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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Rangering off Rum (Part 2: a pre-human paradise on Earth)

Many have described the remaining sub-tropical rainforests in the far north of New Zealand (Northland) as the nearest thing to visiting another planet whilst still being on Earth. Indeed, they are truly amazing places of incredible diversity and beauty.Everytime I visit, it’s always an emotional experience as these forests give us a glimpse into a world that existed long before humans were around. I celebrate their continued survival, but at the same time, such places give me a sense of bereavement and loss.

These forests are what would have greeted the first Polynesians or Captain Cook for that matter. Before people arrived, more than 80% of New Zealand was covered in native forest, sadly today it covers only 25%.Although I have to remind myself  that such coverage is pretty good when we consider that Scotland only retains about 1% of its native forest cover.

When Maori arrived in NZ about 900 years ago, they built dwellings, canoes and forts out of native timber and also burnt large areas of forest for farming, but it was us ‘Pommies’ who when exploring in the 18th century, considered these immense forests and the trees contained within them as commodities, as they were ideal for making ships’ masts for the Royal Navy. Kauri, with their huge tall trunks was a favourite, but kahikatea, rimu and totara were also logged in large numbers. From about 1840 more Brits settled and of course they needed building materials for their emerging towns, cities and farms; slowly but surely this primeval wilderness began to be transformed into a mirror image of Britain and much of the native forest cover disappeared quickly within a few generations.

It’s an all too familiar tale of over exploitation but at least the newly born New Zealand had the foresight to protect some of its remaining forests. This was not done in the name of nature conservation at the time, but to save a portion of the last remaining forest scenery for future tourism. How right they were, but it’s definitely not 100% Pure NZ anymore! In terms of nature conservation for its own sake, the concept of saving native forests only came into play in the 1970’s after even more had been lost in the post war years during a building boom.Protests in Northland and in the central North Island were common around this time as a consequence. Today, most of New Zealand’s timber comes from non-native forests, or from overseas.

The long geographical isolation of New Zealand meant that most of its flora is unique and there’s a wide variety of native trees adapted to all the various micro-climates.  The sub-tropical rainforest of Northland includes a mixture of coniferous and broad-leaved ever greens. The coniferous trees belong mainly to the Podocarpaceae or the podocarps as they’re commonly known. This ancient plant family originated from the former supercontinent of Gondwana and includes such species as rimu, totara and kahikatea, the latter species was growing when the dinosaurs walked the earth.

The ancient kahikatea

During our time in Northland we spent a number a days in the Waipoua Forest trying to get to grips with the identification of many of the natives found there. The forests of Waipoua cover 9, 105 hectares and are a stunning example of the best of what’s left. Together with the adjoining forests of Mataraua and Waima, they make up the largest remaining tract of native forest in Northland and since 1987, protected for future generations by the Department of Conservation.

Sun setting on the Waipoua

In the Waipoua life clings to life.The taller forest giants develop buttresses at their bases and provide support for a variety of high-perching epiphytes such as the kahakaha and the kiekie. Epiphytes are plants that normally grow on another plant for support, it is not parasitic, but uses the host plant only for support, exactly like our familiar polypody ferns on Rum.

Kahakaha Collospermum hastatum

Kiekie Freycinetia banksii
(developing fruit)
It’s a real tangle in there; it’s almost like tiger country! If you wanted to get anywhere quickly away from the tracks, you’d be walking for days.

Here are various pics of some of the many awsome  plant and tree species we actually managed to identify!

whau Entelea arborescens-
easily recognised by its spiny seed capsules

tanekaha Phyllocladus trichomanoides
mingimingi Coprosma propinqua

kowaowao Microsorum pustulatum

irirangi Hymenophyllum demissum

pate Schefflera digitata
matai prumnopitys taxifolia-
note the dark hammer-marked bark

rewarewa Knightia excelsa-
a common tree in the very north

Like many who visit the Waipoua, I'm totally blown away by the awesome  Kauri.These are among the world's mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 metres tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 metres and living for more than 2000 years.The one pictured below is about 1,500 years old!

kauri Agathis australis
kauri cones
  Unfortunately, these magnificent trees are still under threat from a strange fungus-like disease known as Phytophthora taxon Agathis (PTA), most people just call it kauri dieback disease. It is spread mainly through soil movement and within soil on equipment such as footwear machinery and mountain bikes for example. Infected trees show a range of symptoms including yellowing of the foliage and the loss of leaves, canopy thinning and lesions that bleed resin.Scientists are not sure where it came from, but believe that it was introduced into New Zealand. There’s a big DOC and Aucland Regional Council campaign going on at the moment to try and stop the spread of the disease. Any forest areas where kauris are found you’ll now see cleaning stations at the park entrance where you are able to clean you boots bike tyres with a disinfectant. It seems to be working and everyone I saw seems to be adhering to the rules.

It's the end of the blog and I haven’t even mentioned a single bird species yet, what’s going on! Sadly, although native forests such as the Waipoua are intact their bird populations are impoverished as a consequence of introduced mammalian predators. If we had been the first humans to enter the Waipoua, the noise from the dawn chorus would have been deafening. However, you still get a sense of the ‘birdland’ New Zealand once was from the electric bubbles transmitting from the odd tui or bell bird, but it’s a mere shadow of what your ears would have been privy to. 

Below are some pics of the native bird species we found in the Waipoua 

kereru (NZ pigeon)




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