Vegetation before 1840
Before European settlement, vegetation in the Wellington region was roughly divided into four zones:
- A strip on the Kāpiti coast, with stands of kahikatea, kohekohe and tītoki, and mānuka at the sea edge.
- A western district of conifer–broadleaf forest (rimu, northern rātā and tawa), stretching from the south coast to the Tararua Range.
- Tōtara and kahikatea forest in the valleys and basins.
- Bands of black, silver, and red beech forest along the Remutaka Range and foothills.
Clearing the bush
Māori had cleared vegetation around the harbour and Mt Victoria, but the rest of the region remained heavily forested. European settlers then cleared large tracts of forest. Apart from patches in Ōtari–Wilton’s Bush and Wainuiomata, little lowland forest survives. The beech and conifer–broadleaf forests in the hills to the north and east were saved when the Crown purchased the Tararua and Remutaka ranges in 1870.
How green were the valleys
Wellington’s native bush once reached into the town. Early resident Ebenezer Maxwell recalled ‘a magnificent dense forest – matai, rimu, kahikatea (white pine), miro, totara, maire, kowhai … and a wonderful profusion of creepers, ferns and mosses covering the ground, logs and stumps, and right up the trees and along the limbs, making an entrancing fairy land.’ 1
For much of the 20th century Wellington’s hills were dominated by livestock farming. In the 1930s the first major reforestation project began when government relief workers planted the flanks of Mt Victoria and Tinakori Hill (later called Te Ahumairangi) with exotic trees – pine and macrocarpa.
From the 1950s farmers began to let their poorer lands convert to gorse and scrub, through which native species began to re-emerge. This process continues. In summers past, the hills would turn the colour of straw. Today, many are green with regenerating bush.
The forests once teemed with bird life. This included the huia, North Island takahē and moa (all now extinct), and the still common tūī, fantail and morepork. Ducks and bitterns lived in swamps and waterways. Other wildlife included the lizard-like tuatara, bats, and wētā. Fur seals and sea lions rested on the south coast. The loss of forests and the introduction of exotic birds and mammalian predators led to the decline or local extinction of several native bird species, including weka and saddlebacks.
Wellington is a showcase of conservation projects. An example is Matiu (Somes Island) in Wellington Harbour. Until 1995 it was used as an animal quarantine station. Today it is a sanctuary for endangered species. The ancient native reptile, tuatara, has been released there, along with several bird species including kākāriki (parrots).
Further north, off the west coast, Mana Island is being restored. A range of seabirds and plant species have been successfully reintroduced. Both Matiu and Mana are ‘open’ sanctuaries, which the public are free to visit. They complement the long established ‘closed’ sanctuary on Kāpiti Island (permits are required for a visit), where native birds, including the rare kōkako and takahē, thrive.
In Wellington city Zealandia (formerly Karori Sanctuary) is a ‘mainland island’ protected by a predator-proof fence. The little spotted kiwi has been reintroduced there after more than a century’s absence from the mainland.
Possum eradication has had a marked effect on the city’s bird life. Tūī have made a comeback and are often seen and heard in suburban gardens. Even kākā and saddlebacks sometimes visit gardens close to the Karori sanctuary.
On Wellington’s rugged south coast there is a large marine reserve around Taputeranga Island. There is another marine sanctuary at Kāpiti Island, where it has been shown that these environments can be quickly revitalised.