HOWL’s time in New Zealand has been packed full of adventures and this would not have been possible without each and every one of our volunteering experiences, where we have stayed with a variety of welcoming hosts, each of which have taught us an incredible amount about the beauty and nature of New Zealand.
Getting some hands on practical work was top on our list of things to do as being outside and working alongside local people is definitely one of the best ways to learn about the local ecology and conservation. This led us to Opara Estate, a wildlife friendly covenant that has recognised the need for nature protection in their subdivision project in the Hokianga Harbour. The landowners here are actively protecting indigenous environments and wildlife from the harmful impacts of introduced pests and weeds. This means that the residents in the area cannot own cats, dogs or mustelids as pets and cannot clear native vegetation.
We got stuck right in here and spent a lot of our time removing Kikuyu grass Pennisetum clandestinum, an example of a species deliberately introduced for use as a pasture and turf grass in northern New Zealand . It is able to form dense mats of stolons and can out compete and smother lower growing native plants and prevent seedling establishment and regeneration. Whilst working hard to remove this species from the estate, it became clear to see just how easy it creates a monospecific environment.
It was during our stay here where we first saw the New Zealand pigeon, with the noisy beat of its wings producing a distinctive sound across the estate. Since the extinction of the moa, this pigeon is now only one of a few seed dispersers with a bill big enough to swallow large fruit, such as those of karaka, miro, tawa and taraire. The disappearance of these birds could be a disaster for the regeneration of native forests, so in a bid to help support the pigeons in the area, we spent some of our time digging up and potting seedlings that were to be planted elsewhere.
Pest control was also hugely important here and we learnt about setting traps for small mustelid species and possums that negatively have an impact on native wildlife. We were shown the different types of traps used, how they are used and the end result. The estate covers 166ha, meaning this required the dedication and commitment of all the landowners.
It was incredible to have the opportunity to work alongside and stay with a kiwi couple who were embracing and living with nature and not in conflict with it. They taught us so much about the native birds, helping us to identify species by their calls and explaining how their land was supporting each species. It was particularly inspiring to see their excitement when they would hear both male and female Northland Brown Kiwi calling to one another in the evenings, as they told us how sightings have increased and that they now hear the calls of the kiwi almost every night. This is all due to the hard work and commitment from the residents in the area coming together as a community to protect and preserve native wildlife.
As a big lover of animals, it did not take us long to find an animal sanctuary to give a helping hand. This led us to volunteering at Arborfield Animal Sanctuary, a place which provides a permanent and loving home for neglected, abused or abandoned farm animals. Our main tasks were to feed the animals each day and to give them some much needed love and attention and we were more than up to the job! We also helped with other tasks, such as routine enclosure maintenance and native plant restoration. The owners of the sanctuary are keen to do their part to restore native bush and with a farming background, recognised this need to restore due to agricultural practices proving to be a huge cause in the decline and loss of native species.
Our restoration efforts began with the planting of Manuka (Tea Tree), a small shrub/ tree with single small flowers which generally bloom in spring and summer. They are ideal first plantings due to being light-demanding pioneer species. Native bush develops naturally in stages where each plant community improves the conditions for the next. As layers of decaying plant material build up, soil composition changes. This rich organic matter is not available on farm pasture so first plantings need to help improve soil conditions and provide shade and shelter for less hardy species. Then, as these species get taller and overtop it, the Manuka dies away as a result of being shaded. It is excellent for revegetating bare, eroded slopes and another advantage of planting Manuka for conservation is that browsing animals like sheep, cattle and goats don’t often eat it – perfect for the animal sanctuary!
We also planted a lot of flax, which is unique to New Zealand and is one of the country’s most ancient plant species. They support a large community of animals, providing shelter and an abundant food resource, with the nectar from the flax flower attracting a vast array of struggling bird species. These two plants are noted in a list of species considered as best choice for increasing on-farm biodiversity and extra attention is paid to their benefits to both the honey bee and the environment. The bee is one of the hardest workers in horticulture and agriculture; about $3 billion of New Zealand’s GDP is directly attributable to the intensive pollination of horticultural and speciality agricultural crops by bees. The key to good bee health is a continual supply of diverse pollen and nectar from natural sources, which can be achieved through networks of restoration projects such as this.
It also important that we give special mention to other voluntary experiences, such as orchard work and general gardening duties, which helped to keep us busy and to really get stuck into different ‘kiwi lifestyles’. We became expert orange pickers, working at ‘Relaxalodge’, a small getaway in the Bay of Islands solely owned by a well travelled Swedish chap – Claus, along with his animal companions and organic citrus orchard. We would pick 500kg of oranges as a team in no time, climbing ladders to ensure we did not miss those hard to reach ones and making sure not to pick too small, or too green. Once they were picked, it was time to prep them for sale at the local market or to go for juicing. Other experiences also included the building of vegetable beds, the removal of a variety of invasive shrubs and even a bit of baking for a local market.
Volunteering whilst travelling really enhanced our experience overall, enabling HOWL to develop and build upon skills, such has habitat restoration and pest control, proving fantastic for personal development. We would like to openly thank each one of our hosts for welcoming us into their homes and really making us feel like part of the family, sharing their stories and knowledge with us, making it a truly unique experience!