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Protecting our precious places

Prof. Bruce Clarkson - 4000th covenant registration celebration event - guest speaker

27 May 2015

Kia ora tatou

First let me pay my respects to the QEII Board and CEO, to the legendary Gordon and Celia Stephenson, and to Sue and Bill Garland for their role as hosts today and long-time QEII supporters.  Thanks for the invitation to address this auspicious gathering.  It’s a privilege to be here today to celebrate with you the 4000th covenant and to be back on the land amongst the farming community that is part of my own heritage and at the foot of Maungatauri Mountain (aka Maungatautari Ecological Island) home to one of the most innovative restoration projects in the country.  

My presence here today is no coincidence.  I was raised on a 68 acre dairy farm (50 milking cows and all replacements) in Midhirst Taranaki at the foot of another maunga Taranaki.  I cut my teeth as a conservationist there when I was primary school age- to be honest, too long ago to remember accurately -when my brothers and I pilfered some old barbed wire from the local dump and fenced off a small patch of bush on our farm.  My father, very confused by this behaviour, promptly tore the fence down and in true greenie spirit we promptly put it back up. I think it was two iterations later that he gave in realising it was the will of the next generation.  This early-developed love (actually I believe it was in my DNA) for the land, the landscapes and the birds and plants on it led to my life long career as an ecologist.

My second home, the Waikato, too is characterised by an agricultural landscape which richly provides us with a living and paid for my education, living expenses and all the opportunities my hard working farming parents never had. That is why I believe we must find a way to retain our natural heritage, our biological heritage, which characterises us all as New Zealanders, while at the same time providing us with a comfortable living.  In the words of some recent researchers, business and nature are interdependent and can and must be compatible for intergenerational sustainability. “What’s good for nature is good for business”.

QE II Covenants are a crucial part of the survival and protection of New Zealand’s biological heritage, recognised internationally as a global biodiversity hotspot because of the high levels of endemism i.e. plants and animals found nowhere else in the world apart from here in Aotearoa New Zealand.  Covenants are a critical part of a bigger ecological picture because unlike most of our conservation estate, including Maungatautari here behind us, they are concentrated in the coastal and lowland zones.  So while the national parks may be the “crown jewels” the covenants are the gold band that makes the crown complete.

The current statistics show that covenants have a median size of 4.7 ha nationally and 6.5 ha in the Waikato.  In total they are about 180,900 ha or 5 times the size of my beloved Egmont National Park. Though the individual patches are generally small, collectively and because they represent much of what is left of the coastal and lowland zones, and harbour many threatened species, they are important out of proportion to their small individual parts- for these zones supported the richest and most diverse of our indigenous ecosystems.

But how will we ensure these patches survive in the face of the immediate threats of pest animals and plants, and how will they be resilient enough to cope with new and emerging threats such as climate change?  Covenanting is, of course, the first step, followed by fencing and pest control. 

But for long term survival we will need to more systematically build their resilience by buffering and corridor development, including riparian planting, reconnecting patches and weaving them together to form an interconnected network on our landscape.  And removing weeds and pests at a regional scale too.

Survival of your covenant will require not only management of your own covenant but of those of your neighbour, and your neighbour’s neighbours, because populations persist when pattern and processes are catered for at the landscape scale.  A range of ages and stages of forests and wetlands all represented on the landscape allowing birds and plants to cope with change, to assert and reassert themselves in space and time because change is constant and there needs to be space on the landscape for not just a haven today but a haven in the future- what scientists sometimes refer to as a meta-population approach. 

A true landscape scale approach will take advantage of the spill-over effects of large sanctuaries like Maungatautari and corridors reaching across to the periurban and urban zones, where city dwellers like me now seek to completely reconstruct ecosystems from scratch (Waiwhakareke’s big dig-in is this Friday). We are dependent on your actions for the success of our projects; as stepping stones or corridors are developed and maintained on the landscape we will all share the benefits.

All of this activity will enable reinstatement of key processes (regeneration, colonisation, and establishment) and the ecological interdependencies essential for healthy functioning ecosystems. 

This landscape scale approach dependent on the nurturing provided by individual landowners, will be the only way critical restoration thresholds ensuring long term viability can be achieved.  Individual landowners, central and local government agencies and businesses will need to work alongside each other often with volunteer support to achieve a shared vision of landscape scale stewardship. 

Although there is an economic cost for restoration and, in this case, the landowners shoulder much of the burden, restored natural assets will subsidise production values through the ecosystem services they provide and be more sustainable in the long term. 

As we can see today QEII covenants bind landowners in a common purpose; in this way they increasingly echo the past farming cooperative approach, for example, to dairy company establishment and seasonal tasks like hay and silage making.  Establishing regional conservation cooperatives focused on landscape scale restoration could be a way of achieving economies of scale for purchasing and sharing of equipment and labour.

I hope the QEII Trust will evolve to play a critical coordinating and monitoring role for this landscape level approach to protecting and enhancing our indigenous biodiversity heritage. 

I dream of the day, perhaps not in my lifetime, when someone flying out of Hamilton airport will wonder what triggered the step change in approach which led to a landscape scale restoration, a landscape where the patches of biodiversity were woven back together in a more integrated whole.

Those wondering about how this was achieved would need to look no further than the landowners’ sense of place, the deep affection and attachment to their local and regional landscape and their practical understanding of what is needed to get the job done. 

So all credit to the 4000 covenantors for their efforts, their contribution as kaitiaki/stewards of the land that will ensure future generations will know what an authentic and sustainable Aotearoa/New Zealand farming landscape can look like.

No reira tena kotou katoa.

Prof. Bruce ClarksonProf. Bruce Clarkson was a guest speaker at the National Trust's event celebrating the 4000th covenant registration. Prof. Clarkson is the Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waikato University and one of New Zealand’s foremost authorities on ecological restoration. 

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