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Andy Foster: Wellington’s amazing ecological journey

by Andy Foster
“The morning before people arrived, 130 bird species lived on the New Zealand mainland alone. In their tens of millions, they greeted the first light with the planet’s last untouched morning chorus.” (Zealandia Visitor Centre)

I don’t much like the term ‘our’ environment. It’s good if it means care and responsibility, but not if it suggests ownership to do what we like with.

Environments are a complex, usually balanced collection of species inhabiting land and waterscapes. Worldwide, we continue to upset those balances through ignorance, apathy and self-interest, made dramatically worse by the population and consumption explosion of the last 200 years. Those environments could for the most part happily exist without us, and do not exist just for the benefit of our species. We borrow them from our children, and too often take them from other species.

In New Zealand though we have to intervene, and do so positively. We have to be active guardians or kaitiaki.

New Zealand’s ecological story since human beings first arrived is one of destruction, widespread extinction of species, massive reduction in range and number of remaining native species, and widespread loss of habitat. These islands have a unique ecology and species that developed in isolation from humans, and mammals (other than small bat species) for around 70,000,000 years. New Zealand’s isolation led to an incredibly high rate of endemism. (species that occur nowhere else on the planet)

If you think of 70,000,000 years as a 24 hour day, humans and mammals have been here for 700-800 years – just coming up to a mere 1 second of that day. Tragically in that single second some 42 bird species, 3 lizard species, 3 frog species, a bat, fish and several insects and plants have become extinct. 90% of wetlands are gone, 2/3rds of the forest is gone, with lowland forest especially hard hit. Remaining species are drastically reduced in number and range. 80% of remaining bird species are threatened or critically endangered, as are nearly all the c60 lizard species, the 4 frog species, an estimated 2300 insect species, and a large number of plant species.

Doing nothing in New Zealand, even if we stopped habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, and fishing, would still condemn more ancient species to extinction because of the exotic animal and plant species we have introduced. Some people seem to think that is just evolution. It isn’t. We have intruded enormously into the evolutionary timespan. It’s about the same as suggesting that being shot would be ‘dying of natural causes’. So we must not only avoid negative actions, but also take positive actions.

The good news is that around New Zealand things are changing and I think they are changing fast. Environmental awareness is increasing. The media is much more aware. Tens of thousands of us are getting our hands dirty, restoring environments, planting, doing clean ups, removing plant and animal pests, fighting to protect habitats. That is active kaitiakitanga. Now environmentalism is more than having to fight against destruction of some aspect of the environment. Now there is also widespread opportunity to do positive things. There is so much to be done.

In a world where biodiversity is in crisis, Wellington is a leader in environmental restoration. There is nothing to be smug about, and we have a long way to go, but we are on a remarkable journey.

In the early days of European settlement (1845) Edward Jerningham Wakefield described arriving via the Old Porirua Road:

“The entrance into Wellington by this road is singularly beautiful. As you wind round the sides of the rocky spurs, beneath gigantic boughs and luxuriant foliage, you obtain peeps of the velvet woods of the Valley of Kai Wara Wara and its tributaries; then a view of the western faces of Wade’s Town, with its cottages and bright green gardens; and lastly, the wide expanse of Port Nicholson, with its ships, peaked mountains, and glistening town.”

Fellow settler James Taine described Karori birdlife in 1840 saying

“…the solitude of the bush was enlivened by the call and movement of numerous birds such as the tui, tomtit, fantail and little green parrot, the last with touching confidence, would come so near when we were sitting down that we could almost seize them with our hands.”

Sadly by 1990 we had virtually no native birdlife. Some of my knowledgeable environmental friends said there were just a dozen tui and a pair of kereru in Wellington. 95% plus of the original forest was gone. Pest control didn’t exist. We had sewage on the beaches, no Zealandia, the Outer Green Belt was just a hopeful concept as were Wrights Hill, Johnston Hill and Khandallah and Karori Parks. There were just 2 community environmental care groups. When we started Zealandia as Karori Sanctuary we had sugar water feeders for tui because they were so rare.

