June 2022 newsletter:  AGM at new venue; Farewell to a founder

Friends of Maara Roa (FMR): 22 years bringing biodiversity back to the Cannons Creek catchment

Working bees are every fine Saturday; meet at 9.30 am in the carpark at the back of Porirua College.  The nursery group meets every Thursday from 10 am to noon, in the grounds of Aotea College in Okowai Road. Website: www.maararoa.org.nz

  • AGM at new venue
  • Subscriptions due
  • Farewell to Sylvia Jenkin
  • Planting progress
  • Restoring the Long Garden
opening a new track
Sylvia Jenkin looks on as fellow Friends of Maara Roa founder Neil Bellingham cuts the ribbon opening a new track designed to increase public access to Maara Roa by providing a circular walk around the planting area.  Photo: Jenkin family.

AGM July 11 at new venue

Monday July 11 is the date for the 22nd Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Maara Roa (Inc).

The meeting starts at the usual time of 7.30 and includes the usual supper, but it will be held at a new venue in central Porirua – rooms attached to the office of Mana MP Barbara Edmonds at 12 Hagley Street.  There is ample parking around the building. 

Guest speaker Andrew Jinks from Porirua City Council Nursery will talk about “Rediscovering the Swamp Maire” which is one of our rarest plants.

Subscriptions due

A reminder that annual subscriptions are now due and can be paid directly to our Westpac Bank Porirua Branch account which is 03 0547 0381329 00.  Subscriptions are still $20 a person or $30 a couple. Please give your surname as a reference for payments made by direct debit.  You can also pay our treasurer Keith Nicoll at the AGM.

Farewell to Maara Roa founder Sylvia Jenkin

May brought the sad news that the Reverend Sylvia Jenkin, a driving force behind the establishment of The Friends of Maara Roa Inc, had passed away at the age of 91. Her long life took her to many parts of New Zealand as well as to Canada, and her religious calling, as a deaconess and then minister of the Presbyterian Church took her to the West Coast, to Kawerau, and twice to Porirua. She bought her home in Leicester Street, overlooking what was then a gorse-filled gully surrounding Cannons Creek. In retirement she took a leading role in setting up The Friends of Maara Roa Inc.  As co-ordinator for the first 12 years she was involved in every aspect of the operation and as she herself said, “was the name people knew” as the contact for FMR with as many inquiries to her own letterbox as to the official one. 

At their June meeting, FMR committee chairman Sef Truyens formally recorded the group’s gratitude to Sylvia Jenkin for the “energy, enthusiasm, and strategic commitment she put into the establishment and ongoing development of Maara Roa”.

Sylvia was farewelled at the Tawa Union Church, one of the officiating ministers being Tony Wood who she had mentored at the start of his career.  The extent of her impact showed from the various tributes which included a beautiful four-part harmony song from her former neighbours.  Long-time FMR member Brenda Johnston paid a personal tribute and spoke on behalf of chairman Sef Truyens. Other speakers with links to FMR included Jonathan Boyes, Jeff Chapman, and Lisa Webber who read a letter from the French agronomy students who visited in 2007.  Forest and Bird magazine will publish an obituary for Sylvia Jenkin, winner of their coveted Old Blue Award, in September.  See also Restoring the Long Garden, below.

Planting progress – in with the good, out with the pests

The 2022 planting season started in May, helped along by some welcome rainfall and prompt deliveries to the site by John the ranger. We appreciate the assistance given by Steve Barnsley’s students from Porirua College, and Murray Shearer’s Praxis Group and church colleagues. These plants start the revegetation of our highest planting point, “Glenys’s Seat”.

A lot of good work has also been done by Mel Tyson, Royce Johnston, Julie Daly and Keith Nicoll to keep pest plants like gorse and blackberry under control – and we welcome ranger John with his blackberry extermination bar.

Restoring the Long Garden

This article was originally prepared for and published in the Kapiti Forest and Bird newsletter. It was completed as news came through of Sylvia Jenkin’s death so also serves as a tribute to a person who was literally the heart and soul of Maara Roa.

