Swamp fever

01:43, Jan 31 2009
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Friends of Mangarakau Swamp secretary Jo-Anne Vaughan with Big Pond behind her.

The first time conservationist Geoff Davidson saw northwest Golden Bay he was simply "gobsmacked".

"It was very revealing to see nature at its rawest," he says from his Waitakere nursery.

Wellington landscape architect Frank Boffa had a similar epiphany on seeing the area for the first time.

"I didn't know the place existed," Boffa gushed in a report to the Tasman District Council. "It truly is an outstanding natural landscape which should be retained as it is."

Turn left north of Pakawau off the well-worn road to Farewell Spit, and take the shingle road through Westhaven Inlet to Mangarakau and beyond, and it's easy to see why the men were so impressed.

The road meanders around a pristine harbour with bush right down to the sea. Past Mangarakau it takes you through rolling farmland dotted with statuesque nikau palms, and offers views of untamed West Coast beaches.

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As the scenery unfolds it's easy to picture what primeval New Zealand looked like.

It's the kind of area that makes you want to shout out to the world about how stunning it is, but at the same time keep it to yourself to protect it from development.

One of the area's unsung jewels is the Mangarakau Swamp, a 400ha wetland that has defied repeated attempts over the past 150 years to drain it. The swamp, situated on the extreme northwest coast of the South Island, below Farewell Spit, was considered an impediment by early settlers to the access they wanted to goldfields, timber, flax and coal mines in the locality. Later farmers wanted it drained, to graze stock.

Framed by striking limestone rock formations to the west, and draining into the Te Tai Tapu marine reserve at Westhaven Inlet to the north, the swamp is now protected, thanks to its own tenacity and the foresight of conservationists who realised its ecological importance.

Davidson, a trustee of the Native Forests Restoration Trust which bought 160ha of the swamp, jokingly blames Golden Bay man Simon Walls for triggering his role in helping protect the wetland.

Walls, a biodiversity ranger with the Department of Conservation, was leading a Forest and Bird trip up prominent landmark Knuckle Hill in 1994 when he pointed out the swamp to Davidson and explained how great it would be to protect it, he said.

"We were standing up there looking out at the expanse of Whanganui Inlet, and to the south down to Mangarakau, and he (Walls) told me everything was protected, as far as Kahurangi Park was conservation land, the limestone was a scenic reserve, and the inlet was a marine reserve," he said.

"The only thing out of sequence, that wasn't protected, was the freshwater swamp, which was the pivotal thing, really, everything flowed into it and out of it."

Davidson said he returned to the North Island, and the need to protect the swamp swirled in his head for a number of years.

At the time, the trust was doing most of its work in the North Island, but Davidson said it wasn't difficult to persuade the trustees about the value of purchasing part of the South Island wetland, it was just a question of finding the cash.

A generous bequest by Gisborne woman Rosemary Middleton eventually enabled the trust to buy its portion of the swamp for $460,000 in 2002.

Middleton was a director of Gisborne Polytechnic and left a large part of her estate to the trust for the protection of wetlands. No record exists that she ever came to Mangarakau, Davidson says.

Once the trust's purchase was complete, the Government's Nature Heritage Trust agreed to buy the remaining two areas of the swamp.

Additional donations helped buy the house and hall buildings that came with the land, and the swamp was officially opened in 2003.

Asked why it was so important to protect the swamp, Davidson pauses -- so many reasons exist, he explains.

The swamp is not only spectacular, but is the best example of a wetland in the top of the South Island, he says. "It's a travesty of what it used to be originally, but it's still so very, very good."

Only 10 percent of the country's original wetlands remain.

Davidson says the public need to learn to love swamps, for the pivotal role they play in the ecosystem as habitats for numerous species that don't exist anywhere else.

The Friends of the Mangarakau Swamp now look after the section of the swamp bought by the trust, and the rest is in DOC stewardship.

Friends secretary Jo-Anne Vaughan says the group has more than 200 members, which includes a small committee and a core group of volunteers responsible for plantings, a trapping programme and maintaining tracks and the field centre.

Many of the volunteers are retired and devote countless hours to the swamp.

They don't want any accolades, though, and on the early autumn day when the Nelson Mail visits, they greatly underplay the work they do, not wanting to overstate their effort at the expense of others.

The amount these modest workers have achieved is evident just by looking at the before and after photos taken at the entrance to the swamp by the visitor and field centres.

Large flax, toetoe and cabbage trees now grow at the entrance, their lush greens replacing the scrappy yellow gorse which used to greet visitors.

Simply fencing the swamp from stock has also seen sections of it bounce quickly back.

