Waiwhakareke: Bringing nature 'back the way it was' in urban Hamilton – Stuff


A hawk drifts above the bush of Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park. Tūī are raucous in its branches. Those who know could hear shining cuckoo earlier.
The goat, though, is gone.
It seems people don’t only dump cats and chickens at reserves, they have also left at least one goat. This one found Waiwhakareke in urban Hamilton to its liking; it caused years of damage to the undergrowth before it was finally dispatched about 10 months ago.
Chalk one up to the recently installed team of two, team leader and manager Mike Paviour and ranger Jayden Bradley.
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Nature’s having a bit of a moment in Hamilton. The city council’s commitment to two salaries for the Waiwhakareke restoration comes at the same time as the establishment of a 10-year $29m gully restoration fund.
Meanwhile, the Nature in the City project aims to restore Hamilton’s native vegetation cover from 2% to 10% by 2050.
Whether or not that ambitious target is met, one certainty is that Waiwhakareke, on former farmland, will contribute 65ha. The showcase project, two decades in the making and drawing well over 1000 visitors monthly, aims to represent the major vegetation types once found in the area. Just how diverse its ecosystem will be, however, depends on whether the council pushes ahead with a pest-proof fence following a feasibility study putting its cost at around $2.5 million.
With a decision likely next year, ecologist and longtime Waiwhakareke advocate Professor Bruce Clarkson is confident. The value proposition stacks up, in his mind. He predicts it will be an attraction to rival Hamilton Gardens within 15 years.
Clarkson says international reviewers who came to the spot during a 2014 review into the neighbouring Hamilton Zoo and Waiwhakareke “kept coming back to this”.
“They said there’s nowhere else like this in the world where you get the two systems nearby, you’ve got the overseas ecosystems on one side of the road and you’ve got the original ecosystems on the other side of the road,” he says.
“Furthermore, most places in the world don’t take on the goal that we’ve taken on, which is to bring nature back the way it was in an urban area; they usually leave it to the reserves out on the periphery.”
It makes Waiwhakareke unique, he says. But he also says for the project to reach its full potential it needs a fence. He gives the example of lizards. “You only get the generalist lizards without full predator control. You just get the background generalists. If you want the special things that would have been common across the region, the fence will provide that opportunity.”
A fence would stop seed predation by mice and rats, and would also allow the reserve to play its part in the bigger ecological picture. It is likely to benefit other parts of the city, with spillover of the bird population, and will help with connectivity from the likes of Maungatautari to the Hakarimata Range.
Even without a fence, it’s impressive how quickly native species gain hold. Not far inside the Baverstock Rd entrance to Waiwhakareke is a stand of trees including kahikatea that have grown remarkably tall since they were planted less than 20 years ago. One kahikatea in particular – already with that distinctive conical shape and far higher than any passing humans – was planted by then Conservation Minister Chris Carter in 2004 as the restoration project was kick-started. Given a chance, some of these wetland-loving natives grow at the rate of a metre a year, and this kahikatea has clearly been given the chance.
Nearby, a gahnia xanthocarpa – the giant swamp sedge – is living up to its name and sprouting vigorous seed heads above its more than head-height leaves. This is cutty grass in the extreme; Paviour recalls working in a forest of it once and having to bring out a workmate who had given up in despair at the cuts.
First sight when entering the park, however, is a paddock with cattle grazing in it, a vision of this former farmland as it was before restoration began. A ditch runs straight as a die through the paddock, a channel for nutrient-laden water emptying into the lake. This area will become a wetland, with the stream cutting a more meandering path and plantings helping purify the water before it reaches the 3ha lake.
Regardless of the ditch, the lake has been getting steadily cleaner since native planting began, with reduced e-coli and nitrogen. Paviour says a regional council scientist checking it recently remarked he would even consider swimming in it. Not that anyone’s trying.
Two swallows dart around, swooping onto the water to snaffle insects. More sedate are the ducks, including an almost black mallard. Beneath the surface are eels and, as of last week, native mudfish, relocated as the terms of a nearby development. Also beneath the surface are the less-loved mosquito fish, rudd and bullhead catfish – no koi carp yet. The burrowing catfish is particularly hard to eradicate, Paviour says.
This is a dream job for him after he was inspired into conservation as a youngster by the example of family members including his grandmother, New Zealand’s first female forestry student.
He trained as a DOC ranger, and has worked around the country including in wetlands and restoration in the Waikato. That includes Lake Rotopiko, near Ōhaupō, where a national wetlands centre is in the making, and where he had a stint as operations manager for the Ngāti Hauā Mahi Trust.
At Waiwhakareke, he’s loving the level of detail in the job. And there is also the crucial people side of things. When he started with DOC, people were seen as the problem, he says. “Now it seems the only way we’re going to survive is actually having people engaged, rather than shutting them out.”
Iwi and education will be at the heart of the project, he says. He thinks attitudes at large are changing, and pays tribute to the unsung heroes who have worked on restoration projects like Waiwhakareke.
In turn Clarkson gives credit to former Wintec head Mark Rawlence, who he says approached him with the idea for a plant museum at the site back around 2000. “I had several discussions with him and managed to turn it around to being ecological restoration as opposed to a plant museum and basically then we convinced the council.”
Not that it has been plain sailing. Clarkson has honed his arguments, having fought the good fight when an earlier council almost sold off 5.2ha of the reserve. Had that gone, the bowl-like “mini catchment” would have gone with it, he says.
The environmentalists won, but it was a close-run thing.
Now he thinks the city has crossed a threshold, marked by the Nature in the City strategy.
“Looking back at the previous councils, and looking at what we’ve got now, we’ve actually shifted – a massive threshold, we’ve crossed over it.”
“What it can provide, I mean, a 65-hectare beautiful park for people to come in and enjoy – to me, that makes Hamilton way up there,” Paviour says.
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