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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

Working together to protect Flora and fauna

Friends of Flora is a community group that works for the preservation of native species in Kahurangi National Park’s Flora Stream area.

flora stream 2 smallFlowering Maori onion (bulbinella hookeri) near Flora hut, and midsummer Mount Arthur range view. Photo: Melissa Wastney.

The Friends of Flora community group has been working since 2001 to protect biodiversity in the Flora Stream catchment area of Kahurangi National Park.

Situated in the northwestern Nelson/Golden Bay area, Kahurangi is the second-newest national park in New Zealand, and the second-largest at 452,002 hectares. It was created in 1996.

The Flora Stream catchment area is situated at an average elevation of about 800 metres, and is home to silver, red and black beech trees, mountain cedar, hebe varieties, spaniards, and mountain daisies, among other plants. It’s also home to a number of native bird species, including bellbird, robin and the critically endangered whio (blue duck).

Together with the Department of Conservation (DOC), Friends of Flora works tirelessly to implement a conservation strategy, protecting the unique biodiversity of the area.

See the group in action in this new short film about their work.

Melissa Wastney talks to Friends of Flora co-founder Maryann Ewers about the work they do, bringing back whio (blue duck), and what it’s like to be involved in a community conservation organisation:

Friends of Flora have had some wonderful success with restoring native birdlife in the area. Can you tell me a bit about the particular bird species you've helped to thrive?

The whio (blue duck) is our one outstanding success. After being left with one lone wild male in the Flora Stream in 2006, we now have a sustainable breeding population of these ducks, which are the world’s most ancient duck species and not related to any other.

Whio require pristine waters, with much of their territory being bush-clad. They feed on fast-flowing rivers and are one of only four ‘torrent ducks’ in the world. They used to be all over New Zealand, and it is now thought that they appear to have been throughout the forest which surrounded their river territory. These days, they are often referred to as a ‘mountain duck’, but that is a misnomer.

They used to live in most rivers and streams from the mountains to the coast, but due to habitat loss, predation and water pollution, the only areas left viable are mountain streams. Some coastal rivers still retain small populations – the Heaphy coast being one example.

whio blue duck smallLeft: Whio (blue duck) at Staglands, Akatarawa, New Zealand. Image: licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2004, the Department of Conservation together with Friends of Flora tried WHIONE (whio operation nest egg), where the eggs were taken from the nest and hand-reared, then put back into the stream as young juveniles. In the Flora area this was unsuccessful, we think because of the altitude (700–800 metres, meaning fewer invertebrates in the stream).

The hand-reared ducks hadn’t learnt from their parents the fine art of searching for and catching their food, as they would have in the wild. Six out of the ten died from starvation, but the other four were captured and put in to a lower river (Wangapeka), where DOC has a whio protection programme, and they thrived.

The good news is that now our Flora whio population is sustainable; in fact, the catchment is ending up with more ducks annually than the stream can sustain, so some are flying into other catchments. As long as they are protected in some way, the ducks will start up other populations and the general population will grow.

How often do you and your team spend time in the Kahurangi National Park?

Our trap lines are monitored once a month, or sometimes twice, if catch numbers are rising in some areas. With over 125 kilometres of trap line (with each stoat trap 100 metres apart and each line approximately 1 kilometre), we have many different lines and each has a line leader with a list of people to help each month. This has to be done within the last two weekends of each month. So, depending on when the volunteers are available, the monitoring will be done in this time.

Apart from the actual monitoring of the traps, we also run our great spotted kiwi project, for which we contract two people. They monitor the kiwi every fortnight, and sometimes more often, if they are keeping an eye on incubation. We also do footprint tracking tunnels (FTTs), which measure the activity of the predators. These are measured up to four times a year. We also do an annual whio survey, and seed fall counting over the autumn.

For the seed fall counting, we use a series of funnels placed under both silver and red beech trees. Counting these seeds is one of the ways we track mast seasons (in a mast year beech forests produce more seeds than normal, attracting greater numbers of rats and stoats who feed on the seeds then turn on native birds when the seeds run out).

