Whakatipu Wilding Pines
Protecting our flora and fauna from Wilding conifers in Whakatipu.
The Whakatipu Wilding Control Group (WWCG) share a common goal of preventing our iconic landscapes, flora and fauna from being overwhelmed by the insidious threat of wilding pines. Volunteers are the heart of the programme. They are the key as each passionate volunteer contacts many other people and spreads the word. This in turn reaches the councillors and politicians who vote the funds.
Ultimately, WWCG wants Queenstown’s backdrop to change from a monoculture of pines to an environment that allows our native flora and fauna to thrive, is pest free, supports bird song and has multi-faceted recreational uses. The main invasive species in WWCG’s 450,000ha management area are Douglas fir, Larch, Corsican and Contorta.
In 2021, WWCG successfully undertook wilding conifer control across 53,717.77 hectares of challenging terrain. The group won the BioHeritage Challenge Community Award at the 2022 NZ Biosecurity Award and established a solid reputation within the Whakatipu community, with landowner support from huge high country stations through to lifestyle blocks and suburban communities, as well as the recreation and tourism communities.
WWCG chair Grant Hensman says wilding infestation levels vary in the Wakatipu district but wildings will quickly explode without constant vigilance, which places the focus on removing seed sources wherever possible.
“The effect of letting outlying trees seed is very much like the doubling effect each year and becomes unmanageable very quickly. Luckily the wilding pine has an Achilles heel – the seed is only viable in the ground for a few years and with adequate funding and no re-infestation, maintenance has an end point,” Hensman says. WWCG was just in time in the district before wildings were beyond control, he says. “That is still an issue if further funding is not secured to get the threat to a manageable level.”
Landowner consents are also a growing issue: as WWCG gets closer to residential areas, the number of permissions required increases. There’s also a need to make the community aware that dead trees are a mark of success for wilding control. Hensman says people have become aware of what is happening “and largely accept that we have to kill some pest trees, which has a short-term impact for long term gain.”
The most obvious sign of success for the group – and others like it around the country – is people not noticing wildings. “This is a common thread throughout the country. Ironically, the better we do our job through removing tens of thousands of trees off Cecil Peak and a hundred thousand plus off the Remarkables leaves people saying “what is the problem?”. There isn’t one as long as we do the work, which is then invisible.”
Hensman says volunteers are at the core of the programme. “They are the key as each passionate volunteer contacts many other people and spreads the word. This in turn reaches the councillors and politicians who vote for the funding levels. We will win or lose this battle locally and nationally on education of the issue and what the effects are - what will be lost across the board if nothing is done.”
WWCG has a Ben Lomond ‘Adopt a Plot’ initiative and runs volunteer days and Working Bees, as well as publishing regular newsletters and holding an annual reporting night, hosted by sponsor Skyline. “People talk and spread the word. And as they go for walks or drive to Coronet Peak you can’t miss what is happening if left unchecked.”
Collaboration between all parties is key, Hensman says. “We can’t win by ourselves or without support across the board. Seed rain doesn’t respect any boundaries.”
Hensman says government has given wilding control a huge boost nationally over the last few years but unfortunately that budget is now looking to be cut back below maintenance levels which means the investment to date is in danger of being lost. WWCG’s number one priority is now to secure long-term adequate funding “to protect the investment to date and allow the completion of the job we were tasked with.”
That funding will reduce the seed sources which reduces the maintenance. “This also removes the never-ending bailing of the boat which is the removal of seed rain across the balance of the hill. A battle we can’t win long term without adequate funding.”
The group is also determined to maintain areas that have had their first treatment, achieving elimination so areas can be handed back to landowners for future control.
WWCG has evolved from being nearly all volunteer time to get the tasks completed to having several contractors in a number of fields. This allows the group to concentrate on strategy, direction, policy and governance rather than day to day tasks and has created “a quantum step in productivity”.
WWCG is working successfully with the Department of Conservation, which is recompensed to help the group deliver the work programme. The DOC relationship is a large part of the group’s success over the years, Hensman says.
“As you could imagine for a small group to implement the health and safety along with the tender process for aerial applications of spray etc on a limited budget, it just wouldn’t work. Being able to tap into all the systems that DOC have in place nationally is a boon to our operations and cost effective. Given that a large area of our district is public conservation land, then this becomes a win win.”
WWCG was set up in 2009 by Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC), recognizing the damage that wildings were wreaking on local landscapes and the underlying economy.
Importantly, the Council recognized that that wilding control was better handled by a charitable trust – and people with a passion for the issue who could access funding that wouldn’t necessarily be available to councils. QLDC gave WWCG the mandate, resource (including a secretary and treasurer) and a large part of the funding to make the control group the success it is today and the council remains involved to this day.
Ultimately, WWCG wants Queenstown’s backdrop to change from “a monoculture of pines to an environment that allows our native flora and fauna to thrive, is pest free, supports bird song and has multi-faceted recreational uses.”
With this vision in mind, Hensman was reminded of the words of the late Queen Elizabeth II, who said before she died, she would like any memorial to be living not stone. “What better memorial than a large area supporting all that comes from a healthy ecosystem, outdoor recreation on the doorstep of our town, “Queenstown”.
Nationally, members of the Wilding Pine Network have been involved in wilding management for many years.
In 2006, the Wilding Conifer Management Group was formed to provide advice and seek funding for applied research on wilding management. After a first meeting in Christchurch, the group went on over the next 12 years to fund programmes through three applications to the Sustainable Farming Fund, while also running an annual wilding conifer workshop.
In 2014-2015, the Wilding Conifer Management Group was instrumental in developing the New Zealand Wilding Conifer Management Strategy 2015-2030.
In late 2017, groups involved in wilding pine control started talking about forming a new, nationally-led NZ Wilding Conifer Group – a merger of the functions of the Wilding Conifer Management Group and the Stakeholder Advisory Group.
The NZ Wilding Conifer Group was registered as an Incorporated Society in October 2019 and two years later the group changed its name to the Wilding Pine Network, to reflect its accessibility and connections with those involved in wilding management.
Wilding Pine Network Coordinator, Jo Ritchie, says the group’s biggest issue currently is the prospect of its funding being halved. There is no way to maintain the gains that have been achieved in wilding pine control at that level, Ritchie says.