“It’s a privilege to be involved in trying to save an endangered bird. Most people have to study before they get a chance
to do what I’m doing.”
If there weren’t enough houses for people the Government built them. If the Vietnamese needed putting in their place the Government organised a war. If we needed lightbulbs the Government built us a dam.
It seemed to work. Of course there were great inefficiencies and the Vietnamese won, but there was a strange kind of comfort around the place. We were being looked after.
I think I believed that there must have been rooms full of wise men making plans for us all. These men all wore suits and smoked pipes.
This is obviously baloney, but I think we’ve all grown up subconsciously believing in some sort of state-sponsored and God-appointed Department of Them.
You know how it goes. If someone gets run-over by a speeding hoon we all tut-tut and say “THEY should do something about those boy racers”
If a plane gets blown out of the sky we all look worried and say: “THEY should really just drop a nuclear bomb on those terrorists.”
This State of Mind may have been dismantled by Roger Douglas, but we still cling on to the idea that THEY have it under control. Of course now THEY is probably a corporation based in Seattle or Singapore.
So whats this got to do with ducks? I like to stretch a point, that’s what.
When I was growing up the Government was king. Everything that made our country great seemed
to come from the Ministry of Something.
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I’ve been helping to “recover” the rare Whio (Blue Duck) in the Ruahine Ranges for a couple of years now and the more I’m involved in this project the more I’m realising that much of the conservation work being done around the country - the kind of work that is saving species from extinction - hasn’t happened because of any grand plan, but is the result of fate, a random thought or the acts of a stubborn individual or three.
The Ruahine Whio Protectors is one such group. It exists by chance and is full of people who don’t let go.
Andrew Mercer may work for the Department of Conservation in a management role, but when he’s not stuck behind a desk or eating sausage rolls at conferences, he likes to spend time in the Ruahine Ranges - hunting, fishing, hanging out with his family and saving Whio.
In 2007, as a hunter and member of the local Deerstalkers Association, Andrew realised he was seeing fewer Whio in the Oroua River. It wasn’t an observation based on science or a decade-long study. It was an observation based on his and a friend’s local knowledge. Whio had already disappeared from the Tararuas and the idea that they might soon go from the Ruahines moved him to act.
“The loss of Whio from my local river seemed offensive to me and I couldn’t face the embarrassment of telling my kids I could have done something but didn’t. I like tramping and I want my kids to be able to see Whio in their local river”, says Andrew.
He’d been involved with DoC in the Te Potae o Awarua conservation project in the Northern Ruahines. The project started as a study into how best to bait stoat traps, so he knew a bit about the benefits of trapping. He and his deerstalking mate Stuart Penny, came up with a plan. Using deerstalkers’ manpower and money from the sale an old tray from a DoC ute, they bought a few stoat traps and muscled them into the depths of the Oroua River Valley in 2008.
Andrew’s love of the Ruahines and experience with stoat trapping meant their plan seemed pretty doable.
“Protecting Whio is achieveable. Whio habitat is linear [along rivers and streams] and they are big enough to be safe from rats. To protect other birds from rats, stoats and possums we would need to trap on a 50 metre by 50 metre grid. In the terrain of the Ruahine Range that is not achievable for a ground-based volunteer group,” says Andrew.
These first traps caught plenty of rats and stoats, but the Deerstalkers’ efforts weren’t to last. I don’t know why the initial organisation nearly fell over, but figure that organising hunters is a bit like asking the Act Party to go door knocking for the Salvation Army. They tend to be individualists not do-gooders. They want to kill deer. Rats? Stoats? Saving Whio? Meh...
But anyway, Andrew had planted a seed.
Left to right: Oscar, Po and Andrew Mercer enjoying themselves in the Ruahines
CLICK TO ENLARGE
Fenwick and Maclean Mercer at Tabletop Flat.
Nina and Andrew Mercer out in the wild.
There were no men smoking pipes in the office, but if you looked in the window of Conservation House you still would have had trouble seeing anything because of a new kind of hazard...political smoke and mirrors. When the office full of men and women in walkshorts heard that the Oroua Whio was vulnerable again, they stopped restructuring and acted fast. The sound of clicking keyboards soon drowned out the traffic noise of The Terrace below.
Nah, not really.
But DoC did advertise for a volunteer Volunteer Coordinator. (This isn’t a typo...Volunteer Coordinator is a voluntary role).
Janet Wilson and Bruce.
Janet Wilson had been keeping an eye on the foundering project for a while and applied for the role after some serious thought.
She wasn’t the first to step in, but since taking it on she has turned the whole project around.
