NZ Farmer - The right way to protect rare plants on private land

Educating and motivating farmers is the best way to protect our biodiversity, writes Jamie McFadden.

OPINION: To most people, wiggy-wig is an unappealing, non-descript shrub. But to those of us that know wiggy-wig, it is a New Zealand native biodiversity gem. This plant is commonly known as Muehlenbeckia astonii or shrubby tororaro and naturally occurs on the drier east from Wellington to Banks Peninsula.

Wiggy-wig made headlines last week when Forest & Bird claimed that a Banks Peninsula farmer had cleared 1000 of these rare plants. To be fair to the farmer it is the sort of scruffy shrub that you might set alight or spray and it wasn't that long ago the Government paid farmers to clear this shrub.

The Hurunui district is home to remnant pockets of wiggy-wig. Fifteen years ago a Hurunui farmer approached me about an unusual shrub on his farm. I identified it as a very healthy population of wiggy-wig. I asked the farmer if I could collect seed so we could grow and re-establish more of these rare plants throughout the district.

In the last 10 years we have planted 5000 wiggy-wig plants on more than 50 farms. This includes irrigated, dairy and hill country farms. This year we have 1000 wiggy-wigs to plant – all grown from seed from the local Hurunui population.

It is thanks to the farmers of Hurunui that the future survival of this rare plant is assured.

The contrasting stories from Banks Peninsula and Hurunui provide some valuable lessons.

The Banks Peninsula example highlights a number of failures with the regulation approach to biodiversity. Regulation does not ascribe a positive value to native vegetation. It does not educate farmers about the special values on their land; does not empower them to look after these values and does not provide the tools to help farmers actively manage biodiversity on their land.

This was reinforced in a recent report from regional councils titled Addressing New Zealand's Biodiversity Challenge that stated in the preface: "There is much research to suggest that working alongside people gets more effective results than forcing them with regulations" and "a core message here is that the most urgent need is more active management". The report went on to state that the biggest threat to our biodiversity is weeds and pests.

The challenge for wiggy-wig is its inability to regenerate in the wild. Our Hurunui experience found the biggest threat to young seedlings was rabbits. And in order to control the rabbits we needed active management and the support of farmers. 

Forest & Bird's reaction to the Banks Peninsula issue is to call for punishment and stronger rules. This will do nothing to help save our biodiversity.

If groups like Forest & Bird had taken the Hurunui-type approach then this tragic loss of rare plants on Kaitorete Spit could have been avoided. Thankfully, the Department of Conservation seems to recognise the importance of working alongside farmers – but again, too late to avert this tragedy.

Much of New Zealand's rare and threatened biodiversity is found on private land and some species are now only found on private land. The experiences from Hurunui and Banks Peninsula prove that the long term protection of our biodiversity can only be achieved through landowners that are supported, motivated and empowered.