A Reflection - My Time on Great Barrier

 

by Don Woodcock

I arrived at Port Fitzroy on the Mt Cook Grumman Widgeon in April 1971 and was met at the Port Fitzroy Landing by John Leith – Officer In Charge at the N.Z. Forest Service HQ.

My long lasting recollection was the smell of ginger at the headquarters. About 300m2 of rampant ginger, all in flower, was growing about the OIC residence.

Much time during the next 15 years was spent on maintaining and upgrading the island roading network with an interesting and able bunch of workers. We also started upgrading and increasing the number of walking tracks in the central part of Great Barrier.

Perhaps the most interesting and rewarding work was the preparation and planting of native seedlings in areas reverting from farming around Port Fitzroy, Karaka Bay, Whangaparapara and in areas approaching Claris. Between 1976 and 1986 we planted on average 20,000 seedlings annually. Seed was collected locally, sent to the NZ Forest nursery at Sweetwater, Awanui, Northland and returned after 2–3 years as 30–40cm healthy seedlings.

Don Woodcock is one of the old school. His face is familiar to all here in the North — where for many years he was Manager for D.o.C. His personal recollections are a valuable insight into the conservation efforts of bygone years, which are easily overlooked. The transition of the Forest Service into the Conservation Department has had huge implications for the Barrier, and will continue to do so into the future. The results — whether you look at the stands of planted kauri in the Kiwiriki, the impressive trackwork around Mount Hirakimata, the eradication of feral goats... these works and others speak for themselves of the dedication and hard work of Don and other conservation pioneers of Great Barrier Island.

 

I recall lots of opposition to this work because we were going out to produce a productive native forest. My response was that when the trees matured in 100–120 years the choices would be made then. In the mean time the planting would improve the forest diversity in areas where these trees grew originally but now had very little local source for natural seeding.

In 1985 the goat eradication programme started in Te Paparahi, the north of the island. The Lands and Survey assisted through funding and the Forest Service provided the goat hunters. This programme in my view has to date been the biggest and most rewarding for conservation on the island. 

Big things happened in the late 1980s. The restructuring of many government departments, the demise of some and the formation of new. This was later followed by local government restructuring. Great Barrier Island did not go unscathed. The vast crown lands previously managed by the NZ Forest Service and Lands and Survey were re-allocated in 1987. Most went to the new Department of Conservation and leaseholds went to the new State Owned Enterprise, Landcorp. The Great Barrier Island County Council was replaced by Auckland City Council.

In 1986 we moved from Okiwi to Port Fitzroy to take up my new role with the Forest Service. By then we had a growing understanding of pests, both plants and animals. The first thing I did as an after work chore was tackle the ginger. It took 2 years but eventually I had totally eradicated one area above the house through pulling and burning but succumbed to the use of herbicides to manage the other bigger area below the house. Even now the odd plant will show but most of the area now has a good covering of native vegetation.

In 1987 the goat eradication programme in the north was in full swing. Already the change to the forest floor up to 1.5m was incredible. A mixture of seedlings were showing everywhere and many trees, particularly kohekohe, were coppicing. This programme was initially planned only for the Te Paparahi block with controls and monitoring set up between Whangapoua and Motairehe. After some convincing the programme was extended to include all feral goats throughout the island. So a full 22 years later we have unofficially, a feral goat-free island.

In 1993 we were fortunate enough to purchase almost 11 acres of prime land at Okiwi from Owen Cooper. Previously farmed for milking cows and then dry stocked, it was bare land gently contoured towards the north with two small creeks running though parts of it. Immediately I set about fencing and planting. Nearly 6000 native seedlings later, raised in my own nursery I had completed my plan of planting creek edges, damp areas and boundaries to create an extension of natural corridors and provide shelter and windbreaks. The benefits now include; improved bird and animal habitat, increased birdlife, cleaner stream water, greater variety of colour on the property and the simple joy of watching the incremental growth each year. With benefits come disadvantages. These are few but have long term impacts. The rabbits were very happy with the extra cover that the plantings provided so proceeded to multiply and occupy a space that was supposed to produce replacement plants through the natural process from the many seedlings planted. The only species that they don’t eat are kanuka and totara. Unless rabbit numbers are dramatically reduced all our regenerating areas will look the same, a real loss of diversity. Rats beat the rabbits. I have observed them at night eating fruit and seeds from a number of species. So there we have a double whammy, the seeds the rats don’t eat if given the chance to germinate are devoured by the rabbits as soon as they rise above the ground. I have also had to put netting around many trees to prevent ringbarking by rabbits. They don’t stop there though, digging down to and eating tree roots is another means of getting sustenance.

I do believe the future for the island is bright. There is a growth of understanding for the special things that are unique to the island and the ways of improving things to increase this uniqueness. A number of people have led the charge to reverse the ‘take and don’t care’ trend to make things safer and healthier so that serious consideration can be given to bringing back a number of species that have not been seen or heard by most of the current generation.

I was fortunate to play a part in the relocation of the two last known kokako from Te Paparahi in 1994. They were moved to a safe environment at Hauturu where there is every opportunity for them to breed with resident birds there. The plan is that one day when all threats are removed or managed their offspring will be brought back.

Planning for these events has to be thorough and do take time. Every body that has an interest needs to be part of the process. Only then will any completed works be called a success. My saying now is ‘all good things take time’ and I don’t mean cheese.