Posted By QEII National Trust | November 27, 2023

On Saturday 11 November, attendees of the Southland Ecological Restoration Network (SERN) field trip got a special tour of restoration projects in the Southland region, including two very unique QEII National Trust covenants.

Right from the start, Southland put on a gloriously sunny day as about thirty eager guests traipsed onto the bus at 9 am. Those on the trip were a mix of people from rural and urban backgrounds, including some QEII covenantors, SERN members and QEII reps Jesse Bythell and Mark Sutton.

Group standing listening to John Cowie talk about his covenant, trees in the background
SERN field trip group listening to John Cowie talk about his covenant at Ōtāpiri Farm

This 2023 annual spring SERN field trip was coordinated with QEII who worked with the landowner hosts, and with support from Environment Southland who provided funding for the bus. At each site, QEII rep Jesse shared her knowledge of the covenants and their place in the ecological landscape and landowners and other SERN members shared their stories.

Ōtāpiri Farm, owned by the Cowie family, was the first stop—a lovely example of generations of the same family caring for a special area of their land. John Cowie alongside his son Andrew spoke to the visiting group about his father, who decided not to clear the trees along the Ōtāpiri Stream because he quite liked them. Twenty years ago, John decided to go a step further and covenant the area and actively restore it once he learnt more about its ecological significance from DOC. The population of Hector’s tree daisy (Olearia hectorii, Nationally Vulnerable) on the Cowie family’s covenant is regionally significant and the largest on the Southland plains.

John Cowie wearing wide hat and brown jersey talks into microphone held by his son Andrew, Jesse Bythell stands beside them holding a piece of paper, with river and trees in the background
John Cowie with son Andrew and QEII rep Jesse Bythell

Decades of care shown by the Cowie family has had a magnificent effect on the protected area. Concerted efforts in targeted planting, pest control and weed control have meant that some really unique species such as Hector’s tree daisy, horoeka/fierce lancewood (Pseudopanax ferox) and tāpia/white mistletoe (Tupeia antarctica) have flourished. John has a particular fondness for the tāpia—his efforts to ensure possum levels are very low means this is the largest population in Southland.

“The visit to John Cowie’s property with its meandering Ōtāpiri Stream and riparian remnant ribbonwood and kōwhai was inspiring,” says attendee Gay Munro. “As well as one of the best populations of mistletoe in Southland hanging from the mature trees, the healthy restoration plantings of various species of threatened native riparian shrubs beneath were impressive, some now two decades old and well established.”

Stand of mature ribbonwood with tāpia/white mistletoe growing on it, landscape
Tāpia/white mistletoe (Tupeia antarctica) on lowland ribbonwood/mānatu (Plagianthus regius) host. Photo credit: Jesse Bythell
Tāpia/white mistletoe growing on large ribbonwood tree
Tāpia/white mistletoe (Tupeia antarctica) on lowland ribbonwood/mānatu (Plagianthus regius) host

John Cowie was recognised last year at the 2022 NZ Plant Conservation Network awards when he received the Special Award for plant conservation. “It’s fantastic to see the efforts of John Cowie recognised with an award like this,” says Jesse. “He has gone the extra mile for this site and also placed a covenant on rare limestone forest filled with threatened plants elsewhere on the farm.”

At lunchtime, the group assembled at the Ōtāpari Hall with their packed lunches and heard from a variety of speakers from Environment Southland, landowners and local catchment groups about the restoration and conservation projects around the Southland region. “It was good to connect with the Thriving Southland Catchment Group members to hear about the work they are doing to enhance biodiversity,” says attendee Gay Munro.

Replete from lunch, the group was taken north to Kōwhai Reach, a stretch of narrow covenants that combine to protect a rare meandering stream environment flanked by massive South Island kōwhai. The covenants not only support the glorious kōwhai along the winding Winton stream but also a number of threatened plant species such as Hector’s tree daisy and tangled māhoe (Melicytus flexuosus, Nationally Vulnerable). Kōura/freshwater crayfish and potentially kākahi/freshwater mussels can be found in the stream.

Group of people walking beside stream with mature kōwhai along the banks
SERN trip guests take a walk along the side of Winton stream at Kōwhai Reach
Looking down over a section of the Kōwhai Reach covenants, showing farmland and the river lined with kōwhai and other vegetation
Still from drone footage of Kōwhai Reach showing kōwhai in flower. Photo credit: Margie Ruddenklau

Kōwhai Reach has been important to landowners and the community from the very beginning. Frank Shand spoke to the SERN group about how his father stood up to protect the Winton stream and kōwhai trees in the 1940s. Frank’s niece, Louise, then worked with the Council and QEII to protect the site with QEII covenants. “Farmers standing up to the council to protect the kōwhai trees and the natural meander of the stream was a bold move last century and fencing off waterways was not common,” says Jesse. “Today we are able to enhance the resilience of this ecosystem precisely because those who came before us made this effort to protect what they loved.”

As the group of SERN visitors walked along the side of the stream, Jesse outlined the plans for making Kōwhai Reach more resilient to future challenges. Jesse has been in discussion with landowners about moving the covenant fencing. “Moving the fence away from the stream will create more space to plant in order to create the dappled light conditions kōwhai need to grow—too much sunlight results in grass dominating and kōwhai seedings cannot establish,” says Jesse.

The organisers would like to thank the Kōwhai Reach landowners who hosted the group for the day. It was special for the group to see this riparian kōwhai ribbonwood forest type, which was originally very rare and now less than 1% of it remains. “There are over 1,000 ancient kōwhai trees along the Reach, most are two to four centuries old – many people may not realise how massive kōwhai can get!” says Jesse.

Group of people at Kōwhai Reach listening to Jesse Bythell speak near the fenceline in the long grass, blue sky and sunny
QEII rep Jesse Bythell talking to the SERN field trip group about Kōwhai Reach

The annual SERN field trips are a great way for people and groups interested in restoration to have a close-up look at important sites in their region and compare notes on challenges and strategies for tackling projects. “It was another very successful SERN trip, celebrating the great work going on out in the central Southland community,” says Gay Munro.