Ancient seeds a win for farmers bringing peat lakes back to the brink

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When kahikatea started to appear near Lake Kaituna in a ring-shaped circle, they presented a puzzle. It wasn’t quite the scale of crop circles but, still, it took a while to figure it out.

The Hayes family had worked hard to remove the willow that encroached on Doc Lake at their Horsham Downs dairy farm, and with the blanket gone, circa 1999, there was light and space for the natives can grow. Among them were kahikatea seedlings growing in a peculiar ring shape.

University experts said kahikatea seeds could last no more than about seven years, Andrew Hayes recalls. “I said no, you’re wrong, there’s something wrong here. And then Doc said, oh, the birds are flying in circles, dropping the seed.

Eventually, the startling truth came out.

Jenny and Andrew Hayes at Lake Komakorau.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

Jenny and Andrew Hayes at Lake Komakorau.

The center of the ring was the remains of an ancient strain of kahikatea. Seedlings grew around these stumps; they were the seeds fallen from the original tree, long gone.

“It was gone when Taupō erupted 2,000 years ago, because what the university and Doc didn’t realize [was] peat is a preservative. He’s been setting there all this time, all this seed.

Other natives also popped up once they had the chance.

Today, the view from Andrew and Jenny Hayes’ bridge takes in Lakes Kaituna and Komakorau (also known as Lakes B and C), the latter bordered by their farm and that of a neighbor. Natives abound on their fringes, including kahikatea, cabbages, mānuka and sedges, including baumea. Some were planted, but the overwhelming majority regenerated themselves once given a chance.

The lakes are lined with natives including cabbages and baumea.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

The lakes are lined with natives including cabbages and baumea.

This is a pioneering restoration project and vision for New Zealand, particularly the vast peat lakes of Waikato, before land clearing and drainage reduced the country’s wetland cover to less 10% of its original extent.

In 1981, when the couple moved in, the vision was very different. The water was virtually invisible from this high point, surrounded by regularly overgrown willow trees. If they hadn’t done anything, the lakes would have now completely disappeared, says Andrew. It wasn’t just the willow; there was privet, blackberry, etc.

So in 1984, they found themselves stuck, helped by their children. There weren’t too many days off or vacations in those years, Jenny notes, and they also helped restore nearby Kainui Lake.

Lake Komakorau has mostly regenerated naturally.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

Lake Komakorau has mostly regenerated naturally.

There has been a lot of learning along the way. At one point, visiting naturalist David Bellamy showed them how insects thrive away from sour willows. When the willow leaves fell, they killed everything below, Davies said.

But with 14 ha of the problem tree removed, the whole system has completely changed. There were more ducks, more wild animals.

The bitterns have returned, there are immaculate daisies and royal spoonbills. And reintroduced native black mudfish have taken flight around both lakes.

Ducks and swans settle in Komakorau.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

Ducks and swans settle in Komakorau.

Less welcome are the koi carp which appeared about 10 years ago when the sewers flooded. The koi carp mysteriously disappeared this summer, although Andrew and Jenny suspect they might return. In this much-studied wetland, there could be a new research project on site.

The restoration must deal with approximately 700 hectares of high catchment. Each drain has a sediment trap where it empties into the marshy area bordering the lake proper. Part of the sediment can be used on the farm. “If it’s peat, you put it on the paddocks, and it grows grass. By my God, it is,” Andrew said.

Kahikatea and berries near Lake Kaituna.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

Kahikatea and berries near Lake Kaituna.

It’s not just the lakes. The Hayes aren’t turning over their paddocks or cleaning their drains. The more moisture they can hold in the peat, the better, says Andrew. “The farmer is going to lose in the long run if he keeps digging his drains deeper and keeps shrinking the peat.”

Likewise, they use nitrogen lightly, and he thinks things in the agricultural world are starting to come full circle. “It’s an old farmer talking here right now,” he said.

And increasingly, when he talks to other farmers, they listen. Farmers may have looked down on global warming a bit in the past, he says, but now they know that if they don’t comply, they’ll be in trouble. There have always been climate changes, he says. “But what’s happened with global warming now, the human race is accelerating it flat.”

Andrew Hayes warns that bureaucracy can become too big of an obstacle.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF/Waikato Times

Andrew Hayes warns that bureaucracy can become too big of an obstacle.

This lends a certain urgency to restorations like that of Hayes. Recent research suggests that the 1% of New Zealand covered by drained peatlands is responsible for 8% of net annual emissions. And that’s where, with undrained peat acting as a very efficient carbon sink, it’s frustrating to think that farmers like him could end up paying the same emissions tax as those who didn’t take conservation measures.

There’s also another reason why Hayes wants politicians and bureaucrats to listen. He feels he couldn’t do a project like this if it started today, given the bureaucracy. “Farmers, many of them, are conservationists anyway, but there are a number of people who will go overboard and make it too difficult,” he says. “It must be a balancing act.”

Jenny wrote a poem reflecting the decades of work and the pleasure it gave them. In part, it reads as follows:

joy for us

hear Tui attracted by Kowhai’s spring bloom

Spot two young bitterns resting on the footpath

Hear the call of rare stilts

Kaituna and Komakorau will continue to change, says Andrew. Come back in 10 years and they will be different again. The swamp-loving kahikatea will be taller to begin with. And perhaps by then the sporadanthus and wire-rushes transplanted from the Kopuatai wetland will have taken root and spread. One thing is certain: the view from the bridge will remain breathtaking.

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