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Sunday, February 8, 2009

A world safe for sheep

We returned a month ago from three wonderful weeks in New Zealand. We have pictures of hospitable, charming, generous friends and relatives in Wellington, Nelson, and Whangarei. We have photos showing us putting on sunscreen for Christmas dinner outside on the deck. Meanwhile, our house was buried in more snow than Portland, OR, has seen for years. It was great to be gone! But the point of this post has more to do with yet another lesson in what our human selves are capable of.

We drove (were driven, actually) almost the full length of the North Island. It was beautiful--green rolling hills, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Lovely lush pasture full of healthy-looking sheep, 40 million of them, I'm told.

But Jared Diamond talks about "landscape amnesia" that we suffer from, and so I asked around and read a bit about from whence cometh this sheep paradise. What was it like before it got all bucolic and full of livestock?

It was forest, is what it was. New Zealanders traded a depth of up to 50 meters of forest for 12 inches of grass.

New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be discovered. It didn't see much of us humans until sometime between 1150 AD and 1350 AD when the Maoris arrived. Europeans arrived in the 18th century and now it is is home to about 4 million people. People did what we generally do: cut and/or burned the trees down and converted the forest to farmland and pasture. The Maoris got it started and the Europeans accelerated the process considerably. The country went from 85% forest cover to about 23% today.

The consequences to the native wildlife are no surprise, with all 11 species of moa being only some of the extinctions.

Now this is not a cheerful realization. Forests change climate--what happened with that? Erosion is sending fertility into the oceans, which helps neither land nor sea. And give a thought to the amount of carbon that is no longer sequestered in the 17 million hectares stripped of forest.

If sheep farming becomes unprofitable fast enough, perhaps New Zealand can sell carbon credits for reforesting instead. (Note to self: investigate this fantasy).

I'd like to send a thank-you note to the New Zealanders who fought to save their remaining forests from the chainsaws. Go to the South Island to see the huge reserves there. And another one to the volunteers and staff of the various reserves we visited. The impression I have is that when government agencies and non-profits decide to establish a reserve, they know what they are doing (and they have the climate on their side). One example--Tiritiri Mantengi Island was a sheep farm for 120 years, with an old tree left here and there, 94% deforested. When the decision was made to turn it into a wildlife reserve, the sheep were removed, the rats poisoned, and volunteers planted over 250,000 native trees. That was in 1984-1994. The results are amazing. I am not a biologist and can't say how completely an ecosystem has been recreated, but it certainly looks like a forest, and it is full of native birds who are breeding. I don't think you could get that kind of recovery in just 25-35 years in a temperate climate such as I live in. More like 80 years, maybe.

Dr. Doug Talmany says that we tend to think, as we build houses on farm land, replace native vegetation with exotics, and let our garden sprays drain into the river, that "nature is happy somewhere else". Well, nature isn't happy much of anywhere these days. New Zealand was a lesson that we individually, pursuing our personal well being, can destroy an enormous swath of ecosystem. It also demonstrated how we can, with great effort and at considerable cost, restore what we destroyed.

I would love to hear from others who have visited this wonderful country and/or who know more than I do about its ecology and history. Add a comment below!

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