Drivers using the Te Ara o Toa bridge on the newly opened Transmission Gully Motorway can get a glimpse of the Long Garden – Te Maara Roa – where 22 years of extensive plantings have restored the once scrub-covered middle section of Cannons Creek.

By the end of this year, the volunteer Friends of Maara Roa (FMR) will have planted some 90,000 native trees between the bridge and the Cannons Creek Lake Reserve.

FMR, incorporated in June 2000, grew from the Cannons Creek Valley Protection Group, formed in the late 1990s by a group of mainly Porirua East residents. They were alarmed by frequent fires on the gorse-covered hillsides and concerned at the neglect of an area earlier known as Te Awa-Iti, the site of healing springs where a woman named Te Hine Awhinanui had cultivated gardens. The once bush-clad hills were cleared by sawmiller William Cannon, and the springs were buried during the development of land to build Porirua City in the 1950s and 1960s.

 Transmission Gully can be seen – and heard – at the far end of this May 2022 view along the Cannons Creek Valley from “The Volcano” lookout in Maara Roa.  Photo: Janet Tyson

Four people have been honoured on a memorial seat as founders of FMR, as well as through other conservation awards: Retired Presbyterian minister Sylvia Jenkin (Wellingtonian of the year in 2006); Neil and Juliet Bellingham, teachers at Porirua College, and John Hodges, a teacher at Brandon Intermediate where he had for over 20 years worked with pupils to beautify the Lake Reserve area behind Cannons Creek shops.

Besides the “founders” over 200 other people, from Porirua and further afield, have contributed to the restoration of Maara Roa – among them members of Kapiti Forest and Bird – and including members of the Friends of Belmont Regional Park (FOBRP), formed in 2001 for the eastern side of the park.  Church groups and corporates have taken part in planting days, some like the Honda Motor Company and the department of Corrections having sites named for them.  The Greater Wellington Regional Council and its rangers have been a constant source of support and advice, as well as funding.

Four of the current committee have been members since the earliest days: chairman Sef Truyens, Treasurer Keith Nicoll, Paul Guiniven and Brenda Johnston. Their involvement over the years ranges from pest control to guiding walks, supervising volunteers and ordering and locating plants. Each week they can still be found working at tree care or planting, or at the nursery.

Maara Roa as a project quickly captured the public imagination, with people volunteering to collect and raise seeds in their own homes, help with gorse clearance and planting, and service the 56 possum bait stations. Baseline surveys were carried out for plants and bird life.  Ten local schools were invited to Adopt a Spot to be planted.   A 20-year plan for staged revegetation was developed: in the first two years, some 3000 young trees, from a variety of sources, were planted. 

Then came heartbreak.  In March 2003 a deliberately lit fire swept across the planting area and surrounding gorse, leaving only a few of the existing tawa trees standing.

Aftermath of the fire. Photo: Sylvia Jenkin. At right: The same spot in 2019. Photo: Mel Tyson

This setback served to spur on the volunteers and the range of activities increased, as great efforts went in to clearing away the burned scrub.  A Trees for Survival nursery was set up at Porirua College.

Numbers getting to know the site through guided walks increased and new tracks were created.  “Human birds”, using tennis rackets, hit balls of seed encased in potting mix and fertiliser seed into inaccessible sites.  Increased efforts went into ways to combat rabbits.

 John Hodges introduced the idea of green firebreaks, where trackside plants were chosen for their resistance to fire. 

From the outset, the FMR vision was to retain public access to the restored land for “quiet enjoyment”, with the long-term plan for a green corridor linking the east and west side of Belmont Regional Park, and thereby to an established chain of eco-corridors across the Hutt Valley. This was threatened by the likely sale of Landcorp’s farmland, with the potential of housing development and even the possibility of a windfarm.   In 2004, Sylvia Jenkin prepared the strategy to campaign for purchase of the land.

In March 2005, 11,500 people signed the petition launched by FMR and FOBRP “praying that Greater Wellington Regional Council secure into public ownership for the purpose of conservation and recreation that part of Belmont Regional Park currently owned outright by Landcorp and known as Waitangirua Farm.” In August that year, government agreed to purchase the land for $6.27 million, with contributions from Greater Wellington ($2.8 million) and Porirua City Council ($335,000). Landcorp continued farming as leaseholder.

