Putting it back together again – from seed to canopy

While watching a documentary recently some figures were quoted on the rate at which rain forest is being lost from our planet. I could not later recall the exact figures (other than they were large numbers) so I  Googled it. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website informs me that; 342,720m2  (48 football fields – I used association football) of rain forest are destroyed every minute, around 150,219 km2 a year.  I am sure the figures could be debated forever but whatever the acreage is, it will still be a big area. The figures above translate to around 56% of the land area of New Zealand being lost every year.

It is easy to picture the destruction of forest (fires & earth moving equipment, etc) but most of us have little concept about “putting it back together again”.

We owned a cruising launch for many years and regularly visited and enjoyed walking around islands such as; Tiritiri Matangi, Motutapu and Motuora in the Hauraki Gulf and local islands such as Urupukapuka, Motuora and Motokawanui (Cavalli Islands).

On all of these islands there was evidence of projects underway to restore the native habitat. Some of these projects were in the early stages and a few were advanced enough to allow us to observe (and photograph) native birds that you either don’t, or rarely, see on the mainland. I thought that one day I should try to rectify my own “carbon credit balance sheet imbalance” by helping out on a project.

Saddle Back
A North Island Saddleback which are now on Urupukapuka Island – this one was photographed during a walk on Tiri Matangi Island

We recently moved to Kerikeri and on one of our regular morning walks, we met Rod Brown and some fellow volunteers out weed clearing on the Banks of the Wairoa Stream in Kerikeri. Rod explained that he was Chairman of Vision Kerikeri which was involved in projects to restore habitat and create a walkway along the banks of the stream. I later found out that Rod has been involved in habitat restoration projects for over 15 years. In addition to his Wairoa Stream efforts, he is a (very) energetic organiser and participant in the restoration of native habitat on the Islands around the Bay of Islands under the auspices of The Guardians of the Bay of Islands which is part of Project Island Song.

Through my subsequent contact with Rod I found myself helping to transport 2,100 plants from the Shade House in Kerikeri out to Squid Bay on Urupukapuka Island in preparation for the 2016 planting day for that particular site.

First load
The first barge load is disembarked with great enthusiasm – that is Rod Brown in the foreground (with Puriri Tree and spades).

On one of my many trips up the hill with a crate of 16 plants, Rod Brown was the other set of hands on that particular crate and made the comment “it is easy to destroy but bloody hard to restore”.

Ten of us spent most of that day getting the plants in position for the mass planting by volunteers that was scheduled for the following Sunday. Rod was very concerned that they were not going to get the hoped for turn-out of 100 volunteers on Sunday and was thinking of last minute ways he could try and drum up a little more support, when he got home that evening. With the plants now on the site, they needed to go into the ground quickly and if the number of volunteers were on the low side that outcome could be in jeopardy.

Heading up hill
Crates of plants being transported up the hill at Squid Bay – the planting from the previous year are in the foreground

We had been transported out to the Island by DOC (Department of Conservation) along with the first shipment of plants. The trip was a “quick” 45 minutes but the DOC barge had to make two more return trips from Doves Bay to get the full complement of 2,100 plants out to the Island. The year before, around 1,800 had been planted with the same process being followed. Rod and his fellow volunteers have over 15 years experience doing this.

The area being planted was estimated to be 7,500m2 (0.75 hectares or 1.85 acres) with the final tally of plantings over the two years being 3,758, roughly one plant to every 2m2.

By the end of that “distribution” day I had learned from my fellow “pack-horse volunteers” that this was just a part of the overall restoration effort. You had to prepare the site, maintain it for four years post planting and of course you also had to propagate the plants.

The site was covered with a thick, tight mat of Kikuyu grass which chokes out any competitive species of plant. Before planting can be contemplated, the grass around each intended plant area needed to be killed and needs to stay dead for some time.

Kikuyu loves the climate here in the north and will rapidly regrow. In the absence of frosts to naturally keep it in check, it will soon smother the new plantings unless controlled. Ongoing maintenance spraying of the planted sites needs to be carried out in autumn until the young trees start to form a natural canopy that will ultimately deprive the Kikuyu of the sunlight it needs to survive. With favourable growing conditions that canopy should be forming by the fourth year.

view from the top
Plants ready to be planted where the Kikuyu has been sprayed and killed for now. After a spring and summer it will have regrown and need to be sprayed again in order to give the young trees a chance of survival

A team of around 7-8 sprayers, who seem to be largely the same team of volunteers moving the plants (many are well into retirement), will in autumn visit the sites under development or, scheduled for for development, to carry out spraying of the grass with weed killer.

The logistics are challenging. There is no fresh water on site so up to 400 litres needs to be barged out to the Islands for the mixing of the spray. The spray team will then hump heavy backpack spray units up and down the steep terrain carefully spraying the grass in the vicinity of each plant. Apart from keeping your balance on the steep terrain, you need to avoid spraying the plants themselves. This process will be carried out annually for new planting sites and those planted over the last 4 years.

So where did the plants comes from? Well Rod had another “little” project to show me, called the Shade House. He told me to drop by on a Thursday and he would show me around this project again staffed by volunteers.

When I arrived it was a hive of activity with a team of around 18 volunteers carrying out everything from; seed management, seed propagation, potting the young seedlings, then “re-potting’ the larger plants into plastics bags, recycling the pots and the plastic bags for reuse, there was installation and maintenance of; irrigation systems, buildings and shade facilities and of course, plant maintenance and distribution.

A new load of potting mix has arrived for the  te

To my “untrained” eyes, it appeared to be a very efficient nursery operation.  The project is  now producing up to 25,000 native plants per year, and is run entirely with voluntary labour. Operations commenced in 2001 when it produced 3,771 plants. Within five years it was producing more that 15,000 per year and this year the total number of plants produced hit the 260,000 mark.

