The ongoing struggle to free Hawke’s Bay hillsides
It’s cold. Slowly, reluctantly, the camp comes to life in the pre-dawn darkness. Wrapped up against the early-morning chill, men start to converge slowly on the central living area. Its facilities are protected from the elements by just a single tarpaulin strung between the two shipping containers now doubling as bunk houses.
The camp, basic but comfortable, is set deep in the back-blocks, surrounded by the rugged, mountainous wilderness of inland Hawke’s Bay.
A coal-fired range oven is coaxed back into life, the freshly-wakened contractors yawning and stretching their hands out towards the promise of heat. Thawed by the first camp coffee of the day, they become livelier and their banter gathers momentum. They have a massive day ahead of them.
These men, led by Eddie Hose of Rotorua-based Hose Developments, are playing a vital role in one of the most impressive reforestation projects in the country. But they’re not planting anything. They’re ripping stuff out.
They’re working in the Maungataniwha Pine Forest, a 4,000 hectare logging concession now managed by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust. The Trust was established in 2006 to provide direction and funding for the restoration of threatened species of fauna and flora in New Zealand’s wild places.
Under a 12-year hand-back agreement with Maungataniwha logging concessionaire Matariki Forests, the Trust progressively takes control of land that has been harvested each year. Native bush is then encouraged to regenerate in place of the pine.
There is sufficient residual seed of native species within the soil to enable regeneration without the need for additional seeding. A major challenge, however, is the simultaneous regeneration of pine seedlings which effectively crowd out the slower growing native forest species.
“These wilding pines are a bugger to get rid of,” says FLRT forest manager Pete Shaw. “It’s best to do so within two years of germination because after that they become even more difficult to remove.”
This is where Eddie Hose and his team of contractors come in. Their job is to sweep hundreds of hectares of regenerating native bushland, in remote and tough terrain, and to cut down and kill the unwanted immigrants. Between August 2014 and June 2015 they cleared 750 hectares.
“We prefer to do the work manually wherever possible,” Pete says. “We get a better hit-rate and it doesn’t damage the regenerating native bush, which aerial spraying can do.
“But where the terrain is too difficult to get Eddie’s team in, or where the re-growth is too dense, we have to resort to spraying.”
And it’s an expensive business - manual clearance costs around $500 a hectare while aerial treatment costs $140 a hectare for the spray, the chopper hire and other equipment costs.
The native regeneration of Maungataniwha is the largest privately-funded initiative of its kind yet seen in New Zealand. It is backed by the FLRT, set up by businessman turned philanthropist Simon Hall, executive Chairman of food manufacturer Tasti Foods. He owns the block, along with the adjacent Maungataniwha Native Forest - 6,120 hectares of wilderness straddling the ridge system between the Te Hoe and Waiau Rivers. It is bordered to the north by Te Urewera National Park and to the west by the Whirinaki Conservation Forest.
The $240,000 project is funded by the Trust and by a $105,000 grant from the public conservation funding organisation, the Biodiversity Conditions Fund.
The Department of Conservation is using the project as a test case to learn more about the land stewardship methods involved in the large-scale regeneration of native forest and the control of wilding pines.
It takes two years to clear logged land of wilding pines and a further eight years to get it to the point where it can be described as fully regenerated. During this time the land is nurtured, treated and monitored by Pete and his team to ensure that the species they expect to appear do so.
The grasses are first off the block – native species like hookgrass and toetoe. Then shrubs or small trees like mahoe and wineberry. These are followed by mountain cabbage-tree, kanuka and native fuschia. Once these species have re-colonised the land the stage is set for larger stuff such as red and silver beech.
Native birds such as kereru and silvereyes play a vital role in the regeneration process, spreading seed and propagating the land.
Eddie’s contractors kick the day off at about 7.30am with a risk assessment and a safety briefing. They then split into teams of four, each team covering one hectare a day. Together they aim to cover six hectares a day and they typically deal with somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 wilding pines a hectare.
The men space themselves about 20 metres apart and work across the faces of the hillsides, following contour lines and cutting down the pines as they come across them. They cut them as low down as possible with pruners, chainsaws or jacksaws and leave the felled saplings to provide ground cover, taking care not to smother any regenerating native plants in the process.
Eddie reckons about 70 percent are killed outright while the rest are able to achieve some form of re-growth, requiring a second pass from his team within another two or three years.
It’s tough, physical work. A young man’s game. The teams spend eight hours a day in the clearance area before being picked up and taken back to the camp. They spend 10 days at a time in the bush before heading back to town for four days of R&R.
“These are good guys who prefer to be doing something useful in the bush than sitting on their bums in Taupo, Napier and Rotorua collecting the benefit,” Eddie says. “It’s tough work but it’s rewarding and they enjoy the challenge and the camaraderie.”
It might be cold and dark at 6am in the back-blocks contracting camp but Eddie and his team know that the work they’re doing is contributing to the success of a pioneering New Zealand conservation venture. And that creates its own kind of warm glow.