I have wanted to sit and write another blog for a long time, but with a five day a week job and three kids, time has been scarce and the days slip by so fast I can’t even catch my breath. Every now and again I pause to take stock, remembering to slow down and pay attention to the moment I am in. I might stop to watch hundreds of thousands of introduced starlings around where we live flying in mesmerizing murmurations over our house – trying to imagine what the giant flocks of kakariki would have been like 160 years ago in Canterbury. The other day I looked up while I holding my son’s hand as we walked together across the school playground and lost myself momentarily gazing at the incredible clouds above my head. The water vapor in dense broody grey surges like a slow moving avalanche across the sky reminded me how finely tuned and rare our planet is. What an incredible creation it is. In moments like these I am reminded again how small I am and how big the Earth is, but also how totally dependent we all are on this one planet and its health. Every day more and more of our environment is compromised and more and more of the incredible species we share it with are becoming threatened.
Today I am writing about a species many people in New Zealand may have seen but not thought much about. In 2012 this plant’s conservation status was listed as “not threatened”. In 2018 that changed to “threatened – nationally vulnerable”. It is a woody climbing vine with pretty white flowers called Metrosideros perforata. It is a type of rata, and is related to the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsaalso known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree). I have a real soft spot for Metrosideros perforata with its fluffy white flowers and attractive dark green foliage. This year I stopped to photograph it covered in bees and masses of flowers at Punakaiki during our summer holiday. I spent quite a while “in the moment” while I looked at the flowers, wondering why we don’t see it planted more often.
M. perforata fills an important ecological role in creating habitat for some of New Zealand’s stick insect species. Planting a combination of manuka, kanuka and M. perforata would be ideal to attract these fascinating insects into your garden. During mid summer M. perforata is covered in masses of white flowers opening from white buds. These flowers are popular with native bees, introduced bees, and are highly attractive to butterflies, birds, geckos, and (at night) bats and moths. For lizards the plant also provides habitat connection and protection from predators. Native birds such as the tui, bellbird and kākā all benefit from the presence of rātā in a forest.
Metrosideros perforata was valued by Maori, who prized it for use in lashing. It was used in the manufacture of weapons (eg lashing an adz to a handle) as well as in construction of palisades and other structures. Thin young stems of M. perforata were tied in a green state, when they were still pliable. Once they had subsequently dried, they became very hard and rigid. The large cables that form on very old rata vines were also used by Maori as a means of climbing cliffs – a practice that is adapted in the myth of Tawhaki, a warrior who ascended to the heavens on a giant ‘aka’ cable (to bring back his wife and child, in one version).
If you (like me) are addicted to gardening and small scale ecosystem restoration, then this is definitely a plant you should have in your garden. Because its a climber it can be planted beside retaining walls, along side fences and walls and it will look gorgeous with it’s masses of fluffy white flowers. Planting it will also have many positive effects on the birds, bats, lizards and insects that struggle in our heavily modified modern environment. Many of our native plants are overlooked because they are relatively unknown. I think we need to look more to our native plants and create micro or pocket ecosystems to help re-establish these plants more widely. I have seen M. perforata for sale recently at Bunnings, but it is also available online at various native plant nursery’s including Tawapou Coastal Natives.
I hope I have given you some food for thought and some inspiration to plant something new in your garden. Every little bit counts, that’s what I keep telling myself. Each plant that is planted contributes to the continuation of a species and also helps countless other life forms as well. We have a little M. perforata plant that we grew from a cutting. It is too small at present to plant in our little native ecosystem restoration area but next year we hope to add it to to our little pocket forest. Hopefully it will grow and produce plenty of seeds that will spread widely all around the area. When it is mature enough to flower, I will be able to pause and watch the bees at work in the beautiful white flowers and remember that I am part of something much bigger than just me. I am part of repairing the damage to our planet. I can’t just live on this planet, I have to contribute. I can’t just take from it I have to give to it.
So there you have it, one more reason to go hard for the environment and conservation.
Common name: Akatea
Threats: All rata species are currently listed as threatened, partly due to invasive Myrtle Rust (Austropuccinia psidii). Rata are also extremely palatable to possums.
Flowering: November – March, flower colour white.
Description: Woody long-climbing vine. Dense fluffy clusters of white flowers.
