The Department of Conservation is working to restore Matiu/Somes Island to its pre-human, Eden-like state. Matt Stewart reports.
Jo Greenman started her Tuesday morning hog-tying a sheep. The Matiu/Somes Island ranger says looking after the natural and historic reserve means she has to be "a jack of all trades and a master of none".
This includes the thankless monthly task of getting "right down" and cleaning the island's sewer.
The requirement for rangers to have a No 8 wire mentality is born of the island's rich legacy of human settlement, which has left the sanctuary with a mix of infrastructure that must be maintained alongside the wildlife, visitors and continuing natural restoration - a project that aims to return the island to the Eden-like state it was in before Polynesian navigator Kupe arrived there a millennium ago.
Sitting smack in the middle of Wellington Harbour, the island has been an immigrant quarantine station, an enemy and alien internment camp in both world wars, a key military defence stronghold, and an animal quarantine base, which closed in 1994.
"The animal quarantine was like the Hilton Hotel for animals - they were the best of the breeds and had vets on call 24 hours."
This motley history has left the island with the best-equipped infrastructure of any island managed by the Department of Conservation, boasting houses, roads and New Zealand's first harbour lighthouse, built in 1866.
A wind turbine, solar power and water system set up last winter gives the island around-the-clock power, as opposed to the six hours it used to get from a diesel generator.
"The Blacks Seeds tried to record an album here once but ran out of power. Maybe I'll get back in touch with them now," she says.
The mission to revegetate the island began in 1981. By 1989, all rodents were eradicated. In 1995 Matiu/Somes was opened to the public as a scenic reserve. In 2008, it was returned to iwi under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Now a revolving flock of about 100 volunteers help Mrs Greenman and fellow resident ranger Daryl Stephens keep the island in check.
They toil in nurseries, weed, replant, saw, clean, paint, collect rubbish and generally get their hands dirty with any other chore that might pop up.
Biosecurity is also vital to keeping the 49-hectare island predator-free - with 22,000 visitors a year, this can be a challenge.
Two weeks ago, some of those visitors watched as a woman in an inflatable boat and a man diving for seafood in a wetsuit swore at the two rangers after being asked to get off rocks on the southwest corner of the island.
Harbour users can anchor, swim, fish, snorkel and dive anywhere around the island, but cannot come ashore or on to the surrounding rocks.
Under the reserves and conservation acts, it is prohibited to land on the reserve except at the main wharf and beach. Breaches can result in prosecution and a fine of up to $2000.
If, for instance, Argentine ants get through the cordon, they would "eat our tuatara alive", Mrs Greenman says.
Introduced seeds would "undo 30 years of community restoration", and rodents would first destroy the giant weta population, before moving on to the little blue penguins and kakariki.
"We can't have little gems like this filled with native wildlife without maintaining biosecurity. One of our biggest challenges is educating harbour users about what they can and can't do on the island."
The barrier is violated 16 to 20 times a year. The infractions are time consuming and costly - early last year a contractor spotted a mouse on the island.
The rangers responded by laying a grid of 50 traps and tracking tunnels. After two months, the reserve was again declared rodent-free.
But these rigours make the job "absolutely priceless", she says.
Working weekends on a 10-day-on, four-day-off shift that overlaps with Mr Stephens, her only misgivings are the hobbies she's had to give away.
"I can't belong to sports clubs or go to night classes and I used to love to dance. I can't do any of those things now, but this is a lifestyle choice that I wouldn't trade for anything."
Mrs Greenman lives in the ranger's house with husband Iain Wilson, a Hutt Valley fireman and part-time DOC worker who commutes by kayak or on his windsurfer - in all types of weather.
In the five years she's been on the island, she has watched its "phenomenal growth" with pride.
She recalls speaking to an elderly man who used to go to the animal quarantine station decades ago. "He said it was a windswept place and he could never wait to get off. Now he walks through the forest and it's like heaven."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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