Long term volunteering on Stewart Island/ Rakiura

Department of Conservation —  29/05/2019

One of Rakiura’s long term volunteers talks about her experience and how it’s helped her understand and get involved in conservation work. 

Jess on the edge of a sand dune system at Mason Bay.

This is how you hunt weeds:

Put on your gumboots. Assemble a team of Biodiversity staff and volunteers. Select your appropriate tools, such as a hand saw and target-appropriate herbicide. Grab a GPS and turn on tracking. Line up, adjust your compass, and commence grid searching. Stare at the ground and walk in a straight line, ideally no more than five metres from the person next to you. Stop to spray or chop your target invasive species – for example, Darwin’s barberry, marram grass, hieracium, or gorse.

Walk through dense bush with chilly fingers of rain slipping down your back. Walk along the sides of sand dunes so steep they’d make a mountain goat weep, in heat that would make even Vulcan the God of Volcanoes sweat. Walk even when a startled possum leaps towards you, most likely aiming for your jugular.

Then pause and realise what an incredible place you’re in. Take in the rugged coastline stretching out before you, watch the galaxiids in the tannin-red creek, admire the kiwi snuffling in the ferns for dinner. There’s no place like here.

This way to the sand dunes!

Then keep going until your team has finished grid searching for the day. And when you’re done turn your GPS tracking off, or Phred will roll his eyes.

Weeds and the Southern hemisphere’s largest dune restoration project


This year I spent nearly three months volunteering with DOC’s Rakiura/Stewart Island Biodiversity team. I’m a fan of the environment, and I think New Zealand has some of the best stuff out there. For me, it was an amazing opportunity to get hands-on involved with conservation work and learn more about different ecosystems, how we’ve impacted them, and things we can do to help practically restore them.

Our first target was Berberis darwinii, the devious Darwin’s barberry. Barberry is mostly found around Rakiura’s township of Oban, where it was planted in gardens for its good looks and berries and began to spread. This introduced species takes over areas of forest, creating problems for native species. While work over the last 17 years has dramatically reduced its spread, it still needs attention to be kept in its place.

Most of our work, however, was supporting the Southern hemisphere’s largest sand dune restoration project. Myself and the rest of the weeds team went on three multi-day field trips around the island to battle invasive weed species that are damaging sand dune ecosystems.

Grid searching in the sand dunes, with protective gear on.

The key invasive species in the dunes is marram, a robust grass that stabilises sand. Marram was planted in the 1930s and 60s in places like Mason Bay to stabilise the ground for grazing stock, a foray into farming that was eventually abandoned. The sheep left, but the marram stayed.

Unfortunately, sand dunes are not meant to be stable. They are a dynamic buffer between the ocean and land. In their natural state they’re almost fluid, a barrier that shifts in response to the weather and helps protect against storms.

Introduced species like marram also compete with natives, like the pingao sedge that naturally grows on our dunes and the nationally-threatened plant gunnera. Bird and insect species also live in these dunes and depend on a healthy, functioning ecosystem to thrive. Kiwi and the Southern New Zealand dotterel are two rare species that live in and around the sand dunes on Rakiura.

The dune restoration project has been going since 1999, and in that 20 years massive progress has been made.

Instead of fields of marram there are just patches, and the native pingao and sand tussocks are making their comeback.

One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen was at the top of one of the dune systems at Mason Bay. We grid searched a dune system that extended 3 km inland, and found ourselves standing at the edge of a dune that suddenly dropped away, with huge sweeping views over the Freshwater flats.

I realised I was standing on top of a forest canopy. Beside my feet, emerging from the sand, were the top branches of a huge rimu. Sand was slowly trickling over the edge of the dune, engulfing the trunks, then branches, then the very top leaves, of an entire forest. This is how these dunes are meant to be.

For me, this is testimony to the incredible power of nature – but it also highlights its fragility when we introduce something that changes the way an ecosystem works.

Volunteering was awesome

I had an incredible time on Rakiura. I’ve always valued nature and conservation, but I learned so much doing field work with DOC. The team down there are incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. I also got to hang out in one of New Zealand’s most amazing places.

I spent time on Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara with its impressive bird populations, maintaining the traplines that help this pest-free island stay that way. I visited parts of Rakiura many people never visit – like Doughboy beach. I got to see animals like kiwi, saddleback, weka, sea lions, and blue cod. Most of the island is covered in native bush. It’s a place I could spend a long time.

A curious sea lion just wanted to say “hi”.

My time volunteering ended, and I did have to leave Rakiura – but it turns out I didn’t have to leave DOC. I’m now working as a Communications Advisor for the Lower North Island and I’m really happy to be here. And when I’m not working to tell DOC’s story, I’ll be out on the beaches looking for marram grass.

Relaxing on Doughboy Beach after a long day grid searching.

3 responses to Long term volunteering on Stewart Island/ Rakiura

    Honora Renwick 14/06/2019 at 10:11 pm

    It took me back to those gorgeous places. We pulled out lupins on the way to the Big Sandhill one time. Good to do our bit.

    Natasha Verspeek 31/05/2019 at 12:03 am

    What a wonderful retell of an epic project! Congratulations. I can’t wait to visit Rakiura and see the magic for myself. Much respect

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