Schools Behind Our River

Solway Primary students with banner

Schools Behind Our River was launched in 2020 by the Ruamahanga Restoration Trust as an outdoor learning opportunity for school students to be involved with hands-on conservation projects that connect local communities with their river system and the region’s environmental heritage.

In 2021, funding support from One Foundation, Eastern & Central Community Trust, Masterton Trust House, and individual donors added up to help the Ruamahanga Restoration Trust achieve the following deliverables:

  • provided nine schools with thousands of native seedlings for restoration plantings
  • sponsored a House of Science Water Analysis Kit for use by local primary schools
  • purchased and distributed 20 copies of ‘New Zealand Nature Heroes’ activity books
  • purchased and assemble six tracking and tracking kits for distribution to local schools
  • purchased 108 eDNA multispecies test kits for distribution to schools and farmers
  • supported a field trip with students from Kura Kaupapa o Wairarapa and Mākoura
  • After two years, our role is already bearing fruit.

School pupils planting a native tree

For our part, the Trust contributes and coordinates manpower, equipment resources, and product support to schools that have teachers and classrooms willing to get involved. We also support and engage local contractors and environmental consultants who advise us on flora and fauna, predator trapping, restoration planting sites, and early Maori history.

Funding supports the purchase of monitoring equipment, predator traps, native seedlings, local transport, outdoor tools, school science kits, and smart technologies that help engage students in monitoring, trapping, plantings, data collection, and media communications.

Our long-term goal is to expand our activities to include all schools and to help create a corridor of native bush that embraces the length of the Ruamahanga River as a flight path for birds from the Tararuas to Rathkeale and onwards to Kawakawa Palliser Bay.

Overall, our scope of work is aimed at benefiting all schools and communities within the wider district, reaching rivers, creeks, and nearby wetlands, linking farms and local schools.

Pirinoa School students learning about water quality testing.

The Ruamahanga Restoration Trust operates as a not-for-profit charity. Our funding aims to support local contractors, schools, small businesses, and local iwi within the Wairarapa with the goal to create new jobs and career opportunities in conservation, water management, predator control, restoration plantings, environmental sciences, and regenerative farming.

Long term, our funding hopes to inspire innovation and engagement that helps our farmers, our community, and future generations.

Mauriceville School students with banner

Project Plan 2022

Local teachers, contractors, iwi, government agencies, and environmentalists all agree on the need for someone to help develop and manage activities that support teachers, students, and community volunteers.

To move this forward, the Trust has created an eight-step plan:

Eight Steps Forward

  1. Support local schools with an Environmental Restoration Prize
  2. Sponsor Water Analysis and eDNA kits for local schools
  3. Support schools with predator tracking and trapping equipment kits
  4. Purchase native seedlings for restoration plantings on public and private land
  5. Engage students and community groups on special days., eg. "Restoration Day"
  6. Support field trips that connect concepts of tiakitanga and whanaungatanga
  7. Link and manage community activities with local businesses, iwi, and schools
  8. Help source jobs and environment-related career paths for school leavers

Contents of Predator Kits supplied to schools

How This Works:

Environment Restoration Awards

The Trust has initiated a special scheme to provide participating schools — primary and secondary — with a unique hand-made Environmental Restoration Award Trophy that each school can to award to a senior student who best demonstrates commitment and leadership around environmental conservation, restoration, or innovation.

The award can acknowledge a student’s work and service in several areas including media communications, data collection, trapping, planting, product design, or general volunteering work. The award will be retained by the school and awarded at each prize giving, with the trophy winners from each school acknowledged in a media release issued by the Trust at the end of each school year.

It is hoped that the award will inspire students — particularly environment prefects — around workable goals and activities, both curricular and non-curricular. The aim is to offer practical solutions that engage students and equip them with the knowledge required for sharing their know-how and enthusiasm with other students, and to help inspire career path opportunities.

Science-Based Testing Kits

The Trust will continue to support and encourage the use of scientific methodology and analytical processes within schools to help encourage student curiosity and interest around challenges related to monitoring and recording local flora and fauna, including freshwater quality, soil health, biodiversity, and other farming-related data related to climate change and sustainable farming practices.

We believe that encouraging students to embrace the sciences will help prepare them for future challenges and new opportunities in agriculture and environment-related careers.

Wilderlab eDNA Kit

By sponsoring the House of Science Water Analysis Kits and by purchasing and distributing WilderLab eDNA testing kits, the Trust will gain better access to the teachers and students, making them more aware of our role in helping them develop a passion and reason for working together on conservation and restoration for the greater good of our community and environment.

In addition to providing direct access to students about their own relevant needs and concerns, our sponsorship also aims to encourage schools and users to upload water testing data from streams and rivers across the Wairarapa for sharing across the wider public network, including DOC and the Greater Wellington District Council.

Trevor Thompson demonstrating how to plabnt native trees

Tracking & Trapping

In 2021, the Trust purchased materials and supplies for six predator tracking and trapping kits for distribution to local schools. Valued at $1000 each, each kit includes a set of safety instructions and manuals prepared by the Pukaha Wildlife Centre and EnviroSchools Wairarapa, who together provide workshop induction training and distribution.

