Wilding pine removal boosts Lake Ngatu restoration

27 Jul 2020, 12:24 PM

A long-running community-driven project to restore a rare and culturally-significant Far North dune lake is the latest initiative to benefit from central government funding enabling wilding pines to be removed from key locations around Northland.

Fifty-five hectare Lake Ngatu (on the Aupouri Peninsula north-west of Kaitaia) is a Department of Conservation (DOC) recreation reserve popular with watersport enthusiasts, day visitors and locals alike.

Local iwi NgāiTakoto, the Northland Regional Council (NRC), Far North District Council, DOC and private landowners are all working together to tackle huge wilding pines – some a century old and two-metres thick – threatening to dominate the lake and its surrounds.

Two men standing be tree stumps.Dan O'Rourke (left) and tree feller Leo Talbot at Lake Ngatu during removal of established wilding pines. (Photo: supplied).

Councillor Colin (Toss) Kitchen, says the Lake Ngatu wilding pine work is one of a growing number of projects funded by a $1 million Ministry for Primary Industries’ fund that provides employment for Northland forestry workers affected by Covid-19 job losses.

Councillor Kitchen, who represents the NRC’s most northerly Te Hiku constituency, says Ngatu is one of the Sweetwater dune lakes and provides a habitat to threatened animals and plants, including the inanga and the New Zealand dabchick

Kaio Hooper, NgāiTakoto’s environmental asset manager, says Ngatu is also historical site and ecological taonga for NgāiTakoto and home to kutā, a native reed that filters out pollutants in the water.

He says kuta is used to make korowai (cloaks).

“Kutā is very important for our iwi, and it’s in hot demand all over our country for weavers. Keeping the lake healthy isn’t just about the lake and its ecosystem, it’s also about the tikanga and the cultural health of the people using it.”

Councillor Kitchen says wilding pines originally spread to the area from nearby Aupouri Forest, disrupting native species, and taking up precious water and sunshine.

“Eradicating wilding pines around the lake is one significant step in the ongoing efforts to protect this area’s special biodiversity.”

Mr Hooper says NgāiTakoto has been working with The Bushlands Trust, DOC and other members of the community to protect and beautify the lake for a few decades and remembers planting native trees around it “when I was at Awanui School as a young fella”, to help improve water quality and the habitat.

He agrees with Cr Kitchen that felling the pines is a crucial step in protecting the lake for future generations.

“We needed to get professional contractors in and remove them safely. These pine trees are in the wrong place, overhanging DOC tracks and recreational areas where people are having picnics. There’s a big cost just to trim off broken limbs and maintain them,” Mr Hooper says.

He says the wilding pine work provides a good opportunity to further highlight the positive changes happening at Ngatu.

“We can plant natives, have community events and educate schoolkids about the significance of the lake and the area’s history. We can reiterate why this place is special for us and bring the community together.”

Kaitāia-based contractor Dan O’Rourke and his crew of five local forestry workers have been working at Lake Ngatu since early July, fresh from similar recent work to clearing hundreds of problematic trees, including wilding pines, along the Awanui River.

Mr O’Rourke says some of the Lake Ngatu trees are growing near power lines, roads, houses and public walking tracks, which makes cutting them down a tricky, technical job.

“The trees haven’t grown in uniform, straight lines like a typical forest plantation; we’re needing to use lots of different cutting techniques to get them down safely. Sometimes we need two machines to assist us in bringing down the trees.”

Keeping workers and the public safe is vital. Two DOC workers are on-site at all times managing the public on foot, and the FNDC is dealing with road traffic control, while landowners are helping with tree disposal.

Mr O’Rourke says the move to tackle wilding pines provides job security for forestry workers at a time of economic uncertainty.

“Forestry’s been pretty up and down in terms of the market, so this line of work has been very good for the crew. It gives them some stability, and it’s great to be part of something that adds to bettering our environment,” O’Rourke says.

Meanwhile, Cr Kitchen says NRC is getting more enquiries from iwi and community groups wanting to tackle wilding pines, and there are plenty of forestry workers in Northland ready to get involved as funding becomes available.

“The type of work we’re seeing at Lake Ngatu is a win-win situation: it creates employment for skilled locals and protects the natural environments that make Northland unique.”

Councillor Kitchen says wilding pines become a pest when they grow in the wrong areas, “and right now they’re a big problem around our dune lakes, wetlands, reserves and scrublands”.

By working together with partners, he expects to see significant impact – and the potential eradication of wilding pines from part of the region – over the next four or five years.