By Ali Mackisack

With the cider bottles of river-water samples lined up on the picnic table in front of them, the evidence was clear to see: as the water flowed downstream through their catchment, it changed. While the nutrient levels were still good, having water flowing through open pasture wasn’t the best way to maintain great water quality. 

The group peering into the bottles of water samples they’d gathered from points along the streams that flowed into the Waipoua River, were from the Upper Waipoua Kaitiaki Group. This group was established in 2018 by some local farmers who believed they could make a positive difference to their local waterways.

“As a group, we’ve always been keen to do things in ways that work for us as a group as well as for the physical catchment,” says Gill Murray, the group’s co-ordinator. “Filling the cider bottles with water samples as we followed the streams down, is the kind of scientific investigation that fits with us, along with the more “official” types of monitoring that goes on.”

“To get to know our streams, we organised three field trips where we traced the three waterways that flow into the Waipoua, from their sources. It was amazing to see their beginnings, as narrow little trickles coming out around stones in the bush or high on someone’s farm. Following them was a way of doing a stocktake of our area, as well as looking at the land. Even though we are neighbours, some of us hadn’t really been on each other’s farms, or focussed on the streams.”

Something that really stood out in their up-close look at their streams, was the increase in temperature as the water flowed downstream, and the noticeable drop in water temperature after the water had flowed through a decent patch of shade provided by a pine plantation. These findings resulted in the group’s commitment to planting large trees as part of their riverbank planting programme, knowing that shade and shelter has a positive impact on the health of the river, as well as providing bank stability and flood protection.

The group planted a variety of smaller natives too, which will help to hold the sloping banks together when the river is in flood and allow the area to flood naturally rather than forcing the water into narrow channels between steep banks. 

A lot of thought also went into what would work best for both the river and the landowners, as nobody wanted a wall of blackberry to spring up between the river and the newly-erected fencelines. The group’s answer was to create a shady and low-maintenance riparian zone that will allow for strictly-controlled sheep grazing once the plants are established.

The group has done two winters of planting at a group trial site, with funding support for plants from the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC). Individuals have also done water quality projects on their own properties.

“We’ve kept our group deliberately small and manageable,” says Gill. “While we do some things together and meet reasonably regularly, it’s important to us that each person contributes what they can, and that things happen as people are willing.”

“While everyone in the area is invited to the meetings and is kept in touch through our various postings, there’s mostly a core group of people with others who come and go as they can. Some farmers have done many, many kilometres of fencing off waterways, others none at all. On our farm, we have focussed mainly on wetland development, which should reduce the amount of sediment that ends up in the river.”

Many members of the group are also involved in trapping pests, mainly stoats, possums and rats. Again, people “dip in and out” of this part of the catchment’s activities as time and interest allows. Many of the traps have been loaned to the group by GWRC. “We know that a lot of the stoats and ferrets that head toward Pukāha come from our direction,” says Gill, “so it’s nice to know that our trapping efforts here have a positive impact on how many pests end up “downstream” so-to-speak.”

Some members of the group record the results using the online tool Trap NZ and this data forms part of the recording and documenting that the group does, as a way of keeping track of changes over time. 

“We know that what we are doing here is making a difference,” Gill says, “and while the individual differences are only small, collectively they add to something bigger. We know there are at least two other groups working to improve the health of the lower Waipoua, and perhaps we might connect with them at some later stage.”

“As farmers, we are working towards meeting regulations, but that motivation is really just in the background. Clean water – achieved through protecting the river, restoring the bush along the streams, and trapping the pests is what really motivates most of us here.”

The Upper Waipoua Kaitiaki Group is just one of the many local groups working within the Wairarapa Pūkaha to Kawakawa Alliance network. Learn more about WaiP2K at >

Photos: Lynley Wyeth and Gill Murray