Conservation and restoration is vital to our survival as a species. It’s important because we inhabit this world together with a myriad of creatures both large and tiny. The way we lead our lives, dispose of our waste, decide what to purchase, and even what pets we own has an impact on the species’ with which we share New Zealand and the world. They have no voice unless we choose to advocate for them. No chance unless we value them, and no future if we don’t take action.
New Zealand is rather special in that it was the last large habitable land mass in the world to be colonised by humans. It is also the most recent large landmass to experience an extinction event. New Zealand was the last ‘primeval’ wilderness on the planet, and as such it was utterly unique. The extinction event in NZ occurred as a result of the arrival of humans, first Maori and then the subsequent arrival of European explorers and settlers. Often I think we tend to view the extinction events associated with the arrival of humans in NZ as being in the past (done and dusted years ago), but in reality we are living right in the middle of it. It isn’t over. We just don’t notice it happening and that is the real tragedy. We just don’t notice until it is too late!
Maori brought the pacific rat or kiore. Then Europeans brought mice, norway rats, ship rats, black rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, possums, hedgehogs and more. New Zealand’s native fauna evolved for millions of years in isolation. An enchanted archipelago of islands where birds and insects filled almost every niche that mammals would have occupied elsewhere. We even have a ground foraging bat! It was like nowhere else in the world. If we don’t do something to stop the extinctions, and halt the decline of our threatened and unique species, then all we will have are animals that can be found elsewhere. We will no longer be unique.
But it was not only the introduction of predators that decimated our native flora and fauna. Maori began clearing the land through the use of fire, and the clearances intensified after the arrival of European settlers. The signature of these two waves of land clearance show up in pollen and charcoal records from around NZ. In some places the bands of charcoal are still visible in soil profiles today.
The clearances were unimaginable in scale. Most of NZ is now denuded and bare of its native forests and ecosystems. What remains is still threatened in most places. Against the saws and the fires of clearance our majestic forests stood no chance. Now as you drive around NZ you drive through kilometers of rural landscapes, green grassy paddocks and hills dotted with sheep and cows and pine forestry. But those same grassy fields should have towering trees covering them, filled with kokako, huia, and piopio. Sometimes when I look at the fields around me I feel heart sick at what we have lost.
A little over a year ago we managed to buy our first home. Two acres of rural bliss, with a handful of pet sheep and some chickens to keep us busy. One thing we decided to do is to replant parts of the property in locally rare native plants in order to create a seed source. We located some amazing local native plant nurseries that specialise in the specific plants for our particular part of the world. Then we just started planting as often as we could afford to buy the plants.
We fenced off small areas at the edges of our paddocks to create windbreaks and shelter for our sheep. These areas are being replanted with natives. Not everything has survived, we estimate that we have had a 20% loss rate among the things we have planted. This loss rate is largely attributed to the damaged soil resulting from more than a hundred years of being farmed. The plants are in puggy degraded soils completely unlike the rich soils that would have been here 200 years ago and there is no shelter. It is hard work getting anything established in that.
I recently planted a selection of native plants with my 9 year old daughter and 6 year old son. We turned over the sods and shook the soil from the clumps of grass roots, and I found myself feeling excited as I watched the hands of my children placing native trees into the soil. It felt good to work together to put things back the way they should be, even if it is only a tiny area.
Some things we can put back, like the plants I planted with my children. But some things are gone for good. There are no huia now, no matter what I plant, they are gone for good. There are no kakapo here anymore and no kiwi either. I might not get huia, kakapo or kiwi back by planting a seed source, but I will get, more geckos, skinks, wetas, tui, bellbirds, fantails and kereru. It is worth all the effort just to get them.
We depend on plants and vegetation for our environment so we need to plant intelligently. At various times and for various reasons, exotic plants have been introduced to New Zealand. Unfortunately many of them were unwise choices. Invasive plant species such as gorse, ivy, old mans beard, pampas, sycamores, evergreen buckthorn, elaegnus and many more are a huge problem. Invasive weeds destroy our native plant communities and ecosystems. In light of this, another way that we are trying to make a difference in our little slice of heaven, is to systematically weed out any noxious weeds that we find. We have a LOT of ivy to eradicate, and also a lot of evergreen buckthorn. Given how prolific both buckthorn and ivy are with their seeding I imagine this is going to be an ongoing occupation for many years. If you are keen to “do your bit” then familiarise yourself with the noxious weeds in your area and remove them from your property.
