A rural community effort in Taranaki protects a wetland reserve
The Rotokare Reserve encompasses a 230ha native wildlife sanctuary protected by an 8.5km predator-proof fence. Pests were eradicated in 2007 and since then native flora and fauna have flourished. A number of bird species has been introduced, some returned to Taranaki for the first time in a century. The unique features of this facility are that it is free and open to the public 24/7 and includes a lake that is regularly used for water skiing and boating. Walking and camping within the Reserve is permitted. A “halo project” that extends pest control outwards to surrounding farms and beyond is well under way.
The Rotokare Scenic Reserve, including Lake Rotokare, is Crown land vested in the District Council. It has been a reserve for yonks and used by several generations as a recreational facility for boating, water skiing, camping, walking and picnicking.
In the early 2000s local people could see that the condition of the Reserve was deteriorating. Joe Menzies, a local sheep and beef farmer also ran a contracting business and was hired by the district council to remove old burnt-out cars and other rubbish dumped in the Reserve.
“The place was a mess so in 2003 I met the chair of the community board and we agreed to call a meeting in the town hall. About 140 people turned up, some keen on conservation and others against it thinking that is would limit their access to the lake and bush,” says Joe.
“14 agreed to be part of a committee to explore what to do. We decided to raise $6500 to kill possums, and that was $7.5 million ago.”
The Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust was formed in 2004 as a community owned and driven project dedicated to both conservation and recreation. Joe was its first chair and has been a Trust member ever since.
Initially the Trust raised money for a pest trapping project and then set its sights on achieving a high-level biodiversity restoration by constructing an 8.2km pest-proof fence.
It was ambitious in that it involved putting the fenceline along ridges so that trees would not fall on it. Neighbouring farmers gifted about 12.5ha of land to the Project so that this could be achieved. The fence was also different from others built elsewhere in that most of it was stainless steel that would not rust.
Funding was sought from government departments, local bodies, charitable trusts and private individuals. The total cost of almost $2 million was raised and the fence was completed, debt free, in 2007.
Shortly afterwards Simon Collins was appointed as Sanctuary Manager to organise and oversee the pest eradication programme. “In 2008 there were two helicopter applications of poison baits and then a mop up phase straight afterwards. The operation involved 40 or 50 volunteers and was hard work but was extremely successful,” says Simon.
“We eradicated 12 species – rabbits, hares, possums, ferrets, weasels, stoats, Norway rats, ship rats, mice, cats, hedgehogs and goats. We believe we got rid of them all but periodically we have to deal with incursions of mice – in fact we are actually having a significant one at the moment.”
One of the drawbacks of visitors having free 24/7 access to the Reserve is that every car is a potential vector for rodents arriving. Simon says that birds of prey can also carry mice over the fence and drop them, and there may be places where the fence does “leak”.
“Our job is to find any leak or find prove conclusively that it does not leak. One possibility is that baby mice get through tiny gaps in the fence but because they grow quickly they are unable to squeeze back out. But usually when a mouse incursion occurs we deal to them and they are gone again,” he says.
“We have about 46 km of monitor lines through the 230 ha of bush and hundreds of kill devices permanently set. Mostly they never catch a thing and are simply there as a permanent monitoring tool.”
As well as its natural 18ha lake the Reserve has extensive wetlands. The lake edge consists of raupo, flax and pukatea/kahikatea swamp forest. The hills surrounding the catchment are covered in tawa, rewarewa and mahoe. Prior to the eradication programme they were dying back due to possum browsing, and bird and insect life was dwindling.
“Fern birds were once restricted to the wetland margins of the lake and it was always thought that that was their natural habitat. But since pests were eradicated fern birds have flourished and spread out all over the sanctuary and now are routinely reported seen on neighbouring farmland,” says Simon.
“Tomtits were rare; now they are abundant, and there are many kereru, tui and so on. We have positively identified four lizard species within the reserve and the invertebrate and insect life has ballooned. We have cave wetas and tree wetas. The forest looks healthy and the understorey is all regenerating with orchids etc.”
“We have been able to introduce species missing from the ecosystem or from the region for quite some time – the tieke or saddleback was returned in 2014 to this reserve for the first time in approximately 150 years. We also have a very healthy kiwi population bred in partnership with the Taranaki Kiwi Trust.”
Other species now in the Reserve include ruru/morepork, karearea/NZ falcon, korimako/bellbird, riroriro/grey warbler, popokatea/whitehead and toutouwai/North Island robin. The lake edge habitat is home to matata/fernbird, puweto/spotless crake, also tuna/eels and banded kokopu in the streams and lake.
Right from the start the project has had strong community support, particularly from surrounding farmers. Two of the founding trustees were neighbouring farmers and both gifted land to accommodate the fence.
“They have worked tirelessly for the project, and surrounding these guys there is a community inspired by momentum. There has been the odd hiccup with a few people concerned that the sanctuary would change the way they could farm their properties but over time that has settled and everybody can now see that it is working really well,” says Simon.
“In 2011 we started talking about a Halo Project. The spillover of wildlife into surrounding farm land and the spillover of community enthusiasm for the project has led to a plan to extend trapping out into neighbouring land.”
“Recently we received funding from the Ministry for the Environment to kick start the project with intensive trapping with the key targets being possums, rats and stoats. We are also working hard to include feral cats, rabbits, mice, and a multitude of hedgehogs.”
“The response to the Halo Project has been very positive and we have now covered close to 2000 ha and have completely ringed the sanctuary. The next step is to continue outwards towards the local school and also to fill in the gaps towards a couple of other nearby Forest and Bird trapping projects. We are aiming to complement their efforts and help provide safe connecting corridors for wildlife.”
Joe Menzies says that support initially from neighbouring farmers and now from those further afield has been huge. “The surrounding farms are mostly sheep and beef but there are several dairy farms, and some of the dairyfarmers further out towards the mountain have bought into the Halo Project as well. A project like this motivates farmers to be part of a sensible conservation movement where people actually do what they say they are going to do,” he says.
“Support from the wider community has also been huge all the way through. With the recent mouse problem we appealed for volunteers to help with cutting trapping lines through the bush so we could put card tunnels out and with trapping and poisoning. We had 26 people from all walks of life turn up including 15 people from Vector who were sent by the company to help out.”
Joe’s family has farmed in the area for five generations, and he is delighted that the long decline in native bird life has been reversed.
“The benefits for me personally are that I am in a good, practical conservation group that has supported effective pest control to the point where within a few years we will get saddlebacks back on our farm for the first time in 150 years. We already have tomtits, warblers and cuckoos – it’s massive to what it was just 10 years ago,” he says.
“I also believe that the amount of work we have put into conservation supports New Zealand’s green trading image. We need to write a story of sustainable farming and conservation working together, and I believe there should be a good return from that.”