Posted By QEII National Trust | December 15, 2023

Once at risk of neglect and subdivision, Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest is an example of how connected residents, knowledgeable experts and local supporters can band together to protect and enhance rare ecosystems.

The 52-hectare covenant, part of an 81-hectare property in Otatara, continues to benefit from the actions of the Native Forest Restoration Trust, neighbours and the wider Otatara community.

Located just a ten-minute drive from central Invercargill, Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest occupies a unique position bordering the Ōreti River, capturing the wind rolling in off the Tasman Sea. This is a special place for QEII National Trust ecologist Brian Rance, who lives locally. “The site is mainly tōtara, but transitions into mataī and kahikatea in wetter places and includes dune swales with ephemeral wetlands. Therefore the undulating dune landscape creates a lot of diversity,” said Brian.

While there are other pockets of tōtara dune forest in the wider Otatara area, this was one of the last and largest unprotected sites.

“Tōtara dune forest on consolidated ancient sand dunes is a nationally rare forest type, so a very rare ecosystem. Otatara is the stronghold for this ecosystem in New Zealand,” said Jesse Bythell, QEII regional representative for Southland.

Orchid flowering
Caladenia variegata orchid. Photo credit: Jesse Bythell

Before 2020, the site was lightly grazed by cattle, making it difficult for the undergrowth of the tōtara forest to replenish itself. “It was lightly farmed—that’s why it’s still here—but under that farming regime it wasn’t going to regenerate and over time we would eventually lose that ecosystem,” said Jesse.

After returning home from a trip away, Brian Rance was surprised to find a note in his mailbox about the Ōreti property being for sale. “A note was left from the sister of the previous owner. The sisters had ties with Forest and Bird so were aware of the ecological values and were keen for the site to be protected for conservation,” said Brian.

As it happened, Brian had recently met up with Geoff Davidson, a trustee at the Native Forest Restoration Trust (NFRT). The Native Forest Restoration Trust protects and manages reserves across the country by purchasing land of ecological significance and placing a QEII covenant on it. Once Geoff heard about the possibility of protecting Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest, NFRT were eager to get started. “We said: ‘yeah, we’ve got to do this’,” said Geoff.

But the journey to purchase and protect the site wasn’t without its challenges. The start of 2020 brought the arrival of Covid-19 and plenty of disruptions to the project. Geoff and Tim Oliver, NFRT chair at the time, were also concerned about being outbid by developers looking to subdivide the land, an uncertain future for the rare tōtara dune forest.

Despite the hurdles, the project to protect Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest had the backing of NFRT’s supporters and the wider community. NFRT’s successful fundraising campaign raised $810,000 towards the $1.5 million purchase price of the property.

After reading an article in the paper about the Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest project, a generous local, Mr Erskine, made a $50,000 donation to NFRT. “He was thrilled to bits that this was happening. Sadly, he passed away before the reserve opened but knew it was purchased. He had long family links to the place,” said Tim.

“Tim Simpson, who worked for the previous owner, does some of the rabbit shooting and pest control. He’s the grandson of Mr Erskine, which is a nice little piece of serendipity,” said Tim.

Tim Oliver and Geoff Davidson posing with the sold sign at Ōreti Dune Forest
Tim Oliver and Geoff Davidson at Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest. Photo credit: Jesse Bythell

Although NFRT took action on purchasing and ensuring the land was protected with a QEII covenant, it was over to the people who were originally behind the project to take a major part in its continued management. “QEII and NFRT are national groups, but they’re working with local communities,” said Brian.

Jesse, Brian and Chris Rance became part of the advisory group for the management of the site, working closely with honorary ranger Maurice Rodway and Dallas Bradley who leads pest control in the area. “They are the nucleus of people much involved in this site,” said Geoff. “Without them we couldn’t maintain this place.”

A lot of careful thought has gone into how Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest can be managed. “Our management plan is so big you could use it to prop the door open,” said Jesse.

The management approach is primarily focused on assisted passive restoration, which turns to pest control, seed enhancement and weed control to allow the ecosystem to reestablish itself rather than intensive replanting. “We’re taking the brakes off nature and letting those changes come through,” said Jesse.

Brian sees Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest as a key piece of a much wider landscape and part of a longer-term ecological recovery. “As the forest links together over time, it will also join with the river which is quite special.” Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest is surrounded by other popular DOC and council reserves as well as privately owned forest around Otatara. “All form a network of forest remnant stepping stones though Otatara, improving bird movement across the wider Otatara area,” said Brian.

Pest control can help birds spill across the wider area, helping distribute seeds as they go. Dallas Bradley has been leading pest control for the site since the reserve was formed in 2020 and has already seen changes since pest control began. “There has been a heck of a lot more bellbirds and tūī,” said Dallas.

There is still a long road ahead for the pest control programme. “I’ve never been anywhere before with such high mouse numbers,” said Dallas. With sandy soil and grassland outside the forested areas, it’s prime mouse and rabbit real estate.

Although mice continue to be a problem, Dallas’ monitoring has shown that possum and rat numbers have been brought down to low levels. “The forest itself is starting to come back. It’s nice to have new seedlings come up that aren’t being browsed by possums,” he said.

Honorary ranger Maurice Rodway also sees the recovery of Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest as a long game. “Revegetating this area with native forest will be a long process taking many decades,” said Maurice. “The long-term management of the site will be a challenge with few younger people being able to be involved to the level needed.”

As part of the long-term picture, Rory and Cody Baker lease 20 ha of the non-covenanted land on the property for light farming. They help with fencing, planting and weed control as part of their lease. “We are lucky to have Rory and Cody Baker who will hopefully be able to be involved for the next 20-30 years, but the site will take much longer than that to be re-forested,” said Maurice.

Pūtangitangi ducklings close up
Pūtangitangi/paradise shelduck. Photo credit: Jesse Bythell.

Community groups and individuals have taken the Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest under their wing. The Southland Tramping Club have an annual planting day at the site and one neighbour has lent a hand building some bridges and viewing structures.

The project to restore Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest has received a boost from the local council as well as the community. “The Invercargill City Council has donated about 4,000 native plants so far,” said Maurice. This has allowed concentrated planting into priority restoration areas.

There has also been some research interest in the site. A few students from the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) have undertaken projects at Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest. One used drone footage to map plant communities, while another compared the forest composition of the tōtara dune forest at the Ōreti site to other examples of this ecosystem.

Even members of the public can get involved with gaining a better understanding of the site. Visitors are welcomed to record their observations of birds, plants and insects in the iNaturalist project for the site.

Being so close to Invercargill, Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest has become a much-loved area, with more and more people using it for daily exercise. Although privately owned, it is open to the public. Walking tracks and a carpark allow visitors access to the protected site.

“The sheer amount of love the community has for this site is always overwhelming,” said Jesse. “Right from the beginning with the crowdfunding to buy it, through to all the generous time and effort, hours and labour and good ideas… it’s a really exciting project to be part of.”

Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest seen from above
Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest. Photo credit: Jason Hosking

More information about visiting Ōreti Tōtara Dune Forest can be found on our Places to Visit page and the Native Forest Restoration Trust website:

Want to read more?

This article can be found on page 16 – 19 in issue 105 of Open Space magazine published in November 2023.

You can find the full digital version of issue 105 of our Open Space magazine, as well as past issues, on our website.

Look out for more excerpts from Open Space over the summer.