Distribution: Endemic. New Zealand: Three Kings, North and South Islands to about northern Otago and northern Fiordland
Habitat: Coastal to montane. An abundant plant of open scrub, dense forest or rock-land. In forest and scrub situations climbing on other trees but also climbing up cliff faces, and on rock outcrops.
Suits: damp, dry, shade, partial shade, sunny, shelter, exposure, coastal forest garden, coastal and dune garden, small garden or balcony.
This is the little South Island robin that blessed us with a 15 minute up close visit on our walk up the Fox River.
In January during the summer holidays, our family spent two weeks in the South Island. We had a very typical New Zealand Summer experience weather wise. We packed up to leave in 34 degrees of hot dry nor’west wind and travelled south into an almost stable 13 degrees, lots of rain, and even a snowfall on the Southern Alps as a southerly blew through. Despite this we had a magic time. A leaking tent at Fox Glacier was no barrier to us enjoying the majestic scenery and showing the kids the glaciers. We were determined to let them see the glaciers before they retreat too far up their valleys to see at all. We wanted them to see what humanity is loosing. Climate change is real and it was graphically clear at Franz Josef Glacier just how far it has retreated in the lifetime of our ten year old daughter. If ever we as a family needed a reminder why we need to go hard for the environment the glaciers were an incredible and terribly sad proof that we (collectively) have to make more effort.
A few days later we drove up to Punakaiki and we got lucky and struck the sunniest and warmest day of our holiday. We headed up the Fox River to walk up the track for a bit and find a swimming hole. On route to find the perfect swimming spot we were blessed by the presence of a South Island robin. I have never seen a South Island robin before (although I have met the closely related North Island robin Mana Island). Our whole family of five sat down and waited to see what this precious little bird would do. I roughed up the leaf litter with my foot wondering if it would see some interesting little bugs. It hopped right up to us and spent 15 mins pecking around, watching us cautiously, and practically sitting on our feet. It was so trusting of us. And it is so unusual that a lot of New Zealanders have never had such an experience. It was so close we could see it’s tiny eyelashes, and watch as it raised it feathers each time we moved. Imagine if we could see these little birds in our back yards. Our native species are often overlooked and forgotten because they are so rare that they are effectively invisible to us as we go about our daily lives.
I find that as I am swamped with the day to day grind of work, housework, the kids sports practices and games, doctor appointments, shopping for the weekly food, remembering to return library books and all the multitudinous things that life throws at me, the environment can get swamped. Sometimes I need a wake up call to remind me what we are trying to do as a family and why it matters. I know I am not the only one to start off with good intentions only to forget in the rush and regret it later. So I have decided to post short blogs on key NZ species (animal, bird, plant and insect) to help act as a reminder why conservation and the environment matter so much. Many animals and insects and plants are suffering because they are not ‘glamourous’ or famous and as a result they are overlooked altogether. Who has time to think about skinks as they rush to get the supermarket before it closes? Many are never seen by most New Zealander’s and perhaps many people, like me just need a reminder why it all matters. Climate change is hurting these creatures as well as us. They have no voice to argue for themselves. Instead they rely on us to value them and speak for them.
Our South Island robin friend watching us carefully to see if we would scuff up any more insects. I love how slender and tall its little legs are.
Robins/Toutouwai are very curious birds with intelligent bright eyes and will come really close to you. As you walk through the forest your feet disturb small insects in the leaf litter and they are attracted to this. They are about the size of a sparrow and stand tall on long legs. There is a North Island robin (Petroica longipes), a South Island robin (Petroica australis australis), and a Stewart Island robin (Petroica australis rakiura). They are all New Zealand robins although, the North Island robin is a completely different species from the other two subspecies. We met North Island Robins on Mana Island when we visited with our kids and spent time picking up plastic on the beach. An interesting fact about robins is that they are believed to be able to count.
Distribution: The South Island robin is found through both the South and Stewart Islands, although it’s populations are disjointed. The North Island robin is found only in the North Island.
New Zealand status: Endemic
Conservation status: Declining
Threats: Habitat loss, predation.
Predators: Introduced mammalian predators, such as feral cats, stoats, possums and ship rats.
Habitat: Forests with dense even canopies, an open understory, and fertile soils covered with leaf litter. Robins can be found in exotic forest stands. Robins are not found in areas with widely scattered trees and where the ground is covered by grasses or sparse vegetation on stony, droughty soils.
