Canterbury Plains: an ecological “ground zero”

An article in the New Zealand Listener by Rebecca Macfie is entitled “Nature ground zero” and describes an initiative in Canterbury to give “a new lease of life” to “the devastated native flora of the Canterbury Plains” [click here to read article]. The initiative is to identify and encourage the reintroduction of indigenous plant species which provide “ecosystem services” such as the provision of pollen and nectar to attract beneficial insects, improved soil health, weed suppression, the control of pest insects, and greater biodiversity. The project is focused on the Waipara Valley of Northern Canterbury, which is renowned for its vineyards, but has potential to be applied across Canterbury.

Particularly revealing is this description in the article of the environmental history of the region:

When Europeans settled Canterbury 150 years ago, the landscape was regenerating from the fires of early Maori, with extensive kanuka forests, pockets of matai and totara, and a mosaic of kowhai, cabbage trees, coprosmas, matagouri and silver tussock. But the region was a victim of its own geography. In hillier parts of the country, says [Landcare Research scientist, Colin] Meurk, patches of bush in gullies and steep faces survived the advance of farming. But flat Canterbury could be tilled “wall to wall”.

“The only places not cultivated up until 20 years ago were the driest, stoniest places, because it just wasn’t worthwhile.” But with the arrival of high-tech irrigation and the dairy boom – and the permissive legal framework provided by the Resource Management Act – even those remaining refuges for hardy native plants were lost to intensive farming.

Meurk says he doesn’t sit in judgment of landowners who have transformed the region from a unique ecosystem into a landscape of industrial agriculture. “That’s what humans do – they try to utilise the resources that are available. And I’m a beneficiary of that history, too.” … “the way I have reconciled it is to use the metaphor of ground zero…we have to rebuild.”

Meurk has worked out that by regenerating areas like roadside verges, shelter belts, riverbanks and the corners of paddocks that can’t be reached by pivot irrigators, 10% of the agricultural landscape could again be cloaked in native bush without loss of farm productivity. The “Greening Waipara” project is seen as one step in realising this vision.

This story also has a further interesting twist: in the article Meurk’s expresses sentiments about the importance of more “accessible” nature in our rural landscape – not just the beautiful – but more remote – mountainous national parks. This, along with the ecological value that the nature in agricultural landscapes provide, is strongly reminiscent of the Japanese concept of “satoyama”, explored in earlier posts [see: The role of semi-managed nature in supporting biodiversity]. Therefore, it is fitting that the Greening Waipara project is funded in part by a Japanese food and health product company, Four Leaf Co. Ltd.

Photo top: An aerial view of the patchwork of fields characteristic of the Canterbury Plains. [From Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand] The Canterbury Plains are New Zealand’s largest area of flat land, with straight roads cutting across a mosaic of paddocks. This area 40 kilometres west of Christchurch, where seven roads converge, is known as Charing Cross. Photo: ©Lloyd Homer, GNS Science. Permission must be granted for any reuse of this image Above right: an example of ecosystem services: a beneficial insect (ladybird) on buckwheat. (Photo: Mattias Jonsson)

See also: The role of semi-managed nature in supporting biodiversity; Destruction of our forests over time; The place of an echo – Putaringamotu (Deans Bush) ; What is natural? – The case of the Christchurch Port Hills; Vanishing forests: pre-European transformation of the South Island; What is natural? The tussocklands of Lindis Pass ; Impacts of the Maori on the environment

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