Posted By QEII National Trust | December 12, 2023

Controlling a constant invasion of weeds can be an overwhelming task for many landowners with QEII covenants. In the Otago region, landowners are getting help from Otago Regional Council’s ‘Maintaining the Gains’ project to bring pest plants on their covenants down to manageable levels.

Otago Regional Council, with the support of QEII National Trust, were successful in obtaining $961,234 Department of Conservation (DOC) Jobs for Nature funding in 2021 to establish the project.

Aukaha, an Otago manawhenua-owned consultancy, is collaborating with and has been contracted by Otago Regional Council to create a Maintaining the Gains field team to provide pest plant control support to landowners of QEII covenanted land in the Otago region over the course of three years.

Maintaining the Gains field worker, Tamara Dick, describes the continuing struggle against weeds on the Otago Peninsula.

On a sunny Friday morning on the Otago Peninsula, our field team set off in search of Ōtepoti Dunedin’s most wanted weed, the banana passionfruit (Passiflora spp.).

At our first stop of the day, landowner Alf Webb, a volunteer with the Seek Weeds And Terminate (S.W.A.T.) team, gave us a tour of the QEII covenanted land he owns. Alf shows us the biggest horoeka/lancewood (Pseudopanax crassifolius) we’ve ever seen and, on the northern face, a young rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) he has been nurturing.

Late last century, native vegetation on the Otago Peninsula was reduced to only a small percentage of the land cover. Since then, there has been some return of native cover, but pest plants remain a major threat to regeneration. Until 2023, the war on weeds on private land in Dunedin had been solely undertaken or funded by landowners and volunteers like Alf and the S.W.A.T. team.

Armed with a chainsaw and weed control paste, Alf navigates native bush and gorse groves with ease, tracking banana passionfruit vines as he goes. After searching through seemingly pristine native bush, our team stopped at the sight of a lush green carpet.

“Eventually I stopped pulling them out and decided to count,” Alf explains, “I pegged out a metre square and then pulled out around 430 seedlings.”

Exotic species make up half of all wild plant species in New Zealand (Clayson Howell, DOC Research & Development Series 292) and keeping them under control is a massive undertaking. Although many of these landowners have the passion and know how to do it, they need extra hands to keep on top of it. Our team works alongside covenanters, to understand biodiversity threats on their land and then together we create and execute a plan to tackle them.

Banana passionfruit plant blanketing a hillside
Banana passionfruit curls its tendrils upwards, reaching for something to scale and smother. Photo credit: Department of Conservation (DOC).

On a hill above Hoopers Inlet, our group stood beneath the gnarled trunk of an old kōwhai tree looking out over the yellow hills of the Otago Peninsula. Most of the land was cleared by fires many years ago but pockets of forest remnants have survived. What is left leads us to believe that the original forests were predominantly a mixture of broadleaf (Griselinia littoralis) and podocarp. Podocarps are slow-growing and few remain on the peninsula, often found in specially preserved land like this.

The native biodiversity on this land is legally protected in perpetuity by the QEII National Trust. On the other side of a rabbit-proof fence is 36 hectares of native bush that Moira and her partner John fight tirelessly to protect from invasive exotic plants, including their persistent enemy the banana passionfruit.

Covenant owners like Moira and John maintain ownership of the land and work in conjunction with QEII to ensure protection of its native biodiversity. The covenant is teeming with life. We inspected the mottled trunk of a mataī tree (Prumnopitys taxifolia), and Moira showed us how to distinguish its foliage from another nearby native tree. Covered head to toe in wet weather gear and talking enthusiastically as she guided us through her property, it was clear to see her love and passion for the native bush.

Seventy percent of land in New Zealand is privately owned and 190,000 hectares are protected through QEII covenants, thanks to the goodwill of private landowners. The system allows landowners to recognise the environmental value in their land and to be able to protect it whilst still maintaining ownership of it.

To work alongside people who have such a deep connection to, and understanding of, their land has been invaluable. Having the knowledge of covenant owners involved in the preservation and growth of the land means that their approaches can vary, producing unique and exciting results.

“They used to think that all you had to do was to stop farm stock grazing the land and the bush would come back. We’ve learned that it’s a bit more complicated than that,” Moira explained. “We have been fencing the rabbits out of our covenant to stop the ringbarking, but now we’re finding more banana passionfruit seedlings that they must have been eating.”

Regenerating native bush, delicate leaves in the foreground
Regenerating native bush at a Waitati Beach QEII covenanted property. Photo credit: Tamara Dick.

In Ravensbourne, our team said hello to Oscar and Betty, possibly Dunedin’s most loved donkeys. The enthusiastic duo help maintain the tracks leading into Rachel Gibb’s covenant. Every day they clear gorse, grass, and other weedy seedlings from the tracks, covenant edges and adjoining paddock.

Rachel’s covenant backs onto the Burns Reserve and forms part of a bush corridor which runs from the top of Signal Hill via three more protected properties, almost as far as the harbour. Rachel’s mother started the Ravensbourne Environmental Trust about 20 years ago to preserve the beautiful gully of natives which runs down alongside Wanaka Street. It’s a sanctuary in Dunedin city. The creek is lined with ponga/silver fern (Alsophila cunninghamii), and pīwakawaka/fantail flit beneath a canopy of houhere/ribbonwood (Hoheria populnea) and māhoe/whitey wood (Melicytus ramiflorus subsp. Ramiflorus).

Unfortunately, across the gully the familiar pink flowers of the banana passionfruit and the yellowing leaves of sycamore still sneak in relentlessly from neighbouring properties. It took us a full week to clear the Ravensbourne covenants of all the weeds that we could. We know that as we move on, the weeds will begin to creep in over the fences behind us.

Maintaining beautiful bush so close to city and gardens requires constant care. We marvel at the voluntary mahi of the people who care for this land. We’re grateful to have the opportunity, through the Maintaining the Gains Jobs for Nature funded project, to work with, and learn from, such good-hearted people and to be able to help where it is needed and deserved.

QEII would like to thank Tamara Dick for providing this content and acknowledge the wonderful mahi of the Maintaining the Gains team.