The first phase of the process – germination of the seeds
The seedlings are then moved to an individual pot before being “re-potted again into plastic bags

They grow a range of species for different habitats. Forest, dune and wetlands  with plants being supplied to a number of restoration initiatives in the Northland area, as far south as Waipu. DSCF7356

All of the plants were labelled, not just as to the species and date of planting but also the source of the seed. When I asked Rod how he managed the inventory I expects a tattered notebook to be produced but he showed me a very detailed inventory management spreadsheet that he uses.

Rod’s inventory management spreadsheet would be the envy of many financial analysts – his pay would not.

Having seen Rod everywhere on this project and knowing what his Vision Kerikeri and Friends of Wairoa Stream commitments were, when I asked, he agreed that he was far busier in his “retired” life than he ever was when working for a salary.

While wandering around the Shade House with Rod I saw several of the same faces that I had seen on the trip out to Squid Bay with the plants earlier in the week. I would also see them again later in the week on the planting day.  They work in the nursery every Thursday through the year.

Many of those busy with potting, bag recycling and a host of other tasks, would also be seen at the planting day.

On the Sunday, we grabbed our duly; cleaned (don’t introduce anymore weeds), sharpened and bagged spade (keeps the boat clean) and reported in at the pier at Pahia.

After a quick check of bags to ensure we had no unwanted passengers such as; mice, rats or Argentinian ants, we embarked onto a large catamaran for the 30 minute trip out to the Island. The transport was donated by a local tourism operator (Fullers GreatSights) and the crew that day had all donated their time.

The “weapon of choice” for the team en route to the Island

81 fellow planters were in high spirits which were helped along by some brilliant late autumn sunshine. After a short hike over a steep hill, the plants were soon going into their new environment. We had all been supplied with planting instructions a few days before as it is important that care is taken when planting in order to give the young plants the best possible chance of survival. The environment through the early stages of their life is harsh, especially during summer and they are “on their own” once in the ground. The only watering they will get coming out of the sky, the only shade is from the clouds, and there is little shelter from the wind which has a habit of funneling up valleys.

The lunch room

The plastic bags that had been the plants temporary home, are carefully removed so that they can be taken back to the Shade House for use with the new crop of seedlings being produced.

Planters spread around the Bay

Fortunately, the soil at that site was not too challenging. I had heard stories of years where a combination of dry conditions and clay had made digging very difficult, extending the time required to complete the task, not to mention the extra energy that needed to be expended by the volunteers.

I now had a much better appreciation of the effort needed and decided to try and quantify that.

The data is not precise, volunteers don’t clock on and off the job. I have not included the time of the seed collectors, nor the time that people like Rod spend doing the admin such as coordinating labour, transport and keeping track of the plant production and distribution data. Nor does it include the time of the crew of the Fullers boat or that of DOC personnel. Each project will have different variable elements such as these so the numbers that I have are for the core activities.

The spray team was still controlling weeds at this planting site which had been planted several years earlier – it was looking in good shape and close to forming a canopy

Then of course there is another story to this work. The additional effort required to re-populate the new habitat with native bird species that once thrived here. Once you take the birds home away, especially on a large scale, you usually seriously endanger the survival of many breeds. To get them back requires finding a source that has a population that can sustain some “loss” of numbers. A team needs to travel to that source and over a number of days, capture the right mix of birds (no point is only getting guys), get them transported to their release point. Once released,  you then need to help them survive in the new environment. That involves regular effort to set and monitor predator traps,  educate the public to keep their pets, especially dogs, out of these new “housing estates”. Hopefully they will read this article and appreciate that the bush and birds did not just appear, well especially in the first stages of restoring habitat.


For the Squid Bay project I came up with the following “rule-of-thumb” measure which covers the effort from planting the seed through to the forming of a natural canopy cover. 26 minutes of labour per plant and area coverage of 1 plant to every 2m2

To restore that 7,500m2 (0.75% of 1 square kilometre), 3,758 plants went into the ground requiring to total 1,627 labour hours

Squid Bay is just one project and, as I mentioned earlier, since start-up in 2001, the Shade House has produced 260,000 plants. Using the 26 minutes per plant, you can estimate the the resultant total effort and coverage as follows:

  • 112,560 volunteer labour hours have been utilised in restoring approximately 518,893m2 of habitat (73 football fields that, using WWF data, would have been destroyed Globally in 91 seconds)
  • The labour effort is the equivalent of nearly 32  employees working full-time over the entire 15 year period (based on the number of days an average full time employee would work in a year).

So I agree with Rod Brown that “it is bloody hard to restore”. Rod and his fellow volunteers do an amazing job and it is much more than just putting a plant in the ground. He is always on the lookout for new recruits that are required to help keep the operations going. Additional “hands” are a bonus but often it is just to cover the natural attrition that occurs with any work force.

I can certainly testify that it was considerably harder work than my previous role that largely involved the energetic pressing of computer keyboards but, I found it rewarding work. In a corporate environment you often came home frustrated by office politics, endless meetings, the daily commute, the lack of physical exercise, just to mention a few niggle factors.

For this work, the commute was brilliant and once on the job, everyone just got on with it. There was plenty of exercise, no interruptions, no meetings and at the end of the day you could see what you had achieved. Furthermore, you can go back and visit over the years and see progress happening. Along the way that hefty  imbalance that exists in my own personal “carbon balance sheet” got just a fraction lighter.

Another volunteer planting project – this one is along the banks of the Wairoa Stream in Kerikeri – there is a parallel project to building a walking track along the stream. It was not  just Kikuyu to be controlled here but a tangle of vines, large eucalyptus trees and other weeds needed to be cleared and controlled. Work will continue for some time.






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