When I asked her why she was so keen, her answer was surprising, but brimming with logic. Janet’s Key moment came in 2009 when the brand new National Government had kindly decided to give her a tax cut that she didn’t want.
“I got into this because I see the Department of Conservation as being hugely under-funded. But the whole thing started when I got a $500 tax rebate. I thought ‘I don’t need that’. I was so mad with them.” You could argue that the right wing philosophy of philanthropy over tax had worked on Janet, but she’s adamant that DoC need more funding not less, no matter how many generous Kiwis volunteer to help out.
Janet’s job is huge and varied. It involves hours in rivers and tramping up some of the country’s most rugged “tracks”, cleaning, installing and rebaiting traps. She also spends a lot of time rounding up and sorting out a fairly disparate group of helpers.
The hardest part of the job is “weeding out the bumblies”, kind-hearted souls who really don’t have a clue what’s involved. It’s all very well volunteering to help a needy bird, but there are all sorts of things that can make this difficult. People put their hands up who’ve never been in New Zealand’s rugged bush, let alone crossed a river.
I met one guy on a training run who turned up wearing gumboots because he’d been told he’d be spending time walking in the river – a logical conclusion for someone who’d just arrived in New Zealand from India, but not at all practical.
Out of 10 volunteers Janet reckons only two would have what it takes. But it takes time to find this out, and much of Janet’s energy over the first three years of the project has been spent sorting.
Having said that she loves introducing new people to the bush – but time is a luxury and she’s becoming more choosey about who she takes out.
“Originally this job was advertised for two people. One to organise the trapping, the other to sort through the volunteers”. It sounds like the sorting role needs to be advertised again.
Schools are a steady source of workers. Freyberg, with teacher Craig Steed, is starting to play a part and Tararua College, through Colin Leigh have been involved almost from the outset.
It’s a great and practical way of getting kids out into the bush, but Janet is a bit worried that there may be some new health and safety rules on the horizon that will make this kind of experience for young conservationists difficult.
But Janet’s not complaining about all the hard work. She loves the Ruahines and working with the ducks. “It’s a privilege to be involved in trying to save an endangered bird. Most people have to study before they get a chance to do what I’m doing,” she says.
It’s impossible to quantify what motivates volunteers and for an organisation like DoC that is becoming more and more reliant on the generosity of New Zealanders to do its job, it must be truly daunting. DoC calls this process partnership building and has a special Partnerships Department for it, although now that we’re living in 2014 it’s called a Group and is made up of Teams.
“Partnerships teams focus on finding new opportunities to grow conservation through partnership. Their work involves creating awareness and interest in conservation across the country and exploring new conservation projects and initiatives in partnership with others.” DoC Website.
There are now 500 traps in and around the Oroua River Valley with about 30 people, including local Deerstalkers, maintaining them. The Ruahine Whio Protectors is now a trust and the money for some serious upgrading is starting to come in. Whio numbers seem to have stabilised. Janet reckons there are about 10 adults living on the Oroua and she has heard that three ducklings have recently been spotted down near Alice Nash Hut already this spring – somewhere ducklings haven’t been seen before.
The partnership between the Ruahine Whio Protectors and DoC seems to be doing the trick.
But I can’t help thinking that it’s all a bit random.
There is no room full of grey-haired wisemen looking after us and our country. There is only us.
If Andrew Mercer and his mate hadn’t had that conversation in 2007 and Janet had decided to spend her spare time and tax dollars racing motorbikes (her other love) instead of saving ducks, where would the Oroua’s Whio be now?
I’m picking they’d be gone.
DATELINE, Wellington, 2011 - The Department of Conservation:
The Big Kill
In the days—perhaps weeks—it had spent in the trap, the stoat had lost most of its fur, so it looked as if it had been flayed. Its exposed skin was the deep, dull purple of a bruise, and it was coated in an oily sheen, like a sausage. Stoat traps are often baited with eggs, and this one contained an empty shell. Kevin Adshead, who had set the trap, poked at the stoat with a screwdriver. It writhed and squirmed, as if attempting to rise from the dead. Then it disgorged a column of maggots.
Something pretty special has happened up the Oroua River Valley.
A wide range of individuals, groups and Government departments are working together for a common goal. There have been hurdles, but these are usually smoothed over by massive amounts of generosity, flexibility and a shared vision.
Those involved include the Central North Island Blue Duck Trust, He Tini Awa Trust, Genesis, WWF, Fonterra, New Zealand Lotteries and the New Zealand Defence Force. Not to mention community groups like the Hapaitia Kohanga Reo in Feilding, The Palmerston North Mountaineering and Tramping Club and especially the local Deerstalkers Association who kicked it all off and continue to help out.
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