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Decades of volunteer effort restores native lizard population

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High on the rugged hillsides of the Paekākāriki  Escarpment track on the Kāpiti Coast, Paul Callister and his team of committed volunteers from Ngā Uruora community conservation group, have been spraying weeds, trapping pests and planting native plants for over 20 years. It’s not easy or paid work so we were lucky that Paul had time to tell us his story - about what keeps him going and what attracted him to the project in the first place. 

The Escarpment walkway runs high above State Highway 1 and the railway from Paekākāriki  to Pukerua Bay. Part of the Te Araroa track, the walkway reaches 220 metres above sea level. It was opened in 2016 and has since delighted visitors with an abundance of birdlife, incredible views and a growing population of native lizards. But long before the track was open to the public, the group worked hard to restore the biodiversity of the old quarry site that would one day become a popular public walk.

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Ngā Uruora - Kapiti Project is a community conservation group on a mission to bring Kāpiti Island’s birdsong back to the mainland. It’s been working for over two decades, and has a core group of usually around 10-20 volunteers. 

The land the track cuts through is owned by KiwiRail. The hillside had been left for many years which presented the team with a conservation challenge, thriving weeds including gorse, periwinkle, cape ivy, and boxthorn. Paul explained that the thick weeds covering the entire hillside, stopped native plants from growing and made it tough for the resident population of lizards to survive. 

The land was overrun with all the usual suspects: rats; mice, weasels and stoats. And although the pest-free, Kāpiti Island was within our sights, there was no way native wildlife could be restored on the hillside.

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Over decades, Paul and other volunteers have cut out acres of gorse and replanted the hillside with native plants and trees. They’ve also established an intensive trapping programme. The team works hard to use the resources it has - sharing seeds and knowledge within the wider Wellington region. 

"Otari-Wilton Bush in Wellington, the only public botanic garden in New Zealand dedicated solely to native plants, has supplied us with many rare plants that would have once thrived on the escarpment. In turn, we are now collecting some seeds for them.”

The second part of the conservation project is trapping. The team uses any combination of traps it can get its hands on. Paul is always testing new traps, lures and baits to find the perfect mix. And it’s clearly working. 

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We visited the lizard garden, a safe space for lizards to breed and bask in the sun. As we checked the Goodnature A24 traps, small Raukawa geckos scuttled out, and native skinks made a dash for a safe space. 

It’s obvious that Ngā Uruora and Paul’s team specifically are making a real difference to the region’s biodiversity. Many walkers have remarked on the difference they’ve noticed, even in the few years since the Escarpment Track has opened. If you know where to look it’s not difficult to spot a lizard on a hot day. 

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Paul took on the conservation task with little knowledge of lizards but has dedicated his time to learning how to best protect the various species in the area. He credits the Kiwi, can-do attitude as key to his group's success. By keeping an open mind about new technology and giving everything a go, he’s making the most of the innovation available. 

But no matter how much you want to do, you always need people-power. So often with groups like Ngā Uruora, the success depends upon the commitment of the volunteers. The amount of personal time they commit is immense. 

The team is always looking for volunteers and is open to sharing its knowledge and skills with anyone keen to learn. 

“Thinking about our regular working bees, I would often be the youngest. We’ve got 80-year-olds lending a hand too.”

Critical to the success of projects like these is the passion of the people on the ground doing the work. We hope that stories like Paul’s might inspire you to get involved in a local trapping group if you’re not already. 

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Paul was thinking small and big when he said, “I think you’ve got to work on 10% of the population and get them into it. If we could persuade even 10% of New Zealand to help, that would be a huge team of volunteers.”

After all, it’s not just about our birds. It’s about our bats, insects and lizards and ultimately us. We’re all interdependent. We can’t get back what has already been lost, but by working together we can protect the native wildlife we have left.