By Cath Watson

Getting more out than you give to a volunteering project seems to be a common theme for me across a number of organisations I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in. The new skills and knowledge, the new friends and interactions with the people from all walks of life; and finally, the satisfaction of having a positive impact for New Zealand, albeit in a small and incremental way. Being involved in voluntary predator control work, and more recently landscape regeneration projects, continues to meet all those things and many more I often don’t appreciate at the time. And it gives the added benefit of being able to spend time in our awesome outdoors environment!

The mountains and bush of southern New Zealand became my local backyard with the start of my working career over 20 years ago. With a mainly northern coastal background growing up, the landscapes of Fiordland and Otago were a marked change. But they quickly became the place to escape to, test my limits and recharge my mind every free weekend and holiday.

Gorgeous Grebe Valley, Fiordland

Weekend escapes to Fiordland, but disturbing to find a Hedgehog at this altitude

My husband and I were lucky enough to start our careers in Invercargill – not that we appreciated it at the time! It was a place we started out thinking would be a temporary home for a year or two while we built our skills after graduation, but it has taken twenty years to leave (and not without regrets)! We bought a house in Otatara, an amazing suburb of mature podocarp swamp forest and lifestyle blocks. So many properties are tucked away down winding driveways guarded by mature kahikatea, pokaka, totara, rimu and more, as was ours. What an awesome place to finish a day and unwind!

Otatara bush driveways

What we left behind in Otatara

My husband started our foray into trapping by purchasing a possum trap and some bait stations from the local Otatara Landcare Group/Native Bird Rescue representatives. Motivated by evidence of rats around our property, and the desire to help what we thought was the already awesome local native birdlife, it was the kickstart we needed to do more. Watching the bait disappear at an alarming rate and digging holes for possum carcasses got repetitive. Here we were on the doorstep of the much larger Otatara Reserve – what was it like in there?

The 2km loop track through the reserve had become part of a regular running circuit from home. It was here that I bumped into a guy buried away in the bush checking a pest control line. Run forgotten, we got chatting and he showed me the bait stations and traps. One thing led to another and suddenly we were in – part of a network of people maintaining and monitoring pest control lines around the bush remnants, regeneration projects and estuary boundary lines of Otatara.

Experimenting with old bait buckets as bird nests

Again, the initial motivation was to help protect our native local bird population. We felt so privileged to have what we thought was a pretty good population of native bird species — especially tui, korimako, kereru, piwakawaka and tauhou — and the mature trees suggested the bush itself was healthy. How little we knew….

Feeding the natives

After just 6 years of daily/weekly possum carcass clearing and fortnightly bait refills, the introduction of more and new traps, trialing different baits and lures, moving stations and sharing ideas with others, the difference was there to both see and hear.

The bait stations got harder to access with all the new regrowth, and we have learned to identify some of the weird scraggly juvenile forms of our native giants (especially the Pokaka)! Kakariki are now established, breeding and spreading out around the area — their rapid-fire chattering a welcome background to a line check. Kaka make periodic visits from their larger bases in Bluff Hill/Motupohue and Stewart Island/Rakiura. The dawn chorus has become a stirring wake-up call, and evensong is enough to disturb outdoors phone calls in the summer months.

Weird leaf shapes of a juvenile Pokaka

As we left Otatara just under a year ago, there were more than a few tears shed. But our move to Lake Hawea in Central Otago has presented a whole new environment, and with that comes more opportunities. In the short time we have been here, we have learnt so much and quickly come to appreciate the massive contrasts!

The environment is dry and ‘scrubby’ in comparison, though we’re learning about whole new ecosystems of dryland Kanuka forests, hardy shrubs, beautiful native brooms, and communities of orchids and cushion plants that tolerate the extremes of heat and snow we had never appreciated before.

As a result, the pest species are different. Rabbits are everywhere so the mustelids thrive. Hedgehogs are much more noticeable, while rats and possums do not seem to dominate the catches to quite the same degree. Bait is not used unless commercially distributed for rabbit control, and DOC200’s rule the day. Kea find all traps types entertaining, so this provides additional challenges to trapping!

The bird life around residential areas is mostly introduced species with a few remnants of tui, korimako and tauhou hanging on, but there are other species to protect like karearea, kaka, mohua, whio and dwindling populations of lizards and invertebrates like weta.

The community involvement here feels quite different and much more fragmented. There are so many different landscape pockets, from the beech dominated rainforest of Makarora; to the open braided riverbed of the Matukituki; the rocky glacial mounds of Mt Iron and Rocky Mountain; the dryland communities of the river terraces; to the lake and riverfront residential areas.

Trapping checking in the snow, Makarora

Each seems to have attracted its own group of volunteers with a few mixings between groups and sharing of ideas. There are groups for pest control, landscape regeneration, waterways protection, native plant nurseries, recycling and waste minimization groups, and many more I am discovering monthly. No time for paid work!

The number of volunteers involved in pest control alone is huge for such a small community. Commitments range from clearing a designated trapline monthly, to the awesome individuals who donate a significant proportion of their time to make sure everything happens behind the scenes, as well as getting out there with the rest of us!

Finding the humour in pest control!

While my journey into volunteering for biodiversity feels relatively short in comparison to many of the legends I have met, the lessons I have learnt enrich my life and continue to do so. Some of my learnings include: 

  • That the learning never stops!
  • There are so many different and cool ideas on how to do things and they all have their merits – the challenge is trying to figure out what will work for you as a volunteer and the community you are working within, while having the biggest possible positive impact.
  • The volunteering community is huge and so diverse! 
  • Everyone is motivated by something different and there is space for us all to work together. 
  • There always seems to be more to gain no matter how much you give.

Environments and landscapes may differ wildly, but the interconnectedness between people, animals and the environment cannot be avoided. We each have an impact on each of these things through our lives, both good and bad. Volunteering for biodiversity helps me feel like I can add a little more to the good side of the ledger!

FMC thanks Cath Wilson for sharing her article, which is published here on Wilderlife as part of FMC’s 2021/22 focus on Volunteering for Biodiversity. To learn more, visit