The amazing work ethic of a volunteer army has a gorse scourge at a West Coast beauty spot to retreat
For the second year running, volunteers from across New Zealand descended on the stunning Ōkārito Lagoon in South Westland to attack the gorse threat that threatens the Unesco World Heritage site.
“Gorsebusters”, the phenomenon that was accidentally sparked last year by Ōkārito businessman Barry Hughes, is back bigger and better than ever as the West Coast heralds a record-breaking summer of India.
The small community hosts more than 80 people who came this week from as far away Auckland, paying their own way to help, armed to the teeth of loppers, pruning saws and other weapons of gorse destruction. .
For Hughes and his wife Gemma, who are fighting over their tourism business, the Ōkārito Kayaks, and a young family, it was like seeing the cavalry coming up the hill.
“We were just stunned. It’s something we like to do every year and struggle to take the time. We’ve spent days here and there trimming the back of the gorse but these people are making a real impact.
Brash yellow pendant
Although the gorse in a forest environment can act as a nursery plant, boiling in native seedlings that will eventually shade and kill the pest, it behaves strangely around the 5000ha lagoon, Hughes said. .
“Gorse in a wetland environment will be the dominant species. In regenerating farmland or old mining sites, gorse is great. It grows and the natives come and it disappears.”
But on the edge of a wetland, native species are naturally stunted by constant flooding and gorse takes over, crowding in smaller shrubs and on the edge of a tidal lagoon with a yellowish fringe.
It also interferes with a million dollar view.
“From the lagoon, you can see 80km north and south, to the top of Aoraki/Mt Cook and the central Southern Alps, and all you have between you and the very top of our highest peak are native plants . So, with the rise of the gorse, we are faced with the real loss of something special.
side effects of covid
The gorsebusters campaign was born last year when Covid turned off the tourism tap for Ōkārito Kayaks and many other businesses on the West Coast.
“We didn’t have any forward booking for the business so we decided to take a week and gather about 20 or more partners to come in and ride the kayaks and face the gorse. But it kind of started to roll when West Coast Development (DWC) got involved, which was really weird.
The region’s economic development agency is known for helping business rather than conservation efforts, and Hughes, a former conservation board member, said a few years ago that he hadn’t been heard saying good things. thing about it.
But it was a DWC advisor who saw the potential for people to do something worthwhile in a good place at a time when many were feeling powerless in the face of the pandemic.
“It released a press release and the phone started ringing the next morning with reporters wanting to know more. I interviewed Jesse Mulligan on RNZ National that afternoon, on TVNZ Seven Sharp did a bit and started pinging emails to people offering to come down and help us. “
The Gorse-haters united
Surprised by the response, the couple began looking for shelter for the influx of gorse warriors and figured out how to feed them.
“We had this ring at the Hawke’s Bay farmer to say he was coming and when I said we were pretty full, he said,‘ Nah, you don’t understand – I don’t like gorse. We’re going down. ‘”
The farmer and his wife arrived carrying supplies along with an arsenal of gorsebusting gear and proved heavy on the farm, Hughes said.
Food offers for the volunteers also arrived, including a stunning 20kg of muesli from a Nelson company, and the locals worked together.
“We finished 60 people a day for six days, fed them and accommodated them. DoC opened the Old School House hut to house people. Local baches and the community campground were offered for free. for the week and iwi gave us their blessing and ran a barbecue. We thought, ‘This is great – let’s keep it going.’ “
What in the world would motivate such a rush of enthusiasm – not to mention altruism – for hitting the gorse on the West Cost that was isolated when most New Zealanders were digging home with Netflix, avoiding Covid and the company of strangers?
“I think it gave people a sense of freedom,” Hughes said.
“In those days, there were so many negative stories coming out about the glacier region – a lot of those things in ghost -town. Gorsebusters were like, ‘Here’s something we can do that’s positive.’ I think that’s an underlying motivation.
There was also, perhaps, a desire for the friendship of working with others to achieve a tangible result after months of anxiety and isolation.
Nor can watching the sunrise in the Southern Alps from the calm waters on a morning on the West Coast, or the sunset in Tasman go away from the appeal of a working holiday.
Whatever their motives, the volunteers last year did some serious damage with gorse pestilence, Hughes said, and this year they returned in larger numbers to continue the work.
Vaccination passes were necessary and some volunteers from Taupō arrived in Nelson when positive rapid antigen tests forced them to return.
“This time we started planning in August. We think there is the highest social for the town. We didn’t want to offend the locals, so we decided to 90 extra people a day max.
The couple underwrote costs for the gorsebusters event last year but the support they received the bill was not as large as expected.
“This year, the Ōkārito Community Association gave us $ 5000, the DoC paid for the herbicide gel and the manufacturers did not charge for freight. There is no charge for accommodation or food. ”
Everyone helps make it an affordable week for volunteers coming from all walks of life, Hughes said.
“We don’t want to exclude people. We have some wealthy volunteers, but then we also have people who probably don’t have pots to pee on.
“Last year we didn’t encourage financial contributions. This year we say it will help but it’s not necessary and we have some large donations.
West Coast Development also raised $ 10,000 from funding its regional events, Hughes said, recognizing the reputation benefit in a region that is often in the news for ridiculing the DoC and the conservationist lobby.
Every morning this week, gorsebusters head to Ōkārito Lagoon in kayaks and on inflatables to battle some of the most fragrant gorse in the country.
Retired Auckland businessman Tony Cunningham says yakka is hard but worth it.
He was inspired to sign up as gorsebuster last year after seeing a 1 News story about the event, but missed.
This year, he registered early.
“I do some volunteer work at Long Bay Regional Park in the north, but it’s different. These gorse bushes are actually trees – the largest stump is 100mm wide. “
The Gorse in Ōkārito grows along the ground, thriving among the native shrubs, and volunteers have to fight their way even as the undergrows track the tree up to its roots.
The trees are cut down and the stumps are painted with poison gel, a method that ensures the herbicide stays out of the waterways and does not kill nearby plants.
“It was really enjoyable,” Cunningham said.
“When you see the big gorse area at first, it’s scary, like a wall. But you get stuck and at the end of the day it’s gone – brilliant! ”
The weather was great this year, apart from Tuesday morning when the marquee collapsed for meals and socializing.
“We just set up breakfast in our neighbors’ garages and set up the tent in clear weather. We are a bit of No. 8 wire, but that means we are flexible, ”Hughes said.
A free concert for Christchurch working musician Adam McGrath had to be scrapped but was rescheduled as a Zoom event projected on an improvised screen made from a large white-painted board.
Hughes highly praised the efforts of the volunteers.
“They put together what we did last year and also addressed new gorse areas. It makes a real difference. Their work ethic is impressive. “
Produced in support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund