The phrase ‘Giving Back’ is used frequently as an explanation for why outdoor people get out there and do the hard yards for backcountry maintenance and conservation – in the full range of weather conditions that a regular work schedule demands, getting close up with all that muddy stuff, dealing with the fag end of conservation work – including trap clearing, bait station cleaning, dealing with inconvenient tree falls, poison bait handling and carting heavy packs of bait and tools over rough terrain.
But many clubs around the country work tirelessly in these conditions, and make a real difference to the conservation state of the areas they operate in. Northern clubs including Auckland TC, Howick TC, Pukekohe TC and Waikato TC, travel regularly throughout the year at their own expense to little-known patches of the north western Pureora Forest – an area that any self respecting tramping club would seldom consider of interest to visit, given there are no recognised multi-day tramping trips there.
It is a relatively small extent of forest – mostly regrowth as a result of past logging. It features smallish hills with minimal views, rough roads that take their toll on city vehicles, few established topomap-visible tracks (even these are on an absolutely minimal maintenance schedule), and one sad little hut that has seen better days – another small hut suffered a terminal treefall experience a few years ago and so far has not been replaced.
However, the outcome of this hard work is highly encouraging from a conservation perspective, and very satisfying for the groups involved. Regular conservation work began in the area around 20 years ago, once it was realised there was a remnant northern kōkako population that was declining dangerously from predation, especially by rats and possums. More clubs joined in to take responsibility for separate areas over time. Before this work began, the various areas that are now controlled had a small number of kōkako. That has grown – initially slowly, but now at an exponential rate to a total of 430 kōkako pairs – with an additional 180 birds having already been ‘stolen’ (aka translocated) to other sites around the North Island. Now there are discussions in the kōkako survey reports about reaching the carrying capacity of the areas being controlled.
In March there was a special kōkako hui held at Pureora, to celebrate the growth in total North Island kōkako numbers from an estimated 330 pairs in the late 1990s to over 2000 pairs today. This has allowed the official status of the bird to move from ‘Threatened’ to ‘At Risk – Recovering’.
The hui involved representatives from all of the volunteer clubs and other groups, local iwi, the deputy Minister of Conservation and a full range of DOC people. This provided a valuable chance for volunteers to understand the broad reach of the overall effort, to exchange ideas, and very importantly, to receive the accolades due from everyone present.
Another less expected outcome of the conservation work is that the tramping groups concerned become very attached to the areas they operate in, being able to experience them through the seasons and over the years, in a way that is not achieved by much less frequent visits to high-profile tramping meccas around the country.
For some of the groups, the regular volunteers always service the same bait/trapping lines, and over time get to know them intimately, no longer needing maps, and with much less reference to the track signs and markings – the environment is familiar and they remember all the twists and turns or treefalls that may have once sent them in the wrong direction.
For other groups the regular volunteers become acquainted with a larger number of lines and over time acquire the same knowledge, as well as gaining a broader involvement with the complete area of operation. Either way, this allows the trampers to accumulate a wealth of knowledge that enables them to better understand the environment, and observe changes over time. It is not just about dashing around the bait stations or traps as quickly as possible trying not to miss the track. Time is taken to stop and listen to the many diverse bird calls and to spot all the other bird species that are also benefitting from the predator control work.
The strict adherence to tracks of much modern-day tramping is replaced by an understanding that there are other ways to enjoy the forest, with other pathways to be formed that involve reading a map, understanding the terrain and creating new linkages to provide variety and short cuts.
This year the Auckland Tramping Club ran its Anzac weekend (tramping) away trip to be focused on our baiting area of responsibility – in the Tunawaea and Owawenga Stream catchments. Where? It is unsurprising that you will probably not have a clue where this forest is. Hint – head ESE from Otorohanga, in due course picking up the unsealed Owawenga Road. It takes you first through rolling farmland, with views back towards Pirongia, with the Rangitoto hill on your left, and then after an increasingly rough journey, takes you through into conservation land.
We hadn’t considered the Tunawaea a full-blown tramping destination until we had started our pest control operation there in 2010, although occasionally before then we had visited the adjacent Rangitoto Station, now owned by the Native Forest Restoration Trust, and the base for the Howick TC-managed larger Mangatutu pest control block. A tramping attempt in the Tunawaea before baiting began saw a tramping party revolt after two minutes on encountering a great tangle of toitoi, bush lawyer, blackberry and supplejack!
This year’s visit was a much better researched affair. The Fit group camped two nights in the Tunawaea SW corner, and then followed a rudimentary track through to the Okahukura pest control block (Pirongia Restoration Society, Te Aroaro O Kahu, run with significant contribution from Waikato TC members), from there looping up onto the Rangitoto Range and back down to the Tunawaea. A demanding full day’s tramp for a fit party, arriving back at their campsite just as night was falling.
The Easy group was based at the nearby Rangitoto Lands farm, which is where our baiting parties stay very comfortably for six weekends a year. Their trips included a drop down into the spectacular steep-sided upper Waipa valley. This is only accessible across open farmland, before entering the Tunawaea area via some of the bait lines to experience the forest and the wide range of colourful autumn fungi. Then another rudimentary track drops down to the Owawenga Stream, and up the other side to where a topo-marked black square dot and vehicle track markings are located. What is actually there is a long-gone foresters’ hut site, and only a light foot track that provided some real challenges to follow.
The Medium party camped in two locations in the Tunawaea area – one a very basic, makeshift hunters’ camp site, and the second at a delightful stream-in- forest location near the base of the Ranginui hill. The first day following bait lines was the start of a fungi bonanza – bright blue mushrooms ‘to die for’ soon had the party’s progress slowed so everyone could just enjoy the forest environment, looking around for the next fungi marvel.
The next day, the distance between the two camping destinations was not much more than 12 kilometres along bait lines, recently established rudimentary forest tracks and ad hoc linkages between bait lines. Progress was satisfyingly slow, enjoying the forest enveloping us and allowing the careful photographers in the group all the time they needed to capture that perfect fungi photo – a wide range of colours – blue, red, white, green, black, and all shades of brown and orange. All quite unexpected because late autumn is not in our usual baiting schedule, but revealing yet another dimension to the forest that we thought we knew well.
And the birds? Because we were spending the best part of two days and nights in the pest controlled area of the forest, the group heard many kōkako singing – that eerie organ pipe call that is unmistakably their own. Members of the group who had not visited the area before were able to really appreciate what the pest control effort was achieving, and were encouraged to join our future pest control efforts. Many of them were also able to spot the elusive birds.
So after many years of ‘giving back’ through pest control work and maintenance of bait lines, all three tramping parties were able to experience a rewarding and interesting tramping weekend – all in an area that we would not have considered if we were not engaged in pest control there too. We came full circle from ‘giving back’ to ‘receiving back’. How satisfying that is!
This article was re-published from the August 2021 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit www.fmc.org.nz/aboutbackcountry.
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