Wetlands have traditionally been given a bad rap in New Zealand and the world, and in my view, it's all been in the marketing.
I mean calling something a swamp, quagmire or bog (who could forget The Bog of Eternal Stench from the movie Labyrinth?) hardly inspires imagery of beautiful places bursting with life, which of course is what wetlands are.
New Zealand has destroyed 90 per cent of our wetlands in just 150 years. The consequences of our thirst to suck the lifeblood from our wetlands is only just catching up with us now.
Wetlands are one of the most productive environments in the world. In New Zealand they are home to a wide range of native plants, fish, birds and invertebrates. Wetlands also provide a crucial filtering function, which benefits the wildlife as well as us. If you think of wetlands as the kidneys of the planet, you'll understand what I mean. Wetlands clean and filter water of nutrients and sediment, protecting downstream catchments.
Maori looked at wetlands as their "supermarket"; a one-stop shop for eels, fish and birds for a feed, flax and raupo for weaving and a myriad other uses for the wildlife found there. Some special wetland habitats were used to prepare bodies for burial and were sacred sites.
I once spent an afternoon with a farmer in Waikato who'd had an epiphany about wetlands. He'd gone from trying to get rid of his, to slowly but surely bringing it back to life. Initially he'd grumbled about fencing it, reckoning he lost a good metre or two of paddock. But then something interesting happened. When summer came around, the paddocks nearest the wetland produced more grass, and didn't need to be irrigated. In winter, the wetland soaked up any excess moisture and prevented surface flooding. His farm increased in productivity through the protection of the wetland. But for him it was about more than that. His two sons grew up playing and boating in the wetland, and with the help of the local duckshooters, they ran a trap line around the outside of the wetland to protect the birdlife from predators. The native birds returned and thrived, and the wetland became a crucial part of the family's farming lifestyle.
If the idea of wetland wildlife doesn't appeal, it might interest you to know that wetlands are extremely valuable to our economy too. For example, the Whangamarino wetland (10,000 hectares) forms an important part of a flood control scheme in Waikato. With control gates at inflow and outflow points, the wetland along with the neighbouring Lake Waikare can store up to 95 million cubic metres of water, lowering the flood peak of the Waikato River by 40-60cm. During a "100 year" flood in 1998, damage to farmland of $5.2 million was avoided. If the wetland didn't exist, Environment Waikato would have to spend millions of dollars on downstream stopbanks.
These days, more and more people are putting huge efforts in to protect wetlands instead of draining them of life. This week the environment court has ruled in favour of stronger protection of wetlands on the West Coast - a great result for swamp lovers, wildlife and the economy.
I'm involved in a restoration project down the end of our road that includes an enormous wetland. It's amazing to see the life coming back to it with the help of the local community. What about you guys? Do you love your swamps and quagmires? Got a fave wetland you want to tell us about? What sort of wildlife do you find there?
One of the iconic West Coast wetlands, now with more protection.
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