We also have a mistletoe seeding programme, to return that plant to the area, and there are many other odd jobs our volunteers do over the 8,000 hectares. So, more days than not, there would be FoF volunteers somewhere between Mt Arthur and Cobb.

flora stream 3 smallPhoto: Melissa Wastney.

I was tramping in the area over the New Year and noticed many flowering alpine plants. Do you have a favourite and has the plant life changed since you began your work there?

I love all the plants. Kahurangi has 80 per cent of all alpine species in New Zealand. The next is Mount Cook National Park with 50 per cent. So we are really very spoilt in our area. There are some very special ones. I think a favourite has to be the Aciphylla species. They just look so different from any other plants. But I also love the Ranunculus insignis with its massive bright green leaves and bright yellow flowers. I love the alpine daisies – the Celmisias. I guess they really are all my favourites!

There hasn’t been a noticeable difference in the plant life since we started, as our trapping work won’t stop browsing animals, apart from the possum. Friends of Flora doesn’t maintain many possum traps, but DOC have a good possum trapping project in this area.

The Friends of Flora group is an example of community science and conservation in action. What is it like to be part of a team that does work like this?

I am very, very proud of all the volunteers who have helped with the Friends of Flora conservation project since its conception in 2001. It has been a team effort all the way through. Many people look at trapping as the only thing our volunteers do. While this is the main focus of our work, it is one of many things we do. Our hard work will continue until a ‘magic bullet’ can be found, to rid our native biota of introduced pests.

Volunteers must be comfortable walking off-track, handling traps and dead animals, not to mention working in all weather conditions, and as it is a massive area within a national park, they also need to have quite a high fitness level. Sadly, it is hard to get young ones (those under 40) to join us, so the average age of our volunteers is getting in to the mid-60s, with many in their 70s.

I’d hate to think Friends of Flora are a dying breed.

mt arthur and range smallMt Arthur and range. Photo: Maryann Ewers.

Why is it important that we have science initiatives like this in New Zealand communities? Is there a way that teachers and students could get involved?

I can only talk about conservation initiatives here.

Our native biota is in serious decline. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), has New Zealand high on its ‘red list’ of species on the brink of extinction.

The Department of Conservation has the scientific means to protect what is left of our native biota, but not the budget. This comes down to any given government and the importance they put on it. To date, this hasn’t been a very high priority, though Nick Smith’s ‘Battle for our Birds’ (BFOB) was a good initiative.

Due to the abysmal budget DOC has, they now have no alternative but to call on more and more volunteers to do as much of the work as possible. This is not necessarily a good initiative. I'm not saying it’s not a good idea that volunteers help look after our vast conservation areas, as I think it is up to all citizens to help in some way.

We should all be taking responsibility to help look after what’s left – whether that be the manual work, or just supporting other group initiatives in some other way i.e. monetary, public support, book work etc.But DOC should have the resources of a fully functional department to do the job with volunteers to help – not to run the show.

Our success to date is in a great part due to our working so closely with DOC scientists, in order to ensure best practice. Otherwise it can be a waste of time, money and energy for all involved. Projects also need to be long term, because it’s only over a period of time that changes can be seen to be happening. 

As for students and teachers getting involved: this is one of the most important things! In our first few years, we managed to get a group of local high school children to make our rat tunnels. They became known as the ‘Rat Trappers’. They were fantastic, and some of them stayed with us for all the years they were at high school. Inspired by their work with Friends of Flora, two of them went on to do degrees in biology, majoring in ecology and botany, and one of them is also getting her teaching degree. Sadly the numbers petered out, as most young people these days don’t see the job we do as ‘cool’, and they have many other demands on their time.

It is these young people who will be the leaders in the conservation movement in the future. We need each and every one of them. We need to instil a sense of urgency into students about the fragility of our native biodiversity, because without a fight from all of us we are going to lose what makes New Zealand ‘New Zealand’.

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