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  • Writer's pictureForest Lifeforce

Footprints in the Ferns

NZ-leading enviro education programme finds its feet in the Bay

Deep in the Bay of Plenty back-blocks 24 youngsters scramble up a forest trail. Breathing heavily after their climb from the valley floor they stop and look around, tilting their heads as if straining to hear something. But the dense vegetation blankets out the outside world, confining their senses and forcing them to focus on their immediate surroundings.

Here, a long way from their comfortable lives in town, most of them are about to do something they’ve never had to do before.

Five days earlier a bus-load of students from St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland arrived at the school’s remote campus, Kahunui, a 141 hectare site 15 kilometres up a rural gravel road, deep in the Bay of Plenty hinterland. They came equipped for a month in the bush – and for four weeks of unorthodox but highly effective coaching, mentoring and teaching.

Here art, science and social studies merge – the rigid parameters of traditional academic curriculae dissolving in the face of the Great Outdoors.

“Suddenly, when students can actually see for themselves the application of what they’re studying at school, it all becomes very real,” said Kahunui director John Furminger, who runs the site together with his wife and co-director Christine. “We’ve had so many eureka moments come out of this place I’ve stopped counting them.”

But something even more important happens during the extended period the students call this remote place home. They grow. Not physically, but as burgeoning adults.

Independence, exploration, decision-making, social skills, self-awareness, teamwork, resilience, humility and a heightened sense of self. They encounter all these aspects of personal development while they’re here.

Debbie Cook, St Cuthbert’s director of development, says the month-long bush classroom provides the ‘finishing touch’ to the school’s overall educational offering.

“It’s a vital part of our ability to offer a rounded education,” she said. “One that helps these youngsters hone the human skills so essential to making their way successfully in the world.”

When the children arrive they’re parted from their mobile phones and internet access, and given limited access to their computers for course-related work. Communication with families takes place the old-fashioned way, by post. They live in comfortable houses in groups of eight and are given various quotas and budgets that they must live within.

“They soon learn that if they have long, hot showers they eat into the funds available for their groceries,” Furminger said.

Kahunui hosts 24 students at a time and the month-long courses take place throughout the year. Conservation forms the backbone of most of the lessons learned here. The school’s ‘Footprint’ programme, which sees students initiating projects that will result in the property being a better place ecologically a generation hence, was recently named one of the most successful child-oriented environmental education programmes in New Zealand.

Initiatives abound and those that take longer to implement are progressed either as ‘house’ projects during the year, or over several consecutive years. This fosters a sense of shared ownership among the successive generations of students involved. Examples include the construction of self-composting toilets, a buddleia eradication project, and water reticulation and energy self-sufficiency schemes.

“Our infrastructure has been developed entirely by generations of students,” Furminger said. “Their connection with this place is huge.”

Students are encouraged to identify each ‘Footprint’ idea from their own discussions and research around the challenges facing the property, and then to evolve the concept into a viable project with achievable objectives and outcomes.

Their work has been given direction by two reports commissioned for Kahunui by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, an organisation set up to provide guidance and funding for the restoration of threatened species of fauna and flora, and to restore the ngahere mauri (forest lifeforce) in native forests within the Central North Island.

The first report, an overview of ecological and archaeological resources, identified several unique aspects of the site’s biodiversity. These included the presence of rare King Ferns, small native frogs and a species of endangered fish.

“This has been used a lot, particularly early on when students helped set benchmark data, run transects of the property and set up protected areas that we now use for comparative studies,” Furminger said.

The second report detailed opportunities for ecological learning there, outlining potential projects and information resources.

The Trust has also involved the Furmingers and their students in its own drive to boost the wild-grown population of Kakabeak, or ngutukākā in te reo. Until recently only 110 Kakabeak plants, with their spectacular curved, crimson flowers, were known still to be surviving in the wild. Recently, though, the Trust transplanted another 35 plants into the wild using seed harvested from nursery plantations on its properties in inland Hawke’s Bay and, now, at Kahunui.

“This is a classic example of how we’re combining education with conservation,” Furminger said. “The kids are learning about plant ecology, propagation and husbandry while seeing first-hand how these subjects translate directly into conservation activity they can feel and touch.”

As part of the ‘Footprint’ programme students have also had direct involvement in establishing and implementing a professional biodiversity management plan for the property. This includes comprehensive pest control targeting ferrets, stoats, rats and possums, which the FLR Trust is partially funding and contributing expertise towards.

“Kahunui embodies what we’re trying to achieve,” says Trust Chairman Simon Hall, also executive Chairman of Auckland food manufacturer Tasti Products. “It’s about sharing the knowledge needed to reverse the sterilisation of our wild places, and imbuing our future leaders with appreciation for what it takes to keep spots like this special.”

As the 24 city kids on the forest trail head off nervously in different directions to experience the rigours of their first night alone in the bush, under the watchful guardianship of the Furmingers and Kahunui staff, they do so with a freshly-discovered sense of self. But also with a new, and hopefully abiding, appreciation of the wild spaces in this land they call home.

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