Schools Behind Our River

Opportunity

The Ruamahanga Restoration Trust (RRT) has initiated several outdoor learning opportunities that engage local schools and community volunteers in educational hands-on conservation projects that will eventually run the length of the Wairarapa.

Group of students at a “Schools behind our river” planting day

The Ruamahanga Restoration Trust was  established to support and facilitate a number of educational outdoor environment activities, including this signature project supported by Masterton Trust House and Eastern & Central Community Trust.

‘Schools Behind Our River’ is aimed at engaging school students and the wider community in local projects that raise awareness of the importance of the Ruamahanga catchment, and to encourage school students to participate in a shared vision to protect and nourish the health of the local catchment for future generations.

As pressure mounts on our farmers over issues of climate change and water quality, so too does the need to bring rural communities closer together in realizing a common goal to protect our land and resources for future generations.

Our project engages local students to get behind the nationwide trend to embrace environmental conservation efforts. Our activities start close to home and close to our river, but we are also aware of the need to start small and expand our engagement with the community one trap — one seedling — one mind at a time.

Our long-term goal is to expand our activities along the length of the Ruamahanga and embrace the entire catchment area. While our first-year project starts in and around the Opaki area, our scope of work is aimed at benefiting all schools and communities within the wider district, and is open to all.

Project Plan 2021

Our work in 2021 will continue to engage local students in the restoration of a unique lowland forest swamp habitat in and around Rathkeale Collage on the banks of the Ruamahanga River.

The area is home to original stands of kahikatea and totara trees that pre-date European settlement — trees that are held in great esteem by Maori who once lived and traveled through the lowland podocarp forests along the Ruamahanga River. These unique and biodiverse pockets of bush and swamp are key to the long-term health of our river system and are natural habitats for a range of indigenous freshwater fish and native birds.

Our goal is to help restore and regenerate ancient spring-fed streams and forest wetland areas around Rathkeale’s existing Eco Trail — areas that in turn can be used for outdoor research and study by a range of local schools.

These biodiverse habitats provide opportunities for student-led research in conservation, land management and clean water protection. In tandem with these efforts, the trust hopes to assist and encourage students to create new methods and smart technologies with applications for sustainable farming, conservation and climate monitoring.

Our activities in 2021 will include restoration plantings that will in turn act as a food source and natural habitat for native birdlife. Cleaning the spring-fed streams will help improve an already diverse (but endangered) ecosystem for indigenous mudfish and eels - and attract native birds back into the wetland areas and shingle riverbanks.

These activities will further provide opportunities for local schools to use these wetland bush areas and riparian margins for scientific research and conservation study programs that the benefit the wider community.

Whilst primarily focused on environmental education for students within the Wairarapa catchment our activities will also engage local iwi — consulting with Maori on traditional land and water resources.

As such, we hope to make younger people aware of the historic and bio-diverse role of our waterways, mountains and lowland forests, but also to encourage students to embrace or create new technologies that help restore, protect and sustain our environment.

Project Tasks

Activities will continue to involve volunteers and students planting native flaxes and other indigenous trees and plants on public and private land, restoring pockets of native bush on farmland, planting riparian margins around creeks and rivers, and helping to restore the natural lowland forested-swamp areas linked to the existing Eco Trail site located within Rathkeale College.

Trevor Demo

By this stage we would have already completed some baseline monitoring work to determine counts for existing birdlife and native fish species, along with signs of predators, such as rats, stoats and possums.

We have factored in the need for a predator control program led by students and our project budget includes the purchase of predator traps and baits. While not expecting a predator-free zone in the short term, at least we will make a start to help achieve the broader goal of being Predator Free by 2050.

Besides predator hunting, one of our restoration tasks involves the removal of invasive weed in an areas of lowland bush and wetland swamp.  Students will not be allowed to use toxins, but they can cut and extract weeds. Adult supervisors work with bait toxins and treat invasive weed stumps with herbicides.

Students are given helpful tuition on native plant identification prior to anything being done in the wetland as this minimises the chance of misidentification of plant species when carrying out the work. Clearing out unnatural debris and deepening small pools by hand in the spring-fed areas is a key task. We can also purchase minnow traps for monitoring of native fish species.

Specialists in Predator Control and Conservation are hired to work with students, train the teachers, supervise the activities and to pass on the relevant knowledge as needed. Teachers and parent volunteers help supervise and allocate tasks according to the students age and abilities, incorporating the tasks where possible into outdoor activities and educational curriculum. Spring-fed ponds are cleaned to create deeper holes in which the native eel and other indigenous fish species can hide and breed.

Volunteers are encouraged to join us and contribute time and resources in any way they can.

Project Objectives

  1. Raise awareness among students and local community of the need to restore and protect natural wetland areas, including feeder streams through rural farmland and along the riparian margins of the Ruamahanga River.
  2. Engage local iwi in the conservation activities; to help pass on oral history and traditions regarding the local habitat and to draw attention to how the forest wetland and resources within the natural habitat along the Ruamahanga River catchment were once utilized by local Maori.
  3. Bring together students from local schools within the Wairarapa as a means to reinforce community spirit and a sense of resolve among our future generations; working together for a common cause to restore fragile ecosystems, regenerate native bush, protect endangered species, create bird corridors and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
  4. To inspire and encourage students and volunteers to create newsworthy stories for social media that are then highlighted by mentors and community leaders who acknowledge the tasks and results with praise and positive reinforcement.
  5. Provide meaningful outdoor physical activities for students that can demonstrate measurable results for the health of both students and the local ecosystem.
  6. Provide a framework in the first year from which to expand in following years to incorporate other nearby schools and areas bordering the Ruamahanga River.
  7. We aim to take the lead on local environmental issues, to engage local schools and to bring farmers, conservationists, scientists, iwi and local communities together with a common cause that benefits all.

Long Term Vision

Besides encouraging students to embrace conservation and science as a means to mitigate the effects of climate change, we also have a long-term vision that will encourage youth to take more interest and pride in their own environment –– preparing them for new responsibilities in their future career and community leadership roles.

Another long-term aim is to see a noticeable increase in native fish species and birdlife. The Trust will expand the ‘Schools Behind Our River’ project to additional sites along the full length and breadth of Ruamahanga River and to engage more community participants with the aim of creating bird corridors from Pukaha to Palliser, with fresh clean waterways embraced by sustainable farming practices: essential for creating a healthier environment for all.

‘Schools Behind The River’ is designed as a long term project with no foreseeable end.