Flax roots conservation

Last updated 12:53 22/08/2012

In New Zealand, there are a lot of people who'll give up their spare time to do something for nature.

I have a neighbour across the road who is a retired school principal. Last night he turned up at my house (as he is wont to do from time to time) with a freshly killed, very flat stoat in his gloved hand. He wanted me to check on whether it was a stoat or a weasel for his monitoring records. (Tip: to distinguish between the two, you'll find one is stoatally different and the other is weaselly distinguished - geddit?)

Let's just make a point here. The weather in North Canterbury hasn't been that flash lately (read: it's been hosing down for weeks), and he is the guy who checks our traps around the Tuhaitara Coastal Park lagoon. He goes down there (which is a few kilometres down the road) on his pushbike to clean manky dead animals out of traps and to meticulously record what species of pest he is catching and in which traps. WHY!?

Because he really cares, and it turns out that he is not the only one.  According to the community volunteer website Nature Space, the 15,000 or so registered members have planted over half a million trees, killed more than 2000 stoats and 7000 possums. It's a fantastic site, so if you're a nature volunteer, sign up!Planting the spit (photo: Forest & Bird)

Between 2010 and 2011, the Department of Conservation estimated, 12,000 individual volunteers contributed over 195,000 hours with an estimated value of $3.6 million. During that same time period, there were 508 community groups involved, which DOC reckons contributed 573,000 hours, at an estimated value of $10.6 million. That's a lot of people doing a lot of what is mostly very dirty work... which brings me back to WHY!?

There's been a bit of research on why people volunteer for conservation, but when you boil it down, it's a one word response - FUN!

Pest buster (photo: Forest & Bird)

It appears that clearing and setting stoat traps (have you ever had the revolting experience of cleaning a weeks-old dead hedgehog out of a trap? Blegh!), getting covered in muck while planting trees or weeding or any of the other out-there volunteer pursuits are a way that people can interact, do something outdoors and generally have a good old time while they're doing it. One of my favourite examples was the "conservation holidays" near Alexandra, where a group of not-so-young punters would spend their days restoring historic cottages and buildings, which sometimes included being up to their armpits in a bathtub of sundried brick mix which included straw, water, mud and horse poo!

I also knew of a group of gentlemen in Dunedin who had all had heart surgery, who went clearing tracks every week in the Silverpeaks (they took a portable defribillator along for safety).

Then there were the "ratbaggers" in Nelson Lakes, members of the Nelson over-60s tramping club who would take a van over to Lake Rotoiti every week to clear kilometres of rat traps... the list goes on and on.

There are lots of reasons people get involved in conservation, including a personal desire to make a difference, a chance to be in the outdoors, a chance to catch up with friends and meet new people, to gain new skills or to improve their own backyard. Whatever the reason, the outcomes can be enormous. In 2009, when the kakapo had a bumper breeding season that hatched 33 chicks, more than 100 volunteers each spent two weeks on the island (over a three-to-four-month period). The hours that these people put in feeding and monitoring the kakapo contributed around 400 days of work to the kakapo recovery programme - an amazing achievement. There were in fact so many vollies down on Codfish, beds were basically time-shared (since nestminders camp up at the nests during the night and generally sleep during the day).

Planting (photo: Forest & Bird)

The opportunities for nature volunteering are endless. It can include sitting out at night listening for kiwi, being a hut warden in a national park, teaching people about how to behave around wildlife, making penguin nest boxes - the sky's the limit. It's something kids, families, old and young people, farmers and townies can all get involved in - and it's something we love to do.

I personally love being involved in a restoration project in my own backyard - it feels nice to be able to contribute (and now our neighbours all want to join in on the pest-trapping action!). What about you guys? Do you volunteer for nature? What's your project about? I'd love to hear from you.

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Mrs Pitt   #1   01:06 pm Aug 22 2012

Good article, thanks. I do my part by setting possum traps (& catching them) & re-planting lots of native trees in the bush we own.

Jill   #2   03:46 pm Aug 22 2012

Great to see, thanks to all volunteers. I do have one concern which I noticed travelling Australia. The plastic covers used to protect young plants (particularly those used near water), I have found washed up on beaches. If these are used, they need to be regularly checked as the sticks break and they blow away. Very bad for conservation having plastic in the sea (or blown over the land for that matter). Perhaps there is a biodegradable option?