By creating our own tracking and trapping kits for schools, we not only hope to raise awareness around the need for pest control and predator trapping but also to help monitor and measure the presence of native birds and other endangered species, including lizards.  Seeing what’s out there with the help of pre-inked tracking cards, chew cards, and trail cameras always ignite the student’s enthusiasm.

In this regard, the Trust hopes to supply as many schools as possible with the resources needed to fund and implement monitoring and trapping programs. These activities are all conducted as part of the school curriculum and offer a holistic approach to study, addressing the need for data analysis, documentation, pest eradication and wildlife protection.

Restoration Projects

Our restoration work in 2022 continues to support local schools establishing their own pockets of native bush and it continues to engage students in the restoration of unique lowland forest swamps and regrowth on the Rathkeale College Eco-Trail, where a number of spring-fed creeks feed into the Ruamahanga River providing a biodiverse habitat for indigenous fish species and serving as a protective forest canopy for native birds.

The Eco-Trail is home to original stands of ancient kahikatea and totara that pre-date European settlement — trees that are held in great esteem by Maori who once lived in the area. Ancestral stories and local Maori heritage are equally important to our understanding of the area’s importance. These unique and biodiverse pockets of bush and wetland 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 aim is to continue our work on this special Eco-Trail site at Rathkeale — including the restoration of two disused sewage-treatment ponds — as areas of environmental heritage significance that a range of schools can visit to conduct outdoor field research of their own.

The ponds are part of our restoration planting plan in 2022 with the goal to plant some 2,000 flax and carex grasses along the inner rim of the ponds as a means to attract aquatic birdlife and provide nesting opportunities and protective shade for birdlife and fish species such as short and long fen eel, bullies and mudfish.  This will be the first time that the ponds have been planted in 50 years and the project is a key step in helping establish the grounds as an open wildlife sanctuary for native birds on the corridor from Pukaha Mt Bruce. 

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

Our long-term plan extends to restoration planting areas of unproductive land between Rathkeale College and Mt Bruce as part of a goal to create pockets of native bush that when linked together form protective native bush corridors for birds from the Tararua Ranges and Pukaha, in the same way Zealandia has encouraged the return of many bird species to Wellington.      

We value and respect that all schools have a choice as to where and why they would like to plant native trees. In some cases, the schools may choose to plant public reserves or riparian strips on private farmland. Every location helps serve a purpose.

2022 will see the Trust continue to focus on predator trapping and plantings within habitats that provide opportunities for student-led research in conservation, land management and clean water protection. In tandem with these efforts, the trust hopes to encourage students to create their own new methods of study, to make their own discoveries, and create their own career paths.

Students planting native trees.

Special Event Days

Where possible, our fundraising activities will also support participation in special event days, such Restoration Day, Moana Wetlands Discovery Day, World Fish Migration Day, Arbor Day, and Conservation Week, etc.  Support will be offered to those activities planned or promoted by community groups, such as WP2K, Sustainable Wairarapa, or the Aorangi Restoration Trust, along with any school activity that requests our support.

Field trip to the Upper Ruamahanga River

Field Trips

Te Ao Māori recognizes the need to consider the connectedness of all things including the past, present and future. In considering how our future and our community could be impacted by climate change transitions we must consider where we have come from, as well as the wellbeing of current and future generations. This means we must take an inclusive approach to understand our place and our heritage over time.

The Trust organizes or helps fund field trips that support the concept of tiakitanga — being a good guardian or steward of the land and waterways — for the wellbeing of current and future generations of New Zealanders.

In consultation and with the participation of local iwi, we will develop or support field trip activities that invite teachers and students on field trips to natural heritage or historical sites connected to the Ruamahanga — or its tributaries — to help students understand how and why early Maori chose particular sites and how they worked with the land and its resources.  This also helps address the values of whanaungatanga – being mindful of the relationship between all things, our connections to each other and how we connect to our land and manaakitanga – having a deep ethic of care towards people and the whenua , acknowledging their role in the ecosystem, and how they could be affected by future outcomes.

In this respect the Trust will liaise closely with local iwi to ensure the right decision makers are involved in the right decision-making process (tikanga), working collaboratively and inclusively to access the best ideas and information with collective effort (kotahitanga)

In 2021, the Trust supported a field trip organized by organised by Mokomoko CCEM Program Coordinator, Sam Ludden. With the help of several teachers, Sam led a group of year 8 & 9 students from Kura Kaupapa o Wairarapa and Mākoura College on a river walk along the upper reaches of the Ruamahanga River. The trip was a highlight of the year for the Mokomoko program and turned out to be a real treat for the students, many of who had never connected with their awa in this way.

