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Wairio creates a wetland template

Ross Cottle and Jim Law of Ducks Unlimited NZ, two of the leading drivers behind the restoration project, were mucking in during a planting day. PHOTO/WALT DICKSON

Hard work and more than $200,000 has revitalised an ecosystem


It’s not so much from small seeds that mighty trees grow, but rather small seedlings.

That’s the case on the eastern shores of Lake Wairarapa where Wairio Wetland is a shining example of what can be done to restore health to a damaged ecology.

Poke a seed in the ground and it is unlikely that it will ever get enough light to germinate and rise above the thick mat of grasses. But a staked seedling, plus a bit of tending during its first couple of years, and it’s a different story.

Thanks to the sheer doggedness of some ardent ‘duck enthusiasts’, the once devastated wetland is well on the road back to its former glory. And the mighty totara and kahikatea that towered over the wetland forest and surrounding bodies of open water are now returning.

Wairio Wetlands is a joint venture between conservation group Ducks Unlimited New Zealand and the Department of Conservation and is supported by Greater Wellington Regional Council. The project has been going for 14 years, and covers 132 hectares of which 100 hectares is open water.

The transformation from bare paddocks with poor pasture, [an outcome of the Lower Wairarapa Valley Development Scheme during the 1960s and 1970s], back to thriving wet-land is extraordinary.

The area is now teeming with flora and fauna, including endangered bird species as well as numerous common waterfowl and waders.

For Ross Cottle, chairman of Ducks Unlimited, it is “enormously gratifying” to see the flourishing ecosystem they have created.

“It’s a leader in this region and a template for how to restore a wetland.”

As the template shows, it requires a vision, huge effort and lots of money. To date the project has cost more than $200,000 for planting, diverting water, and fencing to limit stock access.

Cottle said the early years were hard work but, as “significant funding” became available and boots ’n’ all support was received from Victoria University and community volunteers, progress has gathered pace.

“There have been a number of Victoria University students using the project for their Masters theses enabling us to put some better science behind the whole project,” Cottle said.

Led by Dr Stephen Hartley of Victoria University, students were back at Wairio this month, along with other volunteers, carrying out “in-fill planting” of larger varieties of native trees. Specimen trees, such as totara, were planted among previously planted nursery trees.

Joining volunteers were Patrick and Janet Velvin who are supporting the project with a donation. Janet said the couple became aware of the Wairio Wetlands through the book, Wairarapa Moana: The Lake and its People, edited by Ian F. Grant and published in 2012 by Masterton-based Fraser Books.

“The area [Lake Wairarapa] is in a very poor state, and the difference the project has made to this wetland is really encouraging,” she said.

The Velvins live in the greater Wellington region and believe strongly in the importance of improving water quality and conservation.

Wairio is not the first restoration project the couple have supported. Each time, they have used an intermediary, Wellington-based The Gift Trust, which carries out due diligence on recipient organisations on behalf of benefactors.

Cheryl Spain, executive director of The Gift Trust, says they found Wairio to have impressive credentials.

Wairio Wetlands is part of a much wider initiative – the Wairarapa Moana Wetlands Project, a joint initiative by GWRC, DOC, South Wairarapa District Council, Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitane o Wairarapa Inc.

The project began in 2008 with the aim of enhancing the native ecology, recreational and cultural opportunities on public land in the area, and includes restoration work at Onoke Spit, Lake Domain Reserve, Donald’s Creek as well as Lake Ferry and Onoke/Okorewa Lagoon.

Wairarapa Moana is one of the largest remaining wetland complexes in New Zealand and has ecological values of national and international significance.

There is a walking track around the whole wetland for the public to enjoy.

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