River Valley .............. turning the clock back

Can the clock be turned back on the loss of biodiversity in New Zealand? Probably not, but that does not mean all is lost. River Valley is doing it's bit.

Sitting amongst the tranquillity of River Valley, it’s hard to imagine a hundred years ago this was a very different place. The rugged landscape would have been covered in heavy bush, with natural clearings of scattered manuka, fern and tussock grass

 “Over the years I’ve become increasingly conscious of the silence of our native forest  ̶  in the past it would’ve been deafening with birdsong,” says River Valley Lodge and Stables owner Brian Megaw.

The loss of birdlife can be directly related to loss of habitat, competition for food, and hunting by introduced predators, especially stoats, possums and rats’  ̶  and it’s something Brian wants to change.

“In my mind's eye I see the whio blue duck, nesting back on the main river, something they’ve not done for at least 60 years. I imagine myself sitting at the lodge and hearing kiwi calls at night. There would be kaka and many more kereru. A walk in the bush would encounter riflemen and if we were really lucky kakariki, though I expect that introduced Australian eastern rosella are starting to fill the niche previously occupied by those small parakeets. The song of the bellbird would be a steady background melody.”

Maori living downstream in the Moawhango Valley and Mokai area came to the valley to hunt birds, including the large and now extinct moa. Farming arrived with the first European settlers in the 1890s. The early colonials cleared the land, hacking out an existence by fire and axe.

“Vast quantities of timber were milled, but even greater quantities were simply burnt  ̶  an incredible waste,” says Brian.

The Rangitikei River is the life-blood to River Valley and its rafting and trekking business, but without riparian plantings to influence the aquatic and land ecosystems the river is under continual threat from agricultural intensification and associated nutrient run-off. This leads to increased weed growth and loss of water clarity.

“There’s no doubt that there’s more sediment now, although the river is still very clear,” says Brian. “Areas where stock, especially cattle, access the river need to be fenced and the river boundary planted with native shrubs.”

There are nine farms upstream. Only a handful have fenced their river frontages and the others are “dragging their chain”.

Further conservation measures are necessary to promote sustainable biodiversity. “In our case that includes setting traps to catch and kill introduced predators, killing invasive plants and planting pockets of native trees and plants where livestock cannot get to them,” says Brian.

The trapping and killing of stoats benefit all native birds, especially whio. At the moment the traps cover about 10kms of the river downstream from the lodge, all listed on Google Earth. The biggest obstacle is finding time to check them. “It’s easy for conservation work to slip down the priorities when we are busy. “We still have about 30 traps that have not yet been laid out and probably won't be until the end of the season.”

Another focus is on the identification and eradication of the weed, Old Man's Beard, often mistaken for the native clematis. “It’s an incredibly invasive plant and has a huge impact, smothering and killing blocks of native forest. “We still keep on top of it here, but only about 20 km downstream all control work has been halted, as the problem has simply got too big.”

In the future the team are looking at introducing some sort of sponsorship program where people can pay to support a trap for a year to help meet the cost. “That means the general public can be a part of something pretty damn cool, without having to do the work themselves,” says Brian.

“When I look over the area I see good productive hill country farmland with the odd remnant of native forest, but because of the lack of species diversity, this is really a green desert from a biodiversity point of view.”

“It’s not just an issue for River Valley  ̶  it’s a world-wide problem made worse by climate change.”

Brian has seen variations in the 36 years he has lived here. “It is generally a little warmer in winter, but I think the major thing is the severity of weather events. “The drought last year was the biggest since 1948, but also the third drought since 2000. The floods in 2004 were the biggest since 1896. It’s the greater incidences of these events that is the concern.”

“Our actions are not going to turn the clock back, but if we all do our bit, no matter how small, I feel sure the impact on a global scale would be huge. “We just have to live the commitment and basically lead by example.”

River Valley is near Taihape, about halfway between Auckland and Wellington and a short distance off State Highway 1. For more information go to www.rivervalley.co.nz

Article by Pippa Brown - pippabrown@rocketmail.com

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