In 2022, the Trust plans to continue working with Mokomoko with the aim to visit a number of sites and places of interest that provide stories about early Maori presence along the Ruamahanga and its tributaries. This includes everything from acquiring knowledge about early Maori and their use of available flora and fauna, to knowledge about archeological sites and local geology, to the study of native birdlife, fish species and tree species found in the area. Each field trips will consist of between 8-20 students, plus one iwi representative and a conservation expert or local historian for insight and knowledge about the area and environment.

As such, we hope to make younger people more aware of the historical and traditional uses around our local environmental heritage; to learn and understand the sustainable use of waterways and lowland forests, but also to share their own stories in a way that helps others appreciate the need to restore, protect and sustain our environment.

Project Management

Discussions with a number of people have indicated a need for project managers to help coordinate activity planning and to provide leadership between the schools and environmental groups. Schools are keen on engagement and activities, but they need coordination on tasks, so as to relieve the pressure or burden otherwise placed on teachers or other admin staff.

Given sufficient resources, the Trust sees an opportunity to lead with Schools Behind our River and other like-minded community groups, schools, and local organizations with a program of activities that are accessible and open to all.

Schools Behind our River takes a holistic approach to encourage students to actively participate in a number of activities, but someone has to help pull it all together with schools, students, teachers, and parents.  The task requires planning time and coordination.

The Trust also hopes to use this special role to prepare the groundwork and designs for the establishment of a small Environmental Heritage Resource Centre that serves as a base for school students to visit and access, all within proximity to the Eco Trail at Rathkeale College.  

The Ruamahanga Heritage Centre will include information resources that address the relationship of the area as whanaungatanga –– including the connections between Maori and the first European settlers and how the landscape and environment evolved. Our role will ensure that we and all involved follow the principles of tiakitanga, being a good guardian and considering the wellbeing of current and future generations, including acknowledging rangatiratanga by enabling Māori to exercise their role as kaitiaki, and to encourage students to seek career pathways in environmental heritage, conservation, sustainable farming, and earth sciences.

In 2021, the Trust established close-working collaborative partnerships with Pukaha Wildlife Centre, EnviroSchools, House of Science, and WP2K. In 2022, our project management and collaborative efforts will extend to aligning our interests with local businesses, such as Urlah Organic Wines (located on the alluvial flats of the Ruamahanga River) who have agreed to work with the Trust, using their vineyard site for community-led engagement around conservation, restoration work and fundraising activities.

Careers and Job Creation

The Trust hopes that Schools Behind Our River can ultimately shape and influence young careers and create new jobs by encouraging mentors from the farming, technology, science, and media sectors to help school leavers prepare themselves for careers inspired by nature.

According to the draft report from the New Zealand Climate Change Commission, education, science and innovation systems are critical for ensuring low emissions economic growth, adding that the education system needs to ensure that New Zealanders are set up with the skills that are needed in the labour market.

“Aotearoa is known as a country of innovators and problem solvers. Being an early mover in researching new technologies and adopting existing technologies will benefit not just the climate, but the economy and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This is particularly true in sectors where Aotearoa is traditionally innovative, such as agriculture.”

Where possible, the Trust will try to help students seek out or create new job opportunities ranging from conservation work to predator control, development of new technologies related to emissions or agricultural practices or work in native forestry or regenerative farming.

The Climate Change Commission states that as the country transitions to a climate-resilient low emissions future “new skills, knowledge and capability will be needed in the workforce. Ensuring the workforce’s skills match what is required in the labour market is key to ensuring that businesses can innovate, adopt new technologies or commercialise new ideas.”

Kahutara School student planting a native tree

Project Objectives 2022

  1. Continue to raise awareness among students and local farming community of the need to restore and protect wetland areas, including feeder streams through rural farmland and along the riparian margins of the Ruamahanga River.
  2. Engage farmers, DOC, GRWC, and local iwi in our 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 explored by local Maori as the “first scientists” in the area.
  3. Bring together more students from more schools across 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, regenerating native bush, protect endangered species, create bird corridors and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
  4. 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 and mental activities for students that can demonstrate measurable results for the health of both students and the local ecosystem.
  6. Build on the framework established in the first two years, embracing more schools and areas bordering the Ruamahanga River.
  7. Reinforce the Trust’s point of difference, working through schools to bring farmers, conservationists, scientists, iwi, businesses, and local communities together with a common cause that benefits all.
  8. Support any measure of activity that helps ensure access to clean water.
  9. Encourage innovative thinking to help create and support jobs and new opportunities for local youth.

Beyond 2022

Besides encouraging students to embrace conservation and science 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.

Most importantly, our long-term vision is to expand the Schools Behind Our River project by engaging and including the wider community and landowners into supporting the restoration and planting of bird to bush corridors, from the mountains to the sea, creating the return of clean waterways and healthy soils, which in turn offer more productive benefits to the wider farming community and all those that live within the catchment.

Five to ten years from now, Schools Behind Our River will be a successful thriving initiative that will in turn inspire other schools and community groups across the country.

Furthermore, our research and results will be recorded and visible for students from across the country to visit and study at the Heritage Centre, where leading scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs inspired by nature will be invited to encourage the next generation of students.

January 2022