Our shy places quietly bringing about change

Almost exactly a year ago I was handed an original paperback called Wetlands: Discovering New Zealand’s Shy Places. It was originally published in 1986 and its pages had been well-thumbed but well cared for.

I hadn’t heard of its author and when I did more research, I realised I knew about him through his enduring work. G.K. Stephenson or Dr Gordon Stephenson was a farmer and conservationist. He and his family farmed near Putaruru in South Waikato in the sixties and seventies. The book’s back cover says he increasingly became concerned from the late 1960s about “wider environmental issues.”

In 1976 he became a member of the Environmental Council and in 1982 he convened a group which produced Wetlands: A Diminishing Resource. The report put wetlands under the microscope and its recommendations eventuated in a government policy statement. He went on to start various organisations, such as the National Wetlands Trust, the Advisory Committee for Regional Environment (ACRE), the South Waikato Environmental Initiative, the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust (MEIT) and the Farm Environment Awards.

What’s striking about the book is his pure affection and lyrical way of writing about what was considered marginal wasteland. He writes, “It may seem strange to develop a love affair with bogs, swamps, estuaries and other wet places.”

Dr Stephenson goes on to describe the Kepler Mire (which incidentally is also called Dismal Swamp), the moment when he truly became hooked. “We saw what looked like a black moving glacier with crescent-shaped pools of dark water, 500 ha in all nestled in a broad hollow in the hills.” Stephenson manages to choose exactly the right words to make you fall in love with wetlands, just like he did those many decades ago.

When walking through the wetlands you can’t help but feel a bit of what Dr Stephenson probably felt when he was in all those bogs and swamps. Seeing fantail, or piwakawaka cheekily darting in and out of mānuka and harakeke, observing native ducks make the weirs their home, and seeing dry, eroding hills disappear to make room for new life has been truly inspiring.

Since the winter of 2015, we’ve been slowly retiring the steep gully areas on our farm and planting them in trees and shrubs that would have flanked them over a century ago. Today, approximately 10 hectares have been restored and every day the plants get taller, wider, thicker and more dominant over the invasive species. In addition to increasing the biodiversity, we’ve also created three water treatment weirs, that also help to increase the water quality before it leaves the farm.

Over the last year, the first area that we restored, called Gully 3 has really come into its own. The mānuka is now three times my height and apart from the odd bit of rogue gorse, this area is largely self-sufficient. Gully 5 and the area that has the weirs are two-to-three years behind and have made some great progress over winter. But, are still needing a watchful eye when it comes to releasing weeds and replacement planting. We were very grateful to Go Eco in helping us to organise a releasing day last World Wetlands Day and we’re planning to have another community event this autumn/winter.

Preparing the ground, planting, releasing, cultivating and then planting again takes time, passion and a real commitment to conservation. We’ve been fortunate that over the last four and a half years we’ve been supported by the Waikato River Authority, as well as Go Eco and the Sustainable Business Network. Restoration projects really are a community effort.

We hope that you found time today to attend a World Wetlands Day event where you are. This year, I hope we can all celebrate and deepen our understanding of these beautifully mucky, shy and important bogs.