1992 – 5 were watershed years. Jim Lynch proposed the world-first radical concept of a fenced mainland Sanctuary in the Karori Reservoir in 1992. That was also the year we (Wellington City Council) began the largest reserve land acquisition programme in Wellington’s history, progressively purchasing land towards creating a continuous Outer Green Belt from the South Coast to the Porirua boundary.

eco-map-of-wgtn

The map sets out the city reserve network and shows the areas acquired, the majority of them by 2004. All the dark areas have been added to the city reserve network since 1992, the red striped area is the designated landfill area most of which is now Te Kopahou reserve (Outer Green Belt). Watts Peninsula (Miramar) is circled because it will soon become a heritage reserve.

I count 38 separate acquisitions and 6 protections or repurposing from utility purposes. Protecting land allowed natural and assisted regeneration, and allowed community groups to form to look after areas they felt passionately about. It has been wonderful for recreation and lifestyle too. Something I will always treasure is the former colleague who, presenting at a public forum a few years ago said “Andy, I always used to criticize you for buying ‘gorse covered hills’ around Wellington – I was wrong.” A recent lifestyle and tourism survey said our greatest, unique strength is being ‘a City set in Nature.’ We hear so often from people who could live anywhere telling us they choose Wellington because of the ability to get out into nature and recreate.

Completing the reserve network is getting closer and in the last three years we’ve made two important acquisitions in the north of the city. Several other steps are currently in train, including with the Crown over management of Miramar’s Watts peninsula as a heritage reserve, and I am talking with several private parties about other possible reserve agreements. Completing Wellington’s reserve network is in sight.

In 1993 we began possum control in Otari and spread that throughout the city. Now possums are only rarely sighted in the urban area.

Other pests have followed. 1994 saw the new District Plan and focus on a compact city and reducing sprawl into those surrounding hills. That incidentally also has benefits for transport, infrastructure provision, lower carbon emissions, and better economic and social connection. After many years of Council debate the 1992-5 Council finally agreed the contract to treat Wellington’s sewage, clean water providing later opportunities such as the Island Bay marine reserve.

It has been a long and often hard road with many critics, including inside Council.

Karori Sanctuary, now Zealandia, struggled with visitor numbers for its first 5 years post Visitor Centre, but there is no doubt now that it is an incredible asset, with sustained annual visitation of over 125,000, 11,000 members and over 600 volunteers. It has huge scientific research and educational benefit, and we can all see and hear the increase in bird life.

Time magazine lists Zealandia as one of the top 100 places in the world! Zealandia is now also looking outside the fence at how it can work with others to restore the wider environment. This includes leading Kia Mauriora te Kaiwharawhara, the Kaiwharawhara stream catchment restoration project. Zealandia has also inspired other fenced sanctuaries around New Zealand.

Biodiversity restoration is very much a core Council function now, with New Zealand’s first urban ecology team. Science and knowledge are increasing all the time. We now have a staggering 140 plus community groups in Wellington helping looking after reserve areas. The passion and commitment of these wonderful people is tangible. Collectively this all strengthens our human community too.

There still remains so much to do.

Over the last three years predator free groups have exploded across our City. Nearly every suburb has a grass roots generated backyard trapping group, some with over 1000 members. Other groups trap in reserves. Personally I have run a trap line for over three years with Makara Peak Supporters ‘Katch 22’ group, which traps the Outer Green Belt around Karori. Wellington City Council with partners Greater Wellington Regional Council and NEXT Foundation, supported by Predator Free 2050 set up an independent charitable company Predator Free Wellington in 2018.

