ALI Chairman in New Zealand

Rob Youl , Chairman ALI

In late February-March I was in Hamilton, NZ for the NZ Landcare Trust conference as a speaker and workshop presenter with Matt Reddy. A pre-conference tour took in Hamilton’s zoo with its fascinating collection of rare NZ birds in bush habitat; a restored peat swamp on the city’s edge; a retirees’ planting program along a local stream reminiscent of many Melbourne projects; and a marvellous board-walked suburban forest remnant of rimu, kahikatea and so on. Moreover, a biolinks project, recently inaugurated, has encouraged tuis (NZ’s largest honeyeater) to return to urban Hamilton. All this indicated promising urban action!

The two-day conference at Waikato University demonstrated NZ Landcare’s great progress since the 2006 ten-year celebrations in Wellington, especially in improving streamwater quality in dairying regions; in indigenous forestry with totara regeneration on private land in Northland now widely managed as productive forest; re-creating wetlands; whole-of-catchment projects (Raglan, west of Hamilton is outstanding); and wildlife protection, exemplified by a kiwi project near Whangarei linking pest control with community support. The NZLT also honoured several accomplished and long-established landcarers; showed off winning dress designs utilising natural, or should I say rural materials, including eartags; and had some marvellous cultural moments—what a pleasure to hear Pakehas speaking Maori on stage.

The spirit was fantastic and the Australian contingent of around fifteen, including ALI travel fellows Mal Brown and Darren Williams, was warmly welcomed. Landcare in NZ is flourishing. Congratulations to CEO Nick Edgar and chair, Richard Thompson. Matt’s and my morning workshop for NZLT staff on corporate partnerships immediately afterwards, was well received.

I found my way via Greymouth, which I’d last visited in 1970 when hitching around NZ—I well remember beers with friendly seamen on the bridge of a coaster tied up near my waterfront pub, and Christchurch to the Chatham Islands, flying there in a prop-driven Convair 560—it must be 60 years old.

The 800 km flight from Christchurch east to Chatham Island takes two and a half hours. The island group has its own time zone 45 minutes ahead of ‘New Zealand’, which is how the 6-700 islanders refer to the mainland. There are some ten islands within 40 km; by far the largest, and the only ones now inhabited, are Chatham Island and Pitt Island, which respectively cover 900 sq km and 62 sq km. Both islands have been largely cleared for grazing, producing extensive belts of roughish but productive pasture, free of weeds, except, apparently, gorse and thistles. However, many remnants of indigenous vegetation, often ethereally beautiful in misty weather, have survived or been regenerated thanks to fencing projects. Indeed, islanders have conserved 3000 ha of bush.

The human story is extraordinarily moving. A Maori canoe or canoes apparently sailed from Aotearoa (the north and south islands of NZ) to the Chathams in the early centuries after the initial Polynesian colonisation—perhaps around 1500 AD. These people called themselves Moriori, and their islands Rekohu. Unable to grow kumera and other staples, the settlers resorted to hunter-gathering and fishing, and in subsequent centuries their culture and language diverged from that of the mainlanders. The population, thought to have been 2000, was decimated when, in late 1835, two Maori tribes displaced from Taranaki landed and massacred 300 Moriori, cannibalising the dead and enslaving survivors. The Maori way of life was constant warfare; the Moriori had decided to retain their pacifist customs. The last person whose mother tongue was Moriori died in the early 1900s, and the last full-blood Moriori, Tommy Solomon, a prominent farmer, died in 1933—his grandson, Maui Solomon, whom I met, is CEO of Hokotehi Moriori Trust, with its beautiful and atmospheric marae (cultural and community centre). In the 2006 NZ census, 945 indicated Moriori ancestry.

Since the Pliocene uplift and exposure, the indigenous vegetation and terrestrial fauna has evolved from what could drift or be blown or swim to the Chathams from neighbouring land masses. No podocarps, beeches, kowhai, moas, kiwis or cabbage-trees made it, but NZ flax seeds arrived and adapted, as must have lancewood, ribbonwood and matipo. The most common endemic tree is Olearia traversiorum, the akeake, whose predecessor’s seed, presumably, like daisies generally, was readily transported by wind; akeake grows to 20 m in sheltered localities. Two iconic wildflowers are the Chathams forget-me-not and sow thistle.

Looking at the indigenous fauna, there are no frogs (apart from two Australian species, recent arrivals) and just one skink. Several endemic species of land birds clearly evolved from mainland counterparts: the Chathams pigeon (parea) is similar to but bigger than the mainland kereru; there are Chathams tomtits, warblers and tuis, and Forbes parakeets—I saw all of these on Pitt Island, plus Chathams oystercatchers. An endemic snipe is restricted to offshore islands. Thanks to the Kiwi talent for rescuing species on the brink of extinction, the three great conservation stories are:

  • the ranguru or blue petrel, now re-established on both Pitt and Chatham Islands
  • the taiko, another petrel, deemed extinct but rediscovered in 1978—fifteen breeding pairs are known today on Chatham Island
  • the black robin, which is related to the South Island and Stewart Island robins, and not too distantly to Australian robins. In 1980, only five birds remained, with just one reproductive pair. Through innovative breeding and pest management, today’s population numbers around 200. It is confined however to the pest-free Rangatira and Mangere Islands

Of today’s islanders, I understand sixty percent has some Polynesian ancestry. They are amiable and adaptable, ingenious, self-reliant and hardy, like islanders elsewhere, in my experience. One farm I visited was impressive; it was well fenced, had lots of shelter and a trough in each paddock, plus a well maintained laneway system—everything to Potter Farmland Plan standard.

As ever, NZ delighted me.