A short walk to nearby Lake Mangarakau through regenerating kanuka offers a glimpse into why the work the volunteers do is vital.

A pair of cheeky fern birds make their distinctive clicking sound, and dart through the scrubby undergrowth metres from our feet.

The mottled brown birds are sometimes compared with mice, for the way they scuttle through and over the top of ferns rather than flying.

The fern bird and bittern, with its characteristic boom, are some of the endangered birds that make the swamp home. A further 54 species of bird have been seen in or around the swamp.

Vaughan says she was also blown away the first time she saw the swamp on a field trip run by the Tasman District Council and, as a Forest and Bird member, was keen to volunteer when approached to help set up a group to look after the swamp.

She says the group aims to not only protect and restore the swamp, but to provide a facility where members could visit and stay and learn more about the natural values of wetlands. "We use the swamp to try and influence hearts and minds."

One of the group's first priorities was to start a pest and weed control programme, she said.

The friends have taken out mountains of exotic weeds that once were in the gardens of the village residents, and started a pest trapping programme with the assistance of Dave Butler from the Rotoiti Mainland Island project.

From January 2004 to December 2007 volunteers have caught a total of 168 stoats, 430 rats and 37 weasels.

They've also planted a large number of tree seedlings, including hundreds of kahikatea, many of which they've raised themselves from seeds they sourced directly from the swamp.

Hundreds of other hours have been spent weeding around these plants to help them get the best headstart in life.

The group has also done a lot of work on building infrastructure at the swamp, such as tracks, picnic places and carparking.

Further tracks and plantings are planned.

Murray Gavin, one of the core volunteers, says the group is under no illusion about the time it will take to undo the damage to the swamp caused mainly by settlement.

He says the figure the trust has in mind to restore the area is 500 years.

"It's such a worthy cause," says David Morgan who also gives many hours to the swamp.

Ironically, fire is one of the greatest threats to the swamp, and two recent fires, one in 2002 and the other in 2004, have swept through the area with heartbreaking consequences, undoing hard labour the volunteers had put in.

The rushes, flax and raupo that are above the waterline get very dry and once a fire is started it can rip across the swamp land.

Humans are the greatest fire risk. The second fire was started by a spark from a roadside mower, which highlights the need to find the balance between allowing public access and protecting the sanctuary.

Vaughan says she was devastated by the fires and wanted to walk away after the second one, but the lure of the swamp for all was too strong.

Nelson botanist Edith Shaw says mini-eco-systems exist within the nine or 10 separate geological areas within the basin that holds the swamp. Acidity and chemistry vary between the different geological areas, and each of those areas has its own fauna and flora which have adapted to the conditions.

Mangarakau has lowland forest remnant areas, raupo reedland areas, harakeke and raupo areas, shrublands, freshwater lakes and dryland areas.

Shaw has spent years foraging in and around the swamp and talks passionately about it. She says it is still giving up new species and has a species list of over 800, with a further 12 species of fungi alone discovered at Anzac weekend.

She talks animatedly about the different and rare plants and creatures she and others have seen at the swamp, and says she's excited by an application currently being prepared, to get the swamp recognised as a Ramsar site. Ramsar is an international treaty that protects wetlands.

  DOC biodiversity ranger Simon Walls also needs little prompting to talk about the value of Mangarakau; his praise for the distinctive habitat flows freely down the phone from his Takaka office.
He agrees that the public have been slow to see the value in wetlands, but says he didn't need any convincing.
``People didn't like puddling around in cold mud, but I did,'' he says with his distinctive laugh.
He estimates that in its native state a large proportion might have been forest, with lots of kahikatea and northern rata. It was likely to have been a ``semi floating forest'', examples of which can be seen on the West Coast, and mudfish would have swum among the roots of the podocarps.
It's also believed it was the habitat of nine different species of moa, and the giant haast eagle along with 50-60m tall kahikatea, puketea and rimu forests.
He says the swamp is important because of its size and diversity and that after digging around in the swamp,  some ``really, really special things'' were found.
Among the treasures was the discovery of a rare brown mudfish species, which is probably genetically different from other species found on the West Coast.
He, like Shaw, says a myriad of different ecosystems are found in the swamp, which has its own flora and fauna that have adapted to the conditions.
The more unusual plants include a pink orchid with stems nearly a metre tall.  There are also ``big meadows'' of sundews  a carnivorous plants that eat insects  like the better-known venus flytrap. 
He's full of praise for the enthusiastic volunteers at Mangarakau, many of whom are out at the swamp in all kinds of weather, checking traps, planting and caring for the plants with ``amazing diligence''.
He ``really applauds those guys'' whom he describes as the ``unsung heroes'' of this breathtaking place.

Nelson