Forest indicators warn of a challenging 2019

Drought, fires and difficult days for stock may be at hand if traditional Māori botanical indicators are to be believed. Ti kauka, or cabbage trees, in the Maungataniwha Native Forest in inland Hawke’s Bay are among several species to be flowering unusually prolifically or early this year, an event understood to forecast a long, hot, dry summer.

The unusual density of flowering species this year is both encouraging and daunting for the conservationists of the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust (FLRT). It’s visual confirmation of the success of recent predator control efforts but also signals that there will be an abundance of nourishment for predators next winter, helping to fuel an invasion of unwanted ‘critters’ in the Spring of 2019.

Peraxilla tetrapetala, or red mistletoe, is one of the species that is flowering unusually early. It is known in te reo as pikirangi, pirirangi or roeroe. It is a parasitic shrub up to one metre tall with smooth leaves which normally only flowers around Christmas time. Numbers have increased markedly at Maungataniwha since possum control started and the forest floor is already littered with their flowers below the host trees.

The rate and critically-endangered kakabeak, or ngutukaka, flowered for longer this Spring than in a typical year. The plants at Maungataniwha produced exceptionally good seed-sets this year.

Flowering about as heavily as FLRT staff have ever seen was red beech, a key driver in ‘beech mast events’ where high levels of seed production cause an explosion in the population of rodents and stoats.

Elaeocarpus dentatus, or hinau – also known in te reo as hangehange or whīnau – also flowered heavily. It is common at Maungataniwha and has plump berries during the winter which can escalate rat numbers through the colder months into Spring. This is the point at which the rats then cause carnage among native birds that are breeding.

The natural signs this year are a real mix of good and bad news,” said Pete Shaw, the Trust’s forest manager. “Above all, I think, they tell of challenging days to come.”

The FLRT is fast carving out a name for itself as one of the most prolific and successful kiwi conservation initiatives in the country.

In addition to the Maungataniwha Kiwi Project the Trust runs a series of native flora and fauna regeneration projects. These include a drive to increase the wild-grown population of Kakabeak (Clianthus maximus), an extremely rare type of shrub, and the re-establishment of native plants and forest on 4,000 hectares currently, or until recently, under pine.

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