Research Snapshot #1

Recording species in a vegetation plot. WETMAK workshop, Southland 2012.

Recording species in a vegetation plot. WETMAK workshop, Southland 2012.

Who knew that there are more than 500 community groups actively restoring degraded landscapes across New Zealand? The PhD research began a year ago and what I outline here is a snapshot of results so far.

In just a fortnight of sending out a questionnaire to groups, responses have arrived from all regions. Though previous research on community group environmental projects exists, this is the first that takes a country-wide perspective, and zeros in on how NZ groups measure restoration success.

Of the 170 groups that have joined the research (a c.30% return rate, with reminders to non-responders to follow), just over half are well established having being in existence for more than 11 years. Most rely on a core group of 6-12 regular participants to carry out the group activities. Far from being mostly retirees, the majority of group members fall into the 51-65 age group.

While projects are generally focused on ecological restoration, group objectives are diverse: developing habitat for kiwi; remediating sites polluted by industrial waste; protecting customary resources. Education and awareness raising also feature prominently and this is also reflected in group activities: advocacy/education is the fourth most common activity after planting natives, weed and pest animal control.

Forest restoration projects predominate, followed by streams and freshwater wetlands. 21% of projects are large covering more than 501 ha (1250 acres), with smaller projects between 2-10 acres and 51–100 acres following.

Measuring restoration success is a challenge for groups and there is much food for thought here around community group capacity for monitoring as well as how monitoring priorities align with project objectives and eventual data use. How data are or could be used also forms the basis of dialogues currently underway with community supporters: DOC and regional council staff, science providers and funders are sharing their thoughts via (informal) interviews. For community groups, there are 2 general scenarios: either groups monitor informally e.g., observe increases in site biodiversity and/or declines in pest numbers or use formal science-based measures. With a quarter of groups relying on informal measures, the lack of funding, human resources and technical knowledge are highlighted as being the main challenges preventing more formal approaches – this is despite 92% of groups having partners/support, mostly from regional councils.

Of the formal measures, 5-minute bird counts, photopoints, vegetation plots and the residual trap catch index are almost equally employed, though monitoring toolkits (e.g. FORMAK, SHMAK) are only used in whole or part by a handful of groups.

Looking ahead, the majority of groups would like to carry out more monitoring and there is a strong interest in using web-based tools to collect, store and share data.
It’s a fascinating data set that begins to answer questions that I have had brewing for a number of years. Detailed analysis will take several months once the questionnaire closes in mid-October. Further Research Snapshots will flesh out the state of citizen science in Aoteoroa and invariably while giving some answers will leave me scratching my head with many, many more questions.

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