Hope for native flora
Robyn Smith spends as much of her own time as her work time at Greater Wellington Regional Council trying to save and spread our native plants, many threatened with extinction.
Now the Titahi Bay resident, who works in the council’s Take Care programme for volunteer conservationists and restorationists, has won a national award as a ‘‘leading guardian’’ of plants from the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network.
‘‘It was quite a surprise,’’ says Ms Smith about the award.
Ms Smith is like an ambassador for native plants. She works with three dozen groups of volunteers in Take Care, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Its purpose is to reverse the loss of the region’s biodiversity – a key plank of the council’s ‘‘sustainability’’ platform.
Ms Smith reluctantly agrees that she might be said to have a ‘‘ native green thumb’’ for her ability to foster rare and endangered plant species, such as the herb Leptinella nana, a very threatened species.
That is one of the plants she is trying to re-establish through programmes she oversees, like the restoration of parts of the Whitireia Park at Porirua burned in a fire caused by arson this year.
Native plants face competition from all sorts of other species such as pasture grass, and that ubiquitous introduced pest, gorse.
‘‘We hope to be able to get rid of all the gorse in the whole park someday. The park has a huge recreational potential,’’ Ms Smith says.
The blaze did no favours to the desirable plants of Whitireia. Fire helps gorse regenerate by releasing the seeds to germinate.
The Take Care group will work its way up the inland stream valley, which suffered badly from the fire, with damage done to the habitat for native fish like the banded kokopu and eels.
Ms Smith’s groups planted 7500 natives in Whitireia, with up to 80 people showing up every day during the planting season. ‘‘ It’s amazing what people are doing out there, just brilliant,’’ she says.
She has been a member of the park’s board for many years, having been nominated by the Department of Conservation. Her role will come to an end as the new Whitireia Park board will be composed of three members of Ngati Toa and three representatives of the Greater Wellington Regional Council, probably senior officers or councillors. The council will manage the park.
But Ms Smith says the park will be in good hands. Council consultant Peter Handford has almost completed a sustainable management plan for Whitireia, after doing one for Belmont Regional Park. The council has only a limited budget for Take Care and for Whitireia Park management and restoration, but is committed to it.
Self-taught in botany and natural history, Ms Smith has worked in natural history and conservation for almost 20 years, first with the Queen Elizabeth National Trust, then the Otari Bush. She has now been with the council for about three years.
She also worked with Take Care groups on the Otaki Dunes restoration and Waitohu Stream cleanup, planting native grasses like spinifex, which roots well in sand and spreads, slowing the wind and allowing the dunes to reshape themselves and so become lower and more stable.
The Take Care group focuses on the beach end of the stream and nearby dunes and wetlands. The estuary is home to lots of wildlife, including birds and whitebait. The Waitohu is one of the most polluted streams in the Wellington region.
Ms Smith also worked on the Hulls Creek restoration in Upper Hutt, and with the Wairarapa Papawai-Managarara Take Care group on a three-year project to restore the mauri, or life force, of the Managarara Stream in Greytown.
The majority of Take Care projects focus solely on the resto- ration of freshwater ecosystems, and the rest on coastal areas.
Most Take Care sites have ecosystems that have been reduced to about 10 per cent of their original extent in the region. The council says these sites could be valuable for the reintroduction of threatened species, some of which are in decline nationally.
Local roots: Greater Wellington community environmental projects team leader Robyn Smith planting a young toi toi at a Whitireia Park planting day in April.