Diet: Invertebrates including cicadas, stick insects, tree weta and slugs, as well as smaller insects. During dry periods and during summer and autumn they will take small fruits and berries.
How we can help robins in NZ: They are at risk and declining throughout the South Island, which means they could easily become threatened if we don’t help them out. They need us to support predator eradication efforts and to lobby for their habitat to be protected.
A view of the stunning Fox River on the West Coast. This is robin habitat and we need to protect and safeguard remaining habitat and support predator eradication efforts.
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.
Myrsine salicina (Toro), planted in our fenced off restoration area.
Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium. One of many in our small scale restoration.
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.
Pimelea prostrata (native daphne) planted to create habitat for native skinks.
Fuschia procumbans, planted to help create a gecko habitat and food source.
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 andkereru. 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.
Bee’s are essential to our ecosystem. Even our food sources rely on them to pollinate our food plants.
A native bee busy doing its thing in a purple crocus.
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.
“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“.
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:
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.
I don’t know about you but I am on a journey to a more sustainable and plastic free future. Encouraged by my kids I started to look around me and I was dismayed at the plastic I found. We are hearing much more about the problem of plastic these days. People are talking about banning plastic carry bags, cafes are opting for biodegradable coffee cups, the Queen has decided to ban plastic drinking straws on her estates. We hear regularly about the effects of plastic in the ocean, and we keep hearing about the great plastic island floating in the Pacific. Children are learning about it at school through things like Enviro Schools, and parents are encouraged to pack plastic free/packaging free lunchboxes. At the same time we (as a country) are grappling with how to recycle the plastic we consume – particularly now that China has decided not to continue taking all our recycling.
We kiwi’s get through a lot of plastic each year. Take single use plastic carry bags as an example. Did you know that it is estimated that we get through a staggering 1.29 billion single use plastic bags every year? New World and Countdown have both announced that they are going plastic bag free. Pak’n Save already charges for bags. Our local New World has started stocking reusable produce bags recently. But this is really only the very beginning, because plastic is everywhere. Supermarket bags are only the tip of the iceberg.
When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean everywhere. When I started this journey to reduce my plastic consumption over a year ago, I knew there was a lot of plastic coming into our house each time I went grocery shopping, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to avoid it, even for a short time. I challenge you to take a minute next time you are in the supermarket and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that are completely plastic free. It’s hard, even things where plastic packaging is completely unjustified are swathed in it. The cucumbers are in plastic wrap. Lettuces and spring onions come in plastic bags. At the bulk bins there are plastic zip-lock bags. We put our produce into single use plastic produce bags. Even glass jars with metal lids are likely to contain a plastic lid lining or seal of some kind. Tins are often lined with plastic. Toothpaste may come in a cardboard box, but it is still in a plastic tube with a plastic lid. Many cardboard packets contain hidden plastic trays or bags. The list just goes on and on. Fruit comes in plastic bags or hard plastic punnets. I emailed Yummy to ask if the stickers on their fruit are biodegradable. They replied that they are not.
Often plastic is used for no obvious reason, for example, the other day I purchased some free range chicken at my local New World. It came in a plastic tray, and was covered with plastic cling film. Air tight and water tight, there was no chance of stray meat juice escaping from this packaging. When I got it home I was frustrated to discover that once the cling film was removed there was another heat sealed plastic film covering the tray. It was perfectly intact, airtight and leak proof. Why two layers of plastic? Here’s another example. Earlier this year I bought a pack of two erasers. They came on a cardboard backing enclosed in plastic like batteries do. Inside were two individually plastic-wrapped erasers. I have no clue why erasers have to be double packed in two separate plastic layers. Perhaps it should also have come with a plastic sticker on the package saying “sealed for your protection”! Things like this (and non-biodegradable stickers of fruit) make me really angry. We just don’t need this kind of plastic packaging, but it is very hard to avoid. I don’t think many people are thinking about the sea or the food chain when they become unwitting consumers of plastic as they feed their families. For most people the plastic problem is out of sight – out of mind. Some times you need a jolt to bring you up short and help you to face reality. For us that jolt was Mana Island.
