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As the Hobbit reaches British cinemas, Pippa Howard shares her views about how the breathtaking and biodiverse landscapes of New Zealand are changing.
Whilst visiting New Zealand I had the pleasure of breathing super-oxygenated southern latitude air in a remnant coastal rainforest; deep archaic green within green, feeding oxygen into blue beyond blue skies. It is a land where tree ferns and ancient Podocarps are thick and impenetrable, with mile upon mile of green pasture and grassland.
New Zealand is an extraordinary photogenic place, with stunning scenery, pure air and dramatic, atmospheric landscapes. These landscapes are also home to fascinating tongue-twisting fauna, like the; Tuis, Kaka, kea, bell birds, kiwis, takahe, and kakapo.
The green and gorgeous is evident – but change is also easy to see. Flying down the length of the South Island, the stark reality of human-induced change and intensive land-use is seen in a patchwork of farms dotted with livestock. Gorse-yellow is everywhere but much of the forest is gone. Air still. Still green. Green but not green.
For two centuries, forests have been cleared for pasture. Trees were initially replaced with flocks of sheep, but the sheep are now being replaced with dairy cows to produce milk for the Chinese market.
New Zealand’s Brand has long been built on green and backed by the fern logo and ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ strap line. The country is green – or at least looks green. The economy is now founded on agriculture: sheep, dairy, and wine. Hugely productive agricultural lands fill the downlands and coastal belts to the east of the Southern Alps. Beautiful interwoven rivers loaded with glacial sediment feed the soils and provide water for these industries – and they are most certainly industries!
Sheep farming is now giving way to dairy farming as the biggest agribusiness sector. One example, Fronterra Cooperative Group Ltd, is a behemoth company that ships and flies dairy products into China. Fronterra is a dairy cooperative of over 15,600 New Zealand dairy farmers with over 5.5 million cows collectively. The company generates more than 35% of New Zealand’s exports, earning a turnover of $20 billion. It is the largest milk powder and Tetra-Pak-ed milk producing company in the world. It also generates vast volumes of methane which pollute the air and pumps effluent into rivers. Dirty Dairying.
The Waikato River, which fails the health regulations for human contact, is now choking. The same goes for many other rivers along the length of the country. Methane is pumping into the ozone-depleted skies, adding to the carbon-footprint of New Zealand.
The pressure on the ecosystem is extreme – areas set-aside by farmers for wildlife have been lost to intensive agriculture, cows are trampling fragile river banks, and fish are dying in polluted rivers.
The biodiversity of New Zealand is varied and unique due to its long isolation from other continental landmasses. The islands which make up New Zealand separated from the supercontinent Gondwana 82 million years ago; they form part of the same continental plate as Australia, New Caledonia and Lord Howe Island. New Zealand’s pre-human history exhibited high levels of endemism, both in its fauna and flora.
Before humans (and all that humans introduced) arrived to New Zealand, there were no terrestrial mammals except for bats and seals, the main component of the terrestrial fauna being made up of birds and insects. Its flora is dominated by ancient plants from Gondwana, historically comprising forests including the famous giant kauri tree (Agathis australis).
So the biodiversity of New Zealand has been hammered for a long time – not only by dairy farming. When humans arrived in New Zealand about 700 years ago, this unique and unusual ecology was transformed. Several species were hunted to extinction, most notably the moa (nine species of flightless endemic birds) and harpagornis (a giant eagle from the South Island).
The worst damage, however, was caused by habitat destruction and the other ‘invasive’ animals humans brought with them. In particular rats (the Polynesian rat or kiore introduced by Māori and the Brown Rat and Black Rat subsequently introduced by Europeans), but also mice, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, pigs, goats, deer, hedgehogs, and Australian possums. The flightless birds were in particular danger. Consequently many bird species have become extinct, and others remain critically endangered.
All Crown land in New Zealand designated for conservation and protection is managed by the Department of Conservation. This is about 30% of New Zealand’s land area or about 8 million hectares of native forests, tussocklands (grasslands), alpine areas, wetlands, dunelands, estuaries, lakes and islands, national forests, maritime parks, marine reserves, river margins, coastline, and many offshore islands. All of the land under the Department’s control is protected for either conservation, ecological, scenic, scientific, historic or cultural reasons, and for recreation.
Unfortunately, due to the impacts of invasive species, these protected areas are often highly altered and pretty much devoid of native fauna. So what is the plan for conservation?
Several native species are now confined to offshore islands, or to fenced ecological islands or sanctuaries from which predators have been eliminated. New Zealand is today a world leader in the techniques required to bring severely endangered species back from the brink of extinction.
While in the country I visited the Orokanui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin – an artificial ecological island from which all non-native species (at least predator species) have been eradicated. Native species have been reintroduced and nurtured, and the border is maintained to prevent reintroduction of non-native species.
It is extraordinary to be within a mesh-fenced forest, watching native bird species such as kaka, pukeko and takahe feeding and walking amongst prehistoric plants, in a time warp.
At this sanctuary they have recreated an ecological microcosm of the country as it was before human arrival.
These ecological islands are becoming a fundamental conservation measure to preserve biodiversity. New regulations require developers to compensate for their environmental impacts. One way to do so is by funding biodiversity offsets such as the establishment of ecological sanctuaries.
These ecological sanctuaries are extremely expensive to create and maintain. They require high fencing designed to keep out all invasive mammals. They use stainless steel mesh that needs to be buried to prevent animals burrowing under. On top is a curved steel hood that prevents climbing animals from entering from above. Once the fence is set up, they then have to eliminate all pests from within the enclosure – shooting or poisoning them. Then the reintroduction can begin.
Beautiful, wild, green New Zealand is grappling with its past and its present – but is making progress with the conservation of its incredible wildlife. Can it resist the temptation of insatiable, perhaps unsustainable, economic growth which is likely to transform its natural heritage and its ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ image? Perhaps the Hobbit can tell us?