs at weddings, 21sts and other gigs and is an inline hockey parent for his 2 children.
John’s research group manages the Sanctuaries of New Zealand website, which contains an abundance of information on the sanctuary movement in New Zealand.
Listen to this radio interview with John Innes talking about rats from January 2017.
Read about the findings from a 2016 study that John was involved in that has collated the results of a number of individual studies relating to possum control and the links to biodiversity outcomes.
John Innes won the 2015 Kudos science award for his work on tui around Hamilton, and the battle to save them from invasive predators. Listen to his intervew with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ.
This article is based on information current in 2010 and 2018.