Celia Walker’s career path, like many, has taken intricate twists and turns. Following a PhD in art history and a career as a museum professional, she has recently taken on the role of pest-free coordinator for the Restoring Takarunga Hauraki project. This is an ambitious project that aims for the Devonport peninsula, and in particular Ngataringa and Shoal Bay, to be a safe haven for native birds and plants.
Once you meet Celia, it’s clear that her move from museums to a small office on the top of Maungaika North Head is not without logic, and allows her to combine her artistic and ecological passions. Her interest in art history centred on landscape and travel, and as a practising artist her printmaking has exhibited (literally and figuratively) cartographic imagery. In her profile as a member of the Studio Printmakers’ Collective she describes her printmaking as “following interests in landscape and mapping”.
“I am passionate about environment and ecology,” she adds, “and these elements feature strongly in my work.”
Until she took up her role at Restoring Takarunga Hauraki (RTH), that passion had been followed through “lots of volunteer work”, including with Forest and Bird in its work in the Tuff Crater restoration project in Northcote, and with a private kiwi sanctuary in Northland. Her volunteer work and increasing interest in environmental issues led to her doing a graduate diploma in Environmental Science “in the hope of turning my passion for conservation and landscape management into a career”.
Celia had also attended meetings of the Devonport Environmental Network taking place over the last couple of years. These meetings identified the need for a paid coordinator to pull together the strands of activity happening among environmental groups and individuals, and to create stronger links with those working in biodiversity in Auckland Council, DoC and other commercial and recreational organisations. Members of the group also developed a comprehensive strategy designed to guide the multifarious pest management and restoration activities in the Devonport, Ngataringa and Shoal Bay areas.organisations.
The Local Board has provided funding for the role until the middle of next year. Not long, in the context of a project with a 50-year time frame, but Celia is confident her work will continue. “And DoC [Department of Conservation] kindly provided office space, and that’s great, because we’re here and can work with DoC which is doing a pest-free project on North Head.”
Before Celia started, work was already under way. Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei had donated 1500 rat traps for to anyone living on the Hauraki to Devonport peninsula, an informational website (www.norats.org) was been set up, and, says Celia, “there is also a website that has been set up by a Devonport local for individuals to record their rat catches, www.ratproject.org, and some stats for our project can be found there”. Celia also posts regularly on the Facebook group, Restoring Takarunga Hauraki.
Part of Celia’s role has been to ensure distribution of the 350-400 remaining traps. She’s concentrating her efforts around Hauraki, where there are bait lines (set and checked by volunteers) around the Shoal Bay foreshore and a need to support this activity with rat trapping on land.
“We’re aiming to be predator-free by 2050,” she says. While rats are far from the only predators, the RTH emphasis for now is on rats. “For it to really work we would have to cover more than the peninsula, but if we get rats below 5% of what they are now, we would see better insect and bird life around the area.”
The RTH vision is that “Devonport, including Ngataringa and Shoal Bay, is recognised as a unique ecological treasure, a healthy marine and terrestrial environment where shore birds and marine birds thrive, migratory species find refuge and native birds are abundant….”. RTH aims to engage the community so that community members “respect and value the natural environment and people of all ages actively and collectively participate in pest management and restoration activities in our forests, gardens and green spaces, protecting and enhancing the local landscape and abundant wild life”.
The peninsula is significant in this respect because it is part of Auckland’s Wildlink connection, an ecological corridor between the gulf islands (many already predator-free) and the Hunua and Waitākere Ranges. It is also home to a number of “vulnerable”, “at risk” or “recovering” species, including northern New Zealand dotterel and banded dotterel, red-billed gulls, banded rail, reef heron and three species of shag, to name just a few.
“It’s exciting,” says Celia. “It’s amazing how people are getting on board and realising that if you do your bit in your back yard, it impacts on the whole area.”
Once the rat traps are all distributed and more people are motivated to record their rat catches, the next step is to encourage people to plant natives in their gardens – and she’d love to get stuck into weed pests, which she is “particularly agitated” about.
“That’s what got me into this,” she says, reeling off a long list of distressingly common garden plants that simply smother New Zealand natives once they seed in parks and bush areas. But that’s perhaps for another story.
In the meantime, Celia’s planning Arbour Day activities and a plant giveaway next year as well as getting community members and schools involved in planting projects. Already some schools have taken the project on board – Devonport Primary has just completed a series of activities around rats on Mount Victoria, Bayswater School is actively involved with Paddy’s Bush and work on shore birds, while many of the peninsula schools have been engaged through beach clean-ups this year.
Celia suggests rengarenga instead of agapanthus, and planting other natives to attract kereru, tui, bellbirds, and even kaka: kowhai, flax, puriri (if you have space), and kakabeak (ngutukākā) for nectar feeding birds, though we laugh about the kakabeak’s susceptibility to snails, and the amount of snail bait that might be needed for kakabeak to thrive.
Once these and other natives are established in sufficient numbers it’s entirely possible that birds now abundant on the Hauraki Gulf islands will naturally cross the harbour to Devonport and beyond, and thrive in a predator-free environment.
“We’re aiming to get there bit by bit,” she says. She works part-time, and is realistic about what can be achieved. But she’s confident that once all the traps are given away, she can shift her focus to other activities and that much can be done. “Our main concern is to keep people interested. We want to make sure people don’t just put a rat trap out for a week and then forget about it. It is a long-term thing.”
Auckland Council has a “best-practice” approach to rat trapping in parks, that involves pulsing – baiting traps one month in three. Celia’s aiming to emulate that by implementing events every three months or so to keep people interested.
She wants to make pest control part of “what people do, like putting out the recycling”. She also hopes to “create more community networks so people take charge of their own area”. To that end, she is looking at alignments with Community Support networks. And she’d like to encourage individuals with a passion for a particular environmental project or area to get in touch so that their work becomes part of a coordinated whole that encompasses and impacts on the entire peninsula. “I can help people work in with other people and projects. And if people have neighbourhood networks it would be great if they’d start thinking about the environment in that context.”
For more information about Restoring Takarunga Hauraki join the Facebook group or visit www.norats.org