Kiely McFarlane, Cawthron Institute
After weeks of rain and wind leading up to the trip, the Lakes380 team were extremely fortunate to enjoy calm sunny days throughout their stay in the Manawatū-Whanganui area. Travelling from the Wairarapa, Lower Hutt, and Nelson, the field team met at the edge of Pukepuke Lagoon along with several environment officers of Rangitāne o Manawatū. As we stood together in the sunshine, wondering why we hadn’t thought to bring sunscreen, Paul Horton and his team told us about Rangitāne o Manawatū’s efforts to scale up pest control and replanting around the lagoon to improve water quality and protect bird life. While Pukepuke Lagoon is now much smaller, shallower, and more prone to algal blooms than it once was, it still retains a diverse bird population including the elusive fern bird, spotless and marsh crakes, and even Australasian bitterns. Upon learning this, I could have happily gone bird watching, but we were very fortunate to have Paul – a veritable fount of local knowledge – with us for the rest of the afternoon. So, while the rest of the team paddled out to gather water and sediment samples, Charlotte Šunde and I sat down with Paul to learn more about Rangitāne o Manawatū’s historical and current relationship to lakes in the region, including Pukepuke Lagoon.
As social scientists, my and Charlotte’s key task on this trip was to interview landowners, council staff, iwi/hapū representatives, and experts on lowland lakes in the region, and to identify any useful documentary sources of information. We wanted to learn about how changes in lake characteristics related to broader changes in land use, cover, and ownership in the region, and how people’s relationships to lakes had changed over time. In particular, we were interested in how drainage works in the region reflected ideas about land and water management, and in turn shaped lake environments and their socio-cultural values. Over the course of the week Charlotte and I completed six interviews and two informal meetings with local knowledge holders, visited two local museums, and supported the natural science team in sampling some of the lakes. Or in other words, we consumed several cups of tea, were shown many family photos and other treasures, were guided through a handful of maps and two GIS databases, patted two cats and one dog, pored over personal accounts, reports, and displays on lakes in the region, travelled several hundred kilometres to visit nine lakes, captured more than eight hours of interview recordings, and cleaned the field gear countless times.
The lakes themselves were generally small, shallow, lowland lakes and lagoons situated in highly modified landscapes – either farmland or plantation forestry. Most were located on private property, with just one – Lake Wiritoa – featuring an adjoining public reserve. In two cases land in and around the lakes had recently been returned to local iwi through treaty settlement processes. Many of the lakes we sampled were dune lakes, formed by the development of huge dune systems since the last ice age, while others were oxbow lakes created through the movement of the Manawatū River – a pretty unique combination of morphologies! While some of the lakes had very little or predominantly exotic vegetation around their margins, others had benefited from the protection or regeneration of wetland species such as raupō, tī kōuka, and even kahikatea.
Our iwi and expert interviewees described the riches of the lakes and other waterbodies in this region prior to landscape conversion. Tuna (eels) were plentiful in the rivers, extensive wetlands and lakes, along with koura (freshwater crayfish) and kākahi (freshwater mussels). Indeed one interviewee described how food resources in the region were so rich that inland middens contain evidence of tiny shellfish carried inland by Māori to season their food. Lakes were particularly important mahinga kai (food gathering sites) for local hapū during times of conflict, and were sometimes deliberately stocked with kai species. Harakeke (flax) was also abundant in wetland areas, providing a key source of fibre for Māori and later becoming the centre of New Zealand’s flax milling industry. However, following the government’s purchase of huge tracts of Māori land in the 1860s, the forest was cleared and much of the wetlands and lakes drained to convert lowland areas to pasture. The consequences of this mass drainage works are evident today, with many lakes a fraction of their previous size. Pukepuke Lagoon for instance was once 160ha in size but now occupies just 15ha, sometimes drying out completely in summer droughts. The sight of open ditches draining into and out of lakes was a frequent occurrence throughout the field trip, with one particularly innovative landowner digging a tunnel through a bank to allow the lake to drain into the next valley when water levels are high (pictured below). In addition to changing the size and hydrology of lake environments, drainage systems were also noted to affect the water quality and ecology of lakes in the region, with weirs and perched culverts creating barriers to fish passage.
We were lucky enough to speak to several landowners and occupiers at the lakes we sampled. Many of these individuals had long (and large!) family histories in the region – one interviewee was a 7th generation farmer whose great great grandparents had had 17 children. Consequently, family connections were a key way in which some interviewees related to lakes, providing a source of childhood memories and a site for family gatherings. At several lakes we sampled, holiday homes had been built alongside the lake to enable friends and family members to visit. These families had often also undertaken work to fence and replant the lake margins with native species. Maimai (hides) constructed alongside or in most lakes we visited highlighted another key way that locals relate to lakes in the region – duck shooting. One landowner had erected more than 10 maimai alongside a lake on his property – which he described as providing the best duck shooting in the area. Every year he invited family, friends, and clients down to the lake for opening weekend. However, as one landowner noted, degraded water quality is impacting the perceived value of duck hunting for some lakes.
Other recreational activities popular on lakes in the area included swimming, water skiing, and boating, with pontoons, ramps, buoys, and jetties dotting the larger lakes. Both Lake Wiritoa and Lake Dudding have popular campsites situated along their margins. However, degraded water quality is also impacting participation in these activities, with algal blooms and bacterial contamination sometimes resulting in ‘no swim’ warnings.
Overall, the trip was a success for all involved, with the field team collecting cores and water samples from 11 lakes, and the social science team making significant headway into their research on the history and contemporary use of lowland lakes in the region. Further, the field trip provided important opportunities to reconnect with Lakes380 friends and research partners, and develop new relationships with landowners, council staff and iwi in the region. Charlotte and I look forward to returning soon (Covid-19 allowing!) to add to the stories gathered so far!