The conservation story lost in gumboot antics

With all the gumboot throwing hoopla over the royal visit to a rural spot in Auckland’s north, you could be forgiven for missing the point of Harry and Meghan’s trip there. But what happened in Redvale was special, and was part of a chain of such events that is seeing native forest saved in the Queen’s name.

The object of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s stop was to unveil a plaque dedicating a 17 hectare block of pristine native forest to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. That simply means the owner of the land, the North Shore Riding Club, has placed a covenant on the block to protect it forever, using very strong legal measures.  It is New Zealand’s 44th such dedication. Those covenants now cover an area the size of Stewart Island. Landowners include Hollywood movie director James Cameron and Kevin Milne of “Fair Go” fame.

The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy was launched in 2015 to mark the Queen’s jubilee. It is a network of forest conservation initiatives involving all 53 countries of the Commonwealth. In New Zealand the Queen Elizabeth II Trust has been doing similar work for 40 years, although the land it protects has a wider definition, including wetlands, dunes and other significant places. It has 4,500 covenants around the country. The QEII Trust’s northern representative, Chris Floyd, says the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy has become a “very special subset” of that work, just looking at forest canopies. The government has given the project $1 million – as its contribution to mark the Queen’s long leadership - and Floyd says “we are asked to look for the cream” of forested areas to include in the QCC.

The Redvale land – just five kilometres north of the busy Albany centre – was protected by a far-sighted farmer many years ago who kept stock from grazing in the forest. The covenant protects an eco-system type classified as “at risk”, with just 20 to 30 percent of original habitat remaining. It is assessed as being critically under-protected. Every North Island tree you’d expect to be growing there is; including a puriri estimated as being between 300 and 400 years old, which measures about two metres across. “And it’s not alone,” says Floyd. “It’s just at the side of the road so you can see it. There are a number of large trees, including kauri, taraire and totara. It’s a very very healthy remnant … we are confident there are over 100 species of plants in there.”

It has not been hit by kauri dieback, but doesn’t have to be roped off because there is no general public access to it. “These areas on private land that don’t have dieback could end up being our ark,” says Floyd. Much of the kauri measures a metre across. The protected area is also remarkably free of pest plants.

The now protected forest on North Shore Riding Club land. Photo: QEII Trust

There is no kiwi in that piece of bush but there is good diversity of other bird species including visits from North Island kaka. Part of the reason for that is it forms part of an ecological corridor known as the North-West Wildlink that connects the pest-free islands of the Hauraki Gulf in the east, to the Waitakere Ranges in the west. Along with other protected areas it forms important stepping stones for the dispersal of native species – stepping stones that are under pressure as the city develops rapidly northwards. As a bonus, land adjoining the riding club is already under covenant, further protecting the forest.

However Floyd says it’s when you start thinking about “stuff we don’t think about much” that it gets exciting. It is the perfect habitat for geckos and he’s comfortable that they would definitely be there. Cave weta have been found. But it is also a “fantastic” habitat for the long tailed bat. They like to roost in trees but also like open paddocks, where they can forage for insects. “It’s always difficult to say but I would not be surprised if they were there,” he says. No acoustic monitoring has been carried out in the covenant but bats have been recorded within 10 kilometres.

The riding club property includes large areas of regenerating native scrub and stream gullies, but the forest is described as the natural jewel in its crown. It lies within the Okura River catchment and the natural areas play an important part in reducing sediment flows into the river, the Okura estuary and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. Club members will still be able to ride through the forest area. The covenant is named after long time club secretary Carole Whaley who worked hard to make sure it happened.

When the property was chosen for royal treatment the Trust hoped it would help to promote the work it’s doing. What no one expected was the day to be hijacked by a gumboot throwing competition. “None of us thought it would capture attention in the way that it did,” says Floyd. “It went global! It was lovely but .. yeah … it did somewhat take away from our message.”

Present at the Harry and Meghan show was another land owner who has a QEII Trust covenant.  Robin Lonsdale says Great Barrier is the last of the wild places – and she and her husband Derek Bell want to help keep it that way.

“We just felt mortality knocking on the door and this was something we both wanted,” she says. A series of covenants including theirs now connects a strip across the island. “Covenants are forever and will would stop anyone doing anything more to that property.” Their land includes kauri, a very old nikau grove and canopy kanuka – when Chris Floyd took them through it they were “gob smacked” at the special aspects of it.

As for the QEII Trust; “You get drawn into this whole universe of people who care,” she says. “They’re truly good souls who just believe what we believe – it’s a way of looking after the land without the government becoming involved.”

Lonsdale and Bell were rural dwelling southerners, from Wakatipu, but were propelled to move north after becoming disturbed at the amount of development going on there. “To see it disturbed by unbridled greed … the community there was always being promised, ‘no more carving up of land and construction’. There was no restraint, no one looking out for the community. To see it slowly eroded because of the development there .. houses that were being curtained off for most of the year .. it’s a terrible shame. Now we get stuck in traffic jams down there. No one is looking out for Wakatipu and we are gutted – that’s our turangawaewae.

“And Great Barrier wants more tourism. Well .. they should be careful what they wish for.”

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