FMR and FOBRP now turned their efforts to having the land gazetted for protection in perpetuity, as scenic reserve.  Renewed efforts went to protect the catchment from flooding and other degradation, and discussions to progress the “green corridor” for wildlife across the park.

In November 2003, a group of volunteers take a tea break after planting up the area cleared after the devastating fire. They are sitting in the area known as “The Beams” because the seats are made from the beams of an old bridge.  The seats are still there, but tall trees now form the backdrop. Photos: Sylvia Jenkin

Compare the open scene with this picture of the Beams in 2017. Kathy and Mike Peers, members of FMR from the first days, are pictured with Des Drummond, a long-time member still busy at the nursery today. Photo: Mel Tyson
Flourishing rimu trees, planted in 2007 by two French agronomy students who spent a season with the Friends of Maara Roa, hosted by Des and Libby Drummond. Photo (May 2022) Paul Guiniven

By 2010, when FMR celebrated 10 years of existence at Kowhai Grove, planting was at a rate of 5-6000 trees a year, and the first bellbird was heard.  Bird numbers were rapidly increasing thanks to effective pest control, and kereru were nesting.  Heritage trees – kahikatea, kohekohe, matai and rimu, first planted in 2007 were becoming established.

Further good news came with a final decision on the route for Transmission Gully – to save $275million and reduce impact on the environment, there would no longer be an interchange from Takapu Road down to Warspite Avenue, the effects of which had been a concern to FMR.

These were the heydays of volunteer activity at FMR, with new active members like Des and Libby Drummond, Kim Livingstone, Jonathan Boyes and Mel Tyson joining the group, and longtime pest controllers like Adrienne and the late John Gibbs and Glenys Evans maintaining the bait stations.

In more recent years, numbers have fallen away but the core of volunteers – now including Julie Daly and supported by a strong nursery team – has managed to maintain plantings of up to 2500 a year. In 2018, with the original 100 ha fully planted, activity moved east to the area behind Porirua College. A remote-control mulcher made short work of clearing a site that was quickly named The Golden Hectare and now almost fully planted, with help from groups including Porirua College and Caritas.

Figure 1 In 2018, first plantings at the Golden Hectare, newly cleared by remote control mulcher. Photo: Mel Tyson

Further clearance has opened another large area of land. However, most of the planting here will be done by contractors. With a maximum of six members active at weekly working bees, their efforts are needed for weeding and other tree care.  With the team at the nursery (at Aotea College since 2012) also getting on in years, their work will scale back too.  With Community Environment Funding, a protective wall of self-resetting traps has been put in place against rats and stoats, and more recently possums. Most bait stations are hard to access so only one is still being serviced.

Like every volunteer organisation, FMR would like to attract more young and active members.  There is still plenty to do but it is maintenance rather than the more glamorous work of planting.   They watch with interest – ready to advise from their practical experience – what will develop now that grazing has ended at Waitangirua Farm.  New access points will be developed and Ngahere Korowai has some bold plans, including the revival of the idea of a green corridor across the hills.  In another 12 months, there will be new access points under the motorway, and the southern entrance to Maara Roa from Takapu Road, cut off for 8 years, will be reconnected.

This is a very brief version of the story of Maara Roa and some of the many people who were key to its 22 years of development.  To read more about current activities go to the website www.maarararoa.org.nz, and to see past activities, click on Archives at the bottom of the home page for a treasure trove of historic photos, and news clippings. 

If you have any memories or photos of the earlier days of the Friends of Maara Roa, please contact jmtyson@xtra.co.nz.

The vista from the lookout site locally known as “The Volcano” in 2019 is a valley of trees. Photo: Janet Tyson Transmission Gully construction is in the background in 2019 as Brenda Johnston surveys FMR planting.

The Friends of Maara Roa (Inc) is supported by Greater Wellington Regional Council. We work to the 20-year Belmont Regional Park Cannons Creek Forest Restoration Plan. Our next committee meeting will be on Tuesday 26 July 2022. Contact Sef s-v.truyens@xtra.co.nz  or 04 234 7747 if you would like to come along.