On Boxing Day 2009, Annette and I visited Hinewai Nature Reserve at the south eastern end of Banks Peninsula, Canterbury (NZ). It is the most inspiring restoration ecology project that I have ever seen. It comprsies 1230ha, and ranges from close to sea level to over 800m altitude. Before the arrival of the Maoris about 1000 years ago, it would have been native forest, except perhaps for some exposed headlands that may have carried grasses and tussocks. Since then, it has passed through several successional states, but for most of the last 150 years has been pastoral grazing land (sheep and beef) with just a few forest remnants. As on many parts of Banks Peninsula, making a pastoral living would not have been easy. The leguminous gorse, introduced by early European settlers because it reminded them of home, spread freely across the pastures to become a barrier to man and beast. It would have been an ongoing battle to earn an income after paying for the necessary fertiliser, the animal husbandry requirements, and weed control.
On Hinewai that all started to change in 1987 when the Maurice White Trust made their first land purchase. This was followed by the purchase of adjoining land in 1991. Livestock were removed, pest animals such as possums were baited, and, to the horror of many locals, the gorse was allowed to take over. But it was all part of a master plan under the leadership of botanist Hugh Wilson. Rather than fighting the gorse, Hugh figured that it was better to let the gorse have its way. Eventually, the gorse would become tall and stringy, and provide a canopy for native tree species, which had survived the last 100 years in remant patches, to naturally regenerate across the slopes, with seeds dispersed by birds and wind. Some 22 years later it is all happening. Native trees are now overtopping the gorse which is well in retreat. It will be a long time before the gorse disappears, but victory is assured. It is a magnficent example of working with nature rather than against it. The doubters have long gone quiet.
Although Hinewai is a conservation project on private land, the general public are welcome. There are lots of tracks and there are lots of signposts. Birds abound. The streams run pure and clean. There is no rubbish. As one of Hugh’s delightful messages says, if you leave your snotty tissues on the trail you will be frog-marched head first into the nearest gorse bush. The old woolshed has become a day lodge where all are welcome to peruse the information, and make themselves a cuppa.
Hinewai is not the place for tourists who are travelling the South Island at breakneck pace, from one site to the next. Rather, it is for those who want to go quietly and understand something of nature at work.
I am not sure what aspect of Hinewai is the most inspiring. To see nature at work in this way does great things for my spirits. But perhaps even more inspiring is the example set by Hugh Wilson and the Mauruce White Trust. I am in awe of how a small group of people have dedicated much of their lives to creating something that will be such a legacy for the generations who follow.