Last month we were privileged to be able to take our two youngest children on a Kiwi Conservation Club trip to Mana Island. This science reserve is not open to the public, you have to be a volunteer or work on the Island to visit. It was a really wonderful trip and we saw lots of birds including North Island robins. There were about 17 enthusiastic kids and about 15 parents all heading out on the boat to learn and contribute our time and energy. Our work for the morning was a beach clean-up. Looking at the beach when we arrived I saw lots of paua shells, sea weed, driftwood, and the grey rounded beach stones and sand that you expect on beaches around Wellington. I didn’t see any obvious sign of litter or plastic. It just looked like a wild, windswept, empty, clean beach – but I wasn’t looking closely. We walked back to the ranger station with DOC Rangers Otis and Caitlin who pointed out penguin tunnels and tracks criss-crossing the vegetation. Then the group was divided into older and younger kids and the older kids went off to track down takahe inland with the Rangers.
The younger kids broke into two groups with two huge sacks each. One group headed south, and our group headed north. I was a bit skeptical about how much we would find on that beach, since it seemed pretty pristine when we arrived. I wondered how long it would take the children to tire of this activity and start to complain. Picking things up is not usually an activity that kids are enthusiastic about. Ask any teacher or parent, and they will tell you that picking up anything causes all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t have to do it!
But these kids embraced this beach cleaning activity with enthusiasm and gusto. The parents were just as keen. We all wandered along the beach eyes down scanning the stones and paua shells for signs of plastic. It took a few minutes for me to spot my first piece of plastic – a yogurt pottle caught under a bit of driftwood. It was white and I almost mistook it for a sun-bleached shell. Then, suddenly everyone seemed to be finding things. The kids made friends while they searched, imaginatively using sticks as ‘plastic detectors’. The sacks rapidly filled with a huge assortment of plastic. Chocolate bar wrappers, old shoes, a dolls leg, fishing line, sunglasses, plastic rope, water bottles, pump bottle lids, milk bottle lids, soft drink bottles, clothes pegs, ice-cream containers, margarine containers, meat trays, cigarette lighters, felt pens, plant pots, straws, McDonalds ice-cream sundae cups, single use takeaway sauce containers, cable ties, plastic farm animals, plastic strapping, bubble wrap, cling film, a toothpaste tube, fragments of plastic so brittle it broke apart in your fingers, and so many yogurt pots I lost count. We found a huge piece of plastic about a meter across that was branded with the name Talley’s. This long list is only a fraction of what we found. Nameless bits of plastic that couldn’t be identified were everywhere. This plastic litter was concealed between beach stones, under driftwood, and caught under low beach scrub where the wind and waves had tossed it. Those penguin tracks we saw when we arrived often contained windblown plastic flotsam and jetsam. I have never been so ashamed of my plastic consumption as I was on that beach. After just one hour we had filled our sacks full to the brim with plastic. If it is hard for us (who know what plastic is) to spot plastic on what seems to be an ordinary beach, how can we expect birds and fish to avoid it?
It was an eye opener. My kids enjoyed every minute of it. It felt good to be picking it up, like we were undoing just a little bit of the damage we have caused with our plastic consumption. My bird crazy 7 year old said wistfully that she wished we could have walked around the whole Island and “cleaned all of the beach”, not just a little section. My 5 year old son insists that we pick up the plastic he sees on the way home from school each day. In a 15 minute walk from my house to the school I can easily pick up a supermarket bag of plastic rubbish. I do this regularly. On Mana Island the rubbish floated there, but around our towns it gets there because people drop it, sometimes within sight of a rubbish bin.
I am so frustrated by needless plastic packaging. I have very little say over whether I get it or not, most of the time it is close to impossible to find an alternative in the mainstream shops. I’m also frustrated by how hard it is to find plastic-free alternatives to things like toothbrushes when I’m in the supermarket.
We have to do something! We have to do it fast too. Our clothes, our shoes, our food, our kids toys, our bags, our dish brushes, our straws, actually our whole lives are now enveloped in plastic. But you can make changes. Repair, reuse, reduce, recycle. Say no to plastic. If every one of you who read this blog contacted a company who is using needless single use plastic and let them know you aren’t happy, or contacted a company to ask if they have considered an alternative to plastic packaging, then together we could let these companies know that we want change. They won’t change unless you and I – the customers – demand it. Every action (no matter how small) has real power to effect change. Look for alternatives, let companies know you want change, and for the sake of our environment, pick up any plastic you see, before it ends up on a beach like the one on Mana Island.