The 132-hectare Wairio Wetlands in South Wairarapa. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

GIANINA SCHWANECKE

Wairarapa was once home to one of the largest wetlands in the country, until the Ruamahanga diversion saw much of this land converted into farmland.

A 14-year-long restoration project in South Wairarapa is finally starting to pay dividends, and has helped bring back water fowl to the region, just in time for duck shooting season which opens this weekend.

Ross Cottle, Ducks Unlimited NZ president, has helped oversee the development of the Wairio Wetland — restoring 132-hectares of marginal farmland into a sanctuary for water fowl and other wildlife.

He said the pasture which the Wairio Wetlands rest on had been “poor quality” land.

“It’s a fairly big piece of land though and we’ve been successful beyond our wildest dreams.”

The project is part of a collaboration between Ducks Unlimited, the Department of Conservation [DoC] and the Greater Wellington Regional Council.

Ducks Unlimited sank around $200,000 into the DoC owned land — spraying weeds, planting natives and building a three-kilometre-long bund wall to catch water which spills over from Lake Wairarapa.

“The only way it can fill up is when water from Lake Wairarapa spills over in strong westerly winds,” Cottle explained. “Once we put the wall in, suddenly we had about 100-hectares of wetland.”

The Ruamahanga diversion saw thousands of hectares in the lower valley converted into pastoral farmland.

“It had been the biggest wetland in the country by far.

“It’s easy to say now [the diversion] was the biggest form of ecological vandalism, but at the time land was needed to increase the country’s productivity so it became productive farmland.”

Wairio wetlands. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Over a third of New Zealand’s remaining wetlands are on private property, and groups like Ducks Unlimited play an important role in helping restore these environments.

Their mission statement: the creation and enhancement of wetland for water fowl.

“While our name is Ducks Unlimited, if you create the habitat, waterfowl of all sorts will come and make use of it,” Cottle said.

He estimates thousands of birds have returned to the area, including species such as ducks, geese and swans, as well as rarer breeds like pied stilts, royal spoonbills, bittern and white-faced herons.

“Royal spoonbills haven’t been seen here in the region in more than 25 years.”

His interest in wetland restoration grew out of a love of watching the ducks he used to hunt.

“Most of us started out as hunters, but as the years go buy your bloodlust for killing things wanes and you enjoy looking at them more.”

The start of the gamebird shooting season now represents a time to catch up with friends for Cottle.

“It’s a very social occasion. We still enjoy ourselves.

“We’re harvesting the natural resources that are there. Duck meat is one of the most expensive.”

The work had been done in stages, with hopes that the model could be recreated in other wetland restoration projects.

The group had also partnered with Victoria University to study the quality of water and how different plant varieties limited nutrients leaching into the lake from surrounding farmland.

“We’ve tried to create a template as to how to do this,” he said.

An increased interest in wetland isn’t the only shift for duck hunters.

This will be the first season under the reformed gun laws which have made most semi-automatic firearms illegal.

Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor said it was crucial that hunters treat the safe transport and handling of their shotguns with the “utmost care and sensitivity” this season.

“Fish & Game supports these changes to these gun laws and believes that good decisions have been made for both game bird hunters and the community.

“There will be no real change for most game bird hunters as we successfully made a case to retain semi-auto and pump shotguns for game bird hunting.

“This means game bird hunters can use semi-automatic and pump action shotguns as long as their internal magazines only hold five shots.”

Wellington Fish & Game manager Phil Teal echoed concerns about gun safety.

“Safety is paramount. There is no space for complacency around firearms, ever.

“Given the current public sensitivity around firearms, hunters must do their utmost to ensure they are acting safely and responsibly.”

All game bird licence holders would be sent information clarifying points about the new gun laws.

He said a full team of rangers would be out ensuring everyone is following the rules and thanked the New Zealand Police for offering their support to accompany rangers this year.

Despite heightened awareness of firearms, Teal was looking forward to the season and said deteriorating weather and good duck numbers made for a great opening weekend.

“As well as unsettled weather we’ve recorded high bird numbers in the region; hunters can expect plenty of opportunities to harvest a few birds and take home some healthy free-range food for the family.”

He said the weather outlook is for building nor-west winds followed by a southerly change with rain thrown into the mix on Sunday.

“We had a really good blow on Monday and Tuesday with lots of rain which will have dispersed the ducks, forcing them off the large water bodies to the small ponds, sheltered wetlands and even pasture to feed.”

Rougher weather would likely stir the birds up this weekend and encourage them to keep on the move rather than settle in spots out of range of hunters.

The game bird season opens nationwide on Saturday, May 4.

The season closes on August 25 for upland game like pheasant and quail, while duck season closes earlier depending on individual regions and duck breeds.