Consider bees (both native and introduced) when you plant your garden. Put in some flowers for them, or plant manuka! New Zealand has 28 species of native bees. Our bees don’t produce honey or live in hives, but they do provide a critical but overlooked role in pollinating native plant species such as kanuka, manuka and pohutukawa. Throwing a few native plant species in your garden will help our little native bees.
I have always been passionate about NZ. It is the only home I have ever had and the only place I would ever call my turangawaewae (place to stand). I am a part of this place, it is a part of me. I feel much the same about protecting our native flora and fauna and land as I do about protecting my children.
Don Merton is one of my personal heroes, and I remember watching the Wild South TV series back in the 1980’s. I was enthralled by the story of the Black Robins and how Don Merton was able to help rescue the species from just 5 individuals. Here is a short video where he talks about saving the black robins. He summed up the value of our native birds in this superb quote:
“They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out“.
He was talking about birds but it applies equally to insects, reptiles, amphibians, plants and our unique ecosystems. In NZ we are teaching our children about the value of our native species and how to care for them and our environment. But how often do we as New Zealanders actually model those behaviors at home? We claim to want our children to value conservation efforts and protect our environment, but how do we show it?
Conservation can seem daunting when you step back and look at the scale of the problem. But doing your bit doesn’t have to be huge or onerous, it can be as little as reconsidering what shrubs you plant or taking the time to trap rats. Here are some ideas to get you started. One or two steps are all that you need to do to begin to make a real difference in your own backyard.
Ways to help NZ native species in your own back yard:
- Weta motels
- Lizard lounges and gardens
- Consider the food sources in your garden and consider a nectar feeder to attract tui, bell birds and wax eyes.
- Predator resistant compost heaps
- Predator resistant rubbish bins
- Removal of invasive weed species
- Planting native food and shelter plants.
- Sponsorship of an endangered species
- Purchase of a humane predator trap e.g. Goodnature traps – a humane, simple, and effective way to manage pest species in your back yard and around your property.
- Careful management of pet cats and dogs. Keep track of your pets.
- Go out into nature and teach yourself and your tamariki to value the things that are hidden in plain sight. Taking time to go out and see the amazing animals and plants we share NZ (and our world) with. Visit places like Pukaka Mt Bruce, Zelandia, Nga Manu, Hinewai, Orokonui Ecosanctury or just take the time to go on a day walk or and overnight tramp in our national parks and reserves. It is easy to overlook the beauty that is all around us if we spend our lives with our eyes on a screen or cooped up inside.
- Create your own mini native sanctuary in your backyard.
- If you own a farm consider planting native shelter, fencing your waterways, creating native forest corridors to allow birds and insects etc to move from one place to another. Perhaps you could consider it a “tithe” for nature. Consider doing the same thing no mater what the size of your property.
- Consider gifting trees as gifts for family and friends. Trees That Count is a great option.
Although native species might not have evolved to withstand mammalian predators, and the impacts of humans on their environment, the fact remains that they are the best and most perfectly adapted species for NZ’s unique environment. A humbling thought is that kiwi have been in NZ longer than humans have exisited! Many NZ species have withstood millennia of climate changes in the past and they are still here. We should not write them off as failures simply because they cannot withstand introduced predators and landscape destruction. We don’t have any more right to exist than our native species do. In fact they have been here in NZ longer than humans so perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that they have more right to exist here than we do.
De-extinction is no substitute for conservation. At the moment there is no way back. We can’t (yet) bring back what we have lost. Even if we can one day bring a species back it will always have limitations. It would be better not to find ourselves needing de-extinction in the first place.
We humans want quality of life, we seek happiness. Part of what makes us happy is variety and interest and beauty. If we allow species to be lost, then the world will be less interesting and permanently dulled. Unknown possibilities will be lost. Every time we think we have exhausted the options from nature, we discover another valuable commodity that is derived from a species we could have over looked. For example spider venom may be able to treat nervous system disorders.
Our species and our whole way of life depends on the other species we inhabit this earth with. If we don’t value them, then I don’t see how we value ourselves or our own future as a species.