Restoring the mana, mauri and health of Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere

Department of Conservation —  22/10/2023 — 2 Comments

By Nicholas Griffin, Mahaanui District Ranger

This story begins with a problem and a dream.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is the fifth largest lake in Aotearoa with some of the greatest diversity of wading birds in the country. Unfortunately, based on a 2010 report, it is also the second most polluted.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. 📷: Te Waihora Co-Governance Group

It’s also significant in Canterbury as the largest area of public conservation land (3000 hectares) on the agriculturally dominated Canterbury Plains.

On the edge of the lake would have once stood an expansive kahikatea wetland forest, as well as raupo reeds and areas of tōtara forest in the dryer parts.

However, these native plants had been decimated, and invasive species had since taken root. Introduced weeds such as willows crowded out the native vegetation and formed dense forests that destroyed habitat for native birds, such as the endangered bittern/matuku-hurepo.

Members of our team and Motukarara Nursery lakeside. 📷: DOC

For years, work was done to combat the infestations of invasive plant species, but insufficient resources meant the outlook for the the remnant native plants looked bleak. Fortunately a Te Waihora Co-Governance Agreement was created in 2012, bringing together Ngāi Tahu, Environment Canterbury, Selwyn District Council, Christchurch City Council and DOC with the dream to “restore and rejuvenate the mana, mauri and ecosystem health of Te Waihora and its catchment”.

Members of the team drilling grey willow at Te Waihora 📷: DOC

Initially, the Weed Strikeforce Project started in 2018 with the mission to eliminate grey willow and other high-priority weeds around the margin of Te Waihora. DOC led this mission with funding from Environment Canterbury, focused on removing weeds from both public and private land in the area.

The initial team comprised of a fencer and a comedian, followed by a baker. Thus, Weed Strike Force was born. Together, this motley crew worked tirelessly to push back the ocean of willow and other weeds that faced them, wherever we could find them.

Then Ministry of Primary Industries funded the planting of 100,000 native trees as part of the 1 Billion Trees Project. This project aligned perfectly and complemented the work already being undertaken by the Weed Strike Force. This funding allowed us to replace areas of large scale weed control with native plantings, and to get ahead of the game by planting out recently retired agricultural land.

Member of the team planting at Te Waihora 📷: DOC

Things looked to be going smoothly for a while, we were managing to eliminate large infestations of willows and add some resilience to weed invasion by reestablishing areas of wetland forest around the margin, with our plantings. Then came the year 2020, and like everyone else, not everything went to plan.

As the comedian often quipped, “our shovels aren’t long enough to reach the lake from home”. Our mahi was brought to a standstill. Our planting ceased and the weeds continued their unending march. However, as the saying goes, there is a light at the end of every tunnel, and our light was called Jobs for Nature.

After a successful application, the project was bestowed the name Kahuria Te Waihora from Te Taumutu Runanga. The name means “to dress Waihora”. Jobs for Nature allowed Weed Strike Force to not only continue, but to greatly expand our scope. Doubling our team’s size, adding another 250,000 trees over three years and allowing us to expand on the scope of our work around the lake, including extensive trap lines around the lake margin.

This is how we’ve operated for the last three years. Working away, removing willow, planting trees, and trapping animal pests around Te Waihora. Saying goodbye to a few friends, and then finding more. From the inception of this project, the work has been collaborative.

More people have helped in this project then I could possibly name. From the other DOC staff at Mahaanui helping with that pesky paperwork or team work days, local farmers, Te Ara Atawhai (a training programme created in partnership between DOC and the Ministry of Social Development), conservation groups, school plant out days and an extraordinary amount of volunteer hours. Not to mention our fabulous team at the Motukarara Nursery for all their support in providing ecologically sourced plants.

Now our project is in its twilight. So far 260,000 trees have been planted (on track for 350,000 by the projects end date) with 70 hectares of lake margin land planted in forest and around 700 hectares of weed control completed annually. Work has happened on a massive scale right around the lake margins and its tributaries, enabling indigenous forest corridors to begin linking up and adding further resilience to the whole Te Waihora ecology.

Lakeside Wildlife Management Reserve, with a controlled willow forest surrounded by native plantings

There is still work left to do, but with Jobs for Nature coming to an end, so is Kahuria Te Waihora. Hopefully, the legacy of this project will live on and maybe one day, the lake will return to its former glory as Te Kete Ika o Rākaihautū.

Watch Te Waihora on 1 News:

Mass planting underway around Canterbury lake’s neglected shoreline – 20/10/23

2 responses to Restoring the mana, mauri and health of Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere


    It has been great to watch you carry on and expand the work and methods developed by the Waihora Ellesmere Trust and others from the noughties, and deliver on the co-management agreement between DoC and Ngai Tahu from the nineties. Yours is another step along the journey. I must pick you up though on your disparaging description of willows as weeds. The NZ Government sank a lot of money into developing willows (and poplars) for soil conservation work (and has been, perhaps, too successful). That the willow population around Lake Ellesmere has gone well beyond what it should have does not mean the species should be disparaged – it is a magnificent species that has done all that has ever been asked of it. It wan’t that long ago that many native species were considered weeds…

    Anita Spencer 24/10/2023 at 9:49 am

    You will leave an incredible legacy. The transformation of the areas you work at has been phenomenal. Let’s hope it can somehow continue

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