By Ali Mackisack

Imagine this. You’re walking through the forest in the lower Ruamāhanga valley, somewhere near Wairarapa Moana. It’s 1821. Your ears are tuned to the calls of kōkako, kākāriki, kererū and whio.

Kākā, kiwi, kārearea, and tīeke thrive here too.

The sun dapples through the stands of kahikatea and pukatea, picking out the tiny tawa seedlings heading toward the light. The water in the river is teeming with life and the forest ecosystem is thriving, from its tiniest fungi to its dense canopy.

Now imagine this – that 100 years from now, your descendants can have exactly this same experience.

The Aorangi Restoration Trust, with the support of Project Crimson, is working to bring this vision to life. With buy-in from landowners and iwi, they have already begun establishing native forest corridors across Tonganui, the Big South. In the long term, they aim to have functioning native forest, alongside farmland, stretching from the Aorangi forest park behind Cape Palliser, across the valley floor to the Wairarapa Moana and the foothills of the Remutaka Ranges.

“The plan is to just do a bit at a time,” says Bob Burgess, Project Manager at Aorangi Trust. “To piece together a corridor, our task is to connect with as many landowners as possible, work with them to achieve their plans as well as our aim for forest corridors, provide them with whatever’s needed to make this happen, and then get in there to clear, fence, plant, and monitor.”

“For the farmers, it’s not about “giving up” a bit of their farmland. Most of the farmers we’ve spoken to are well aware that by being part of this, they are actually making their land more biologically diverse, more resilient, more able to cope with the expected climate challenges. And we’re not looking at creating native forest on a landowner’s most productive areas of land. A lot of the areas that farmers may contemplate planting, are what was eloquently described to me as “shitty gullies” by one landowner.”

But the Trust isn’t looking at small areas.

“To make a difference, we can’t just be planting a strip just a few metres wide alongside a drain. We’re talking 30 metres, 50 metres, 100 metres, both sides of a stream and fencing it off. There are some wonderful stands of large trees on farms in this valley, but there’s grazed pasture underneath them. We’re not just talking about planting trees, we’re talking about planting a forest. And not just forest trees but a flourishing forest – one which supports the birds and insects and lizards and fungi and soil organisms in a complete ecosystem. Even if we planted either side of every stream in the valley, that would still only be a small portion of what we would like to achieve.”

The 4-year agreement with Project Crimson, which supports initiatives to plant native trees, sees the Trust supporting the fencing-off of at least 100 hectares and planting these with native trees. Yet it’s clear that many farmers are already taking steps in the same direction as the Trust.

“We had about 30 farmers at the August 2020 meeting, interested in finding out more about the project’s idea,” says Bob. “Some even bought along farm maps and said ‘have a look at this, we’re thinking of fencing off along here.’ Neighbours are talking to neighbours. On one block, where there was a riparian strip being planted with the support of the Regional council, a neighbour who had an adjoining strip saw what was going on and said “ hey I can contribute to that too,” and so he did.”

“Farmers are working on their farm plans with the Greater Wellington Regional Council, and what we are doing is lending a hand. We have a fairly good idea of what used to grow where, and we have a specialist group of volunteers who can advise on the best match of plants to the site conditions (soil type, drainage, slope, aspect). The combinations of plants selected may be different for each farmer and each piece of land.”

As well as providing shade and shelter, the forest corridors will reduce nutrient runoff from farms and improve the water quality of streams and rivers. It is anticipated that regular water quality monitoring will provide a baseline for further longer-term results, such as water quality improvements in streams entering the Ruamahanga River and Wairarapa Moana.

Another exciting aspect of the project is the establishment of a native plant nursery at Kohunui Marae near Pirinoa, which will eventually become a specialist nursery for the area and the major plant supplier for final plantings, in 2023. By this stage, the Trust aims to have planted over 100,000 trees.

“The exciting thing is, that we’re not the only ones working in this area of course,” says Bob. “There are a lot of community care groups doing a lot of different projects in this part of the Wairarapa and we’re keen to connect with them through the Wairarapa Pūkaha to Kawakawa Alliance. Because we’re set up as a charitable trust, it’s easy for others to tie in with what we’re doing, and we are keen to support their work too. This benefits everyone involved. What Clive Paton, (Aorangi Restoration Trust Chairperson) said in our planning document, really sums this up:

“The value of reconnecting the small fragmented native habitats across Tonganui is to provide people with a deep connection to this place and ensure our grandchildren and future generations will see and can enjoy what once flourished here.”

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Learn more about the Aorangi Restoration Trust on their website > www.aorangitrust.org.nz

The Aorangi Restoration Trust is just one of the many local groups working within the Wairarapa Pūkaha to Kawakawa Alliance network. Learn more about WaiP2K at > www.waip2k.org.nz

Tonganui Corridors Project group at Kohunui Marae Nursery

Tonganui Corridors project and Kohunui Marae Nursery launch

 

Clive Paton (Aorangi Restoration Trust Chair), Trevor Thompson (QEII National Trust) and Aaron Donges (Aorangi Restoration Trust Operations Manager) at a site visit

Clive Paton (ART Chair), Trevor Thompson (QEII National Trust), and Aaron Donges (ART Operations Manager) at a site visit