Simon   #3   03:51 pm Aug 22 2012

The joke is better if you turn it around: "one is weaselly distinguished and the other is stoatally different".

Okay, only slightly.

Paula   #4   05:23 pm Aug 22 2012

I am doing restoration along the edge of the motorway in central Wellington, near my apartment. It's much more fun than going to the gym to get fit, and has allowed me to get to know my neighbours. And it gives a real connection to the place I live in.

andy foster   #5   05:31 am Aug 23 2012

Great blog thank you Nicola, and it is just fantastic that so many people are doing such brilliant voluntary work all over the country. All heroes in my book. Twenty years ago to my knowledge we only had one or two active groups in Wellington City, now we have in excess of sixty. The Council supports them with resources and rangers which again weren't there twenty years ago. I think you've put your finger on most of the reasons for volunteering - fun, giving something back, camaraderie, the feeling of connection with the environment, and learning too. There's a real passion for this work which is wonderful to see and be part of.

Thanks again Nicola.

Andy Foster City Councillor and volunteer

El Jorge   #6   10:20 am Aug 23 2012

The main problem with conservation volunteering is you wind up being lumped with unwashed hippies, earth mothers and other spinners!! Not my idea of a fun day out.

JM   #7   08:00 am Aug 24 2012

El Jorge #6 needs to get out more! In my volunteer group at Zealandia, we have a huge variety of wonderful people including IT professionals, doctors, nurses, students, retirees, a CEO, managers, vets, parents, conservationists, journalists, pharmacists, and researchers, all of whom share a love for NZ wildlife and want to get stuck in and help while enjoying making new friends.

Jeff Jeffries   #8   09:17 am Aug 24 2012

I recently started tracking kiwi in the Rimutaka Forest Park and I love it! And us "unwashed hippies" are quite happy for bores like El Jorge to stay at home.

Weeder   #9   10:10 am Aug 24 2012

The problem I have with most conservation volunteer work is that, although it makes people feel good & contributes to their education, I wonder what difference it will make in the long run. It might seem worthwhile controlling predators, but in many of the places this occurs they have already eliminated most if not all of the native animals that are vulnerable to predation. Likewise, planting common native plants in highly degraded areas might reestablish some kind of bush, but this often boils down to mere beautification. There is commonly an overemphasis on the charismatic mega fauna, e..g kiwi & kakapo. Much more could be gained by controlling weeds before they spread further into the wild, but this is not usually considered sexy enough to promote. Seriously, there are hundreds of environmental weeds that present a major threat to NZ's biodiversity but, unlike most animal pests, they have relatively limited distributions and we have a brief opportunity to do something about them. Conservation volunteering is a great first step towards doing meaningful things for the natural environment, but conservation organisations need to lead people many more steps beyond that first one. Unfortunately they all too often leave it at that because that is easy to do and the public are none the wiser. Conservation in NZ requires major, widespread, ongoing ecological intervention. Although we should be able to, at present we cannot rely on government agencies to appropriately resource and prioritise such work. It is largely up to organisations like Forest & Bird to lead politicians and the public in the right direction. NZ's biodiversity will not be protected by doing "feel-good" conservation work in highly degraded areas.

Duncan   #10   10:47 am Aug 24 2012

Weeder, you've got a point but I think every bit of environmental voluntter work has some value. I myself have planted numerous native trees and ferns in the urban rserve next to my house in Nelson. Sure, this particular reserve has little native biodiversity value in comparison to areas in Nelson such as the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, but it's literally on the other side of my fence and it takes 30 seconds to walk from my bedroom to where I've been planting tree ferns, mahoe, beech trees and rimus etc. I've also been active with the weeding there and I'd like to do something to encourage the native birdlife to return.

You've made a very good point about weeding though. We need to be doing more work to eradicate invasive seeds in areas of already established or regerating native forest. From my own experience in Nelson though, while it's easy to attract dozens of volunteers for a planting day, the less glamorous weed control work only attracts a hard-core of volunteers. But tree-planting days, even on "degraded" hillsides, has a valuable role to play. It fosters interest in wider issues of biodiversity, and 2012's 4-year old tree planter turning up with his or her parents might end up being a 24 year old weed battler, or some future scientist who discovers an effective biological control to decimate old man's beard.

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