A way forward for community led conservation by Julian Fitter

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  7. A way forward for community led conservation by Julian Fitter

Maketu Ongatoro Wetland Society (MOWS) was started in 2009 to help look after the colony of New Zealand Dotterel on Maketu Spit. This then quickly morphed into an ecological restoration project through a Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP), funded by both councils and DOC, with MOWS providing the volunteer labour. This plan ends in June 2015 and we are just signing a new plan for a further five years.

Dotterel on a beach
New Zealand Dotterel. Image credit: Julian Fitter

While much of the work has been straightforward, it has not been all plain sailing. In 2011 we had the MV Rena disaster just offshore and the dotterel breeding season was seriously disrupted, with five individuals lost. Numbers have since increased, we like to think at least in part thanks to our pest control work. We have also undertaken reptile and invertebrate survey work. This shows that we have a good population of shore skink and at least four undescribed species of invertebrate.

Pest plants have proved to be the trickiest ones to deal with, for while we have got rid of the pampas, gorse and tree lupin and the pines are going, we have had to cope with the arrival of salt-water paspalum, sea couch and tall fescue, all of which are very pesky customers…

Shore skink. Image credit: Julian Fitter

One of the major issues we had to confront quite early on, is management. While we had a very good Biodiversity Management Plan, with funding for monitoring and controlling pests etc., there was no money for management. We have been fortunate in being able to obtain some funding for this, because however good your project, and however many volunteers you have, you need management first and foremost.

Another issue is training and education. I am not a great fan of the idea that you can set up and maintain a serious, long-term, conservation operation on a purely voluntary basis. There is only so much you can ask a volunteer to do, we have therefore decided to go down the professional route and become a ‘social enterprise’, with the intention of training and then employing our own members, to do the work.

This way they have stronger ties to the organisation and ownership of the work. They still do quite a lot of voluntary work, but the economic benefit stays within the community.

A group of people work in the dunes
Volunteers hard at work. Image credit: Julian Fitter

At present training is mainly in four areas – 4WD, ATV and quadbike handling, chainsaw usage, herbicide usage and animal pest control. Interestingly the one we are having trouble arranging is the animal pest control. As with the others, the basics are fairly simple, but we would like our members and workers to have a better understanding of what they are doing, when and why to use a trap or poison. We feel strongly that better training of volunteers and paid workers will reap rewards in more effective long-term control programmes. We are keen to talk to other groups who feel similarly.

On top of the skills training, we are also keen to upgrade our members in the skills of managing the various projects we run. We think that there is a need for a one year part-time course in Environmental Management. This will enable our members to better understand the issues behind pest control, monitoring etc. and how to prioritise different work. We are already talking to BOP Poly and others about this and would be keen to talk to anyone who has a similar interest.

Two children planting in the dunes
Maketu children helping out. Image credit: Julian Fitter

The challenges for the future are to keep moving forward, just like a business it is dangerous to stand still. I do not think that money is the major obstacle, but too narrow a focus can be. While our name suggests that we deal mainly with wetlands, this is not the case and we are keen to take on any project that fits in with our overall objective. To do this we need more members and better trained members, members who can drive the organisation forward into the future.

While we can grow by developing new projects, this is not the only option, and one complimentary alternative is to get together with like-minded groups to develop joint projects and to spread the volunteer load. There is a tendency in New Zealand, and I suspect elsewhere, for community conservation groups to be quite jealous of their own patch or project. If we work together, we are much more likely to be able to develop bigger and better projects, and it is these bigger and better projects which will make the difference.

A group take a break form their work of dune restoration
Pukehina working bee. Image credit: Julian Fitter

Our growth has been linked to working closely with two very supportive councils, BOP Regional Council, Western BOP District Council and DOC, all three have been very supportive and cooperative. What has made them this way is not that they particularly like us over anyone else, but that we generally do what we say we are going to do. Funders love you to do the job, you could say that we are doing their work, so not surprisingly they will continue to support you. As the saying goes, success breeds success and in conservation this is just as true as elsewhere.

Behind it all there is the ethos that if what we are doing is worthwhile, and we obviously believe that it is, then we want it to continue indefinitely, not just 50 or 100 years, but as long as it is needed. If not, why do it at all?