Hero photograph
Janice Lord, Associate Professor of Botany at Otago University, is currently conducting research on rewilding Mahu Whenua, a 55 000-hectare covenanted block of land. ‘Mahu Whenua’ means ‘healing the land’.
Photo by Nicola Wilhelmsen

She Speaks for the Trees

Suzanne Middleton, Wild Dunedin —

Associate Profesor Janice Lord of the University of Otago Botany Dept is a passionate advocate for our native plants. Now as part of Ngā Kākano Whakahau: The Seeds Project, she’s leading a team developing ways to plant native seeds in vast areas of unproductive high country land.

Planting seeds in the garden or greenhouse is simple enough, and something many of us are familiar with. But planting seeds of native trees in areas that have been grazed and burnt for decades is not so simple. For a start, native seeds and seedlings require particular fungi in the soil, and these fungi have disappeared from vast areas that were once forested.

Approximately 1.36 million native trees, flaxes, shrubs and grasses have been planted, which, combined with natural regeneration due to destocking, has already resulted in native birdlife returning to the land.   — Image by: mahuwhenua.co.nz

At Mahu Whenua (Healing the Land) the 53,000 hectare QEII National Trust covenanted land between Arrowtown and Lake Wanaka, a large area that was previously farmed was destocked ten years ago. About 1.36 million native trees and shrubs have already been planted at Mahu Whenua and gradual regeneration of native plants is occurring naturally in some parts. However, a lack of adjacent native forest and the necessary fungi in the soil are problematic. So research teams are collecting and storing seeds, then trialling different methods of planting them, with the aim of ultimately reforesting this huge area with natives. Fortunately last year was a huge mast year so armies of volunteers could collect large quantities of seeds. As Janice describes it

The next ten years of my career will be spent reclothing, rewilding those areas. We’re the first in New Zealand to do this on such a large scale and we’re learning a lot about natives’ ability to rewild. My ultimate aim is a practical handbook on approaches to native reforestation, bringing together the botanical information, methods and case studies.

In a fascinating twist, the honey produced by Alpine Honey Specialties’ bees in the area has changed from clover to Mānuka, because as the sheep were removed the Mānuka grew back. This is providing a better food source for the bees as well as more valuable honey. Clover doesn’t survive high temperatures and strong winds so well and only flowers for a couple of weeks in Central Otago. Whereas the Mānuka flowers for much longer and it provides a more sheltered environment for the bees to work in. So the bees are very handy monitors of what’s going on; it’s Mānuka honey territory now.

Janice is also a strong advocate for planting native trees for carbon sequestration and plans to include calculations of carbon gains in future research into rewilding at Mahu Whenua. 

Associate Professor Janice Lord with PhD candidate Laura van Galen (centre) and Dr Larcombe. — Image by: Otago University

In the short term, however, she and her colleagues are focused on the Reforestation from Seeds Project, Ngā Kākano Whakahau, which launched last year, thanks to the Ministry for Primary Industries under Te Uru Rākau’s 1 Billion Trees Programme.

We will be asking Janice to speak about Mahu Whenua rewilding and the 1 Billion Trees Project at the 2021 Wild Dunedin Festival at the 'Fight for the Forests' event at Otago Museum. 

You can hear Janice speak on Wild Dunedin's podcast 'The Forest Feast' - https://hail.to/app/wild-dunedin/article/view/7bPsG6A

You can also visit Te Uru Rākau’s website https://www.teururakau.govt.nz/