As I write PFW’s website reports 7,187 traps which have caught 69,856 pests. That will be considerably underreported too. What a fantastic citizen effort! A particular thanks to the wonderful community leaders who distribute traps, show people how to use them, and provide regular information and inspiration to their communities. Forget talking about the weather. Now the pros and cons of different bait types are water cooler or facebook conversation items (along with the buses)!

In July PFW went live with traps and bait stations on the Miramar peninsula. Possums were removed from Miramar in 2003. Now we are removing rats and mustelids (weasels and stoats). This is ambitious but there is a huge amount of research and science behind it. Community support on the peninsula has been incredible. PFW door knocked the peninsula and got almost 100% support, including 3000 householders agreeing to host traps and bait stations which are being checked by PFW weekly for 6 months.

Miramar we hope will be the blueprint for the rest of the city.

Personally I’ve long thought that ultimately the motorway with some median barrier modification could provide the basis of a defensible barrier against re-invasion.

Across Makara, Ohariu and the Outer Green Belt, Capital Kiwi, supported by the likes of the Four Wheel Drive Clubs are establishing a network of 4,000 traps across 23,000 hectares, particularly targeting stoats and any invading ferrets. Landowner support has been superb. Stoats are the number one killer of our national bird. 95% of chicks in stoat infested areas don’t reach their first birthday when they will be big enough to fight off a stoat. With stoats out of the picture 50-60% will survive. 20% is regarded as allowing population stability. Dogs and kiwi don’t mix either, but in rural areas (farm) dogs are generally well controlled, and we will need dogs on lead in key reserve areas when kiwi arrive. And if kiwi, could some other birds enjoy the same habitat? I have suggested that to DoC as the takahe population is now growing and they will need more habitats.

Invasive pest plants haven’t yet had the same focus. We now have more introduced species than native species in New Zealand. We all know that many species can become weeds if they get into the bush, preventing regeneration and in some places outcompeting native species. Council and community reserve groups are increasingly working on this. The task is huge but the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first steps, reserve by reserve, garden by garden.

Streams need the love too. So many of the City streams are piped. Water quality is poor. Some have barriers to fish and eel migration. In some places it may be possible to recover streams, to daylight stretches, certainly to improve streamside vegetation which is important habitat for insects and spawning fish. The Wellington-Hutt Whatiua process that is in its early stages will put focus on water quality improvement. Respecting the Kaiwharawhara estuary (the only Wellington City stream entering the harbour as a stream) as part of proposed Centreport redevelopment is particularly important.

What can I do to help ?

Here are some suggestions. Check out https://wellington.govt.nz/services/environment-and-waste/environment/biodiversity/backyard-biodiversity. At home, it has lots of helpful initial advice on how to manage your garden, what to plant to help birds, lizards and insects with food and shelter. What plants to remove so the wind and birds don’t spread seeds. Please, please, do not dump garden waste in bush areas. 75% of invasive weeds have their origin in garden dumping.

Get involved in your local reserve care group. Help start one if there isn’t one ! Get in touch with your local predator free group – get a trap and use it, and please report catches regularly.
Look after your pet responsibly. For example please keep dogs on leads where the rules say so. Local wildlife will thank you.

Think about what you consume and its durability, repair rather than replace if possible, think about travel patterns, manage your waste, reduce, reuse, recycle, pick up rubbish before it gets into the bush, streams or the Sea. Karori Kaitiaki (KAKA), the reserve care group I set up last September has already taken nearly three whole truck loads of human rubbish out of just one of the reserves we are caring for – and there is still some to go.
Look after streams – only stormwater should go into gutters and drains – ideally carwashing should be on porous surfaces.

This is a work we need to do together to fix ‘our’ bit of the world. If 200,000 plus of us do our bit then almost anything is possible!

Andy is among other things, the Wellington City Council’s Predator Free Portfolio Leader, a Foundation Trustee and Volunteer at Zealandia, the founder of Karori Kaitaiki, and a member of Katch 22 predator free group. He has led the acquisition of most of the reserve land since 1992. Andy is standing to become Mayor this election.

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