Enjoying our wetlands

A group of skaters enjoying a day at Mt Harper Skate rink.

One of my favourite parts of summer is when I spend a few days camping, tramping and generally enjoying New Zealand’s bush and wetlands.

This week is an especially opportune time to remember wetlands, as February 2 is World Wetland’s Day.

First signed on February 2, 1971, the date marks the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat and is set aside each year to recognise the importance of wetlands to humanity.

New Zealand signed the Ramsar Convention on December 13, 1976.

Today, New Zealand has six Ramsar Wetlands of International Significance, totalling 56,639 hectares of land.

While none of these wetlands are in the Ashburton District, we are home to O Tu Wharekai, one of New Zealand’s best examples of an inter-montane wetland system.

An inter-montane wetland system is a wetland found within a mountainous region.

At 65,000 hectares our wetland is larger than the six wetlands of international significance combined.


O Tu Wharekai

O Tu Wharekai is one of three key sites in the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme.

This is a community-based programme aiming to preserve, extend and enhance New Zealand’s wetland systems in accordance with Maori knowledge or matauranga Maori.

O Tu Wharekai covers a diverse range of habitats, from the upper Rangitata River to the Ashburton Lakes and is the centre of the Hakatere Conservation Park.

It is home to four nationally critical species of plants, as well as a further five nationally endangered species of plants.

Crasapedia Lake Heron is one of these nationally critical plants. Endemic to O Tu Wharekai, the Cameron Fan is the only place in the world this herb grows, however, DOC has plans to plant a second population on the Swin Fan.

The area is also used by over 30 bird species and includes one of the two most important breeding sites for Ngutu pare, an endemic plover also called the wrybill.

This bird is the only bird in the world with a beak curved to one side.

The wetlands were also once home to a large population of Australasian bittern, of which, sadly only 900 remain in New Zealand.

Destruction of habitat puts these birds at further risk, which is why projects like O Tu Wharekai are so important.

Wetland regeneration and preservation ensures bittern have a habitat to live in, and ensures that bird species like this will be around for future generations.


Early use and trails

O Tu Wharekai is the name Ngai Tahu used to refer to the wider Ashburton-Hakatere region, as well as the smaller area of wetlands known as Maori Lakes.

A number of sites in the region were recorded as significant sites by Ngai Tahu elders in the information gathered by H K Taiaroa around 1879 for the Smith-Nairn Commission. This report included the use of many sites and helps give a clear picture of what the landscape was once like.

The region contains three pounamu trails that were used to move pounamu from the West Coast. The trails Rangitata, Rakaia and Hakatere provided access to Te Tai Poutini (the West Coast). Numerous ovens, middens and rock shelters have been found in the area.

The region was so important to Ngai Tahu that several mountains, such as Tarahaoa, Puteawhatiia and Te Kahui Kaupeka, are named after passengers of the Arai-te-Uru waka.


Later use

Following the Kemps purchase of Canterbury in 1848, much of O Tu Wharekai was divided into farming runs.

Notable runholders included Samuel Butler, who farmed Mesopotamia Station and F G P Leech who owned Upper Lake Heron Station.

Today O Tu Wharekai is mostly used for recreational purposes.

One early example of this is the Mount Harper ice rink, first built in 1931-32.

The rink was extremely popular and operated until the 1950s.

While the rink is no longer in use today, DOC still maintain the buildings and the remnant archaeology associated with it.

The rink was built by Wyndham Baker, on land leased from Mt Possession Station.

Building the rink was difficult, as to get there you had to cross both a swamp and a river, however, it was a success as early as 1934.

The rink may have been the first purpose built ice skating rink in the South Island, and when it was operational was possibly the largest flood-lit skating rink in the world.

Today O Tu Wharekai is used for a variety of purposes, many of which are recreational.

You can hunt tahr, chamois, pig and deer. You can fish. You can go tramping, horse riding or mountain biking. In fact, recreational use of the wetlands is actively encouraged by DOC.

So this weekend, celebrate National Wetland Day by getting out and enjoying an amazing, unique habitat that we are lucky enough to have right on our back door step.

– By Max Reeves