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Where Harts Creek enters the lake a Wildlife Management Reserve has been established—a public walkway from the carpark follows a route alongside the creek for about 1.5 km into the Reserve, ending at a bird hide on the lakeshore.

Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere was an important source of food for generations of local Maori, and in the late 1800s when it was 30% larger than at present it supported more than 100 commercial fishers. Historically (at least prior to the 1970s) many of the waterways feeding into the lake were also prized as some of the best brown trout fisheries in New Zealand. Fly fisherman and scientist Allan Fife regularly fished Harts Creek and its tributary from 1983/84, including on Birdling’s Brook Farm, John McLachlan’s property and Harts Creek Farm, Tim and Rose Chamberlain’s property. Allan was aware of the past fishing reputation and decline of the other lake tributaries such as the Selwyn and appreciated the clear water, healthy aquatic plants and clean gravel beds of Harts Creek.

However by the late 1990s he noticed a marked decline in the health of Birdlings Brook and the lower reaches of Harts Creek, including silting and algal growth. Allan decided to approach Peter Chamberlain (Tim’s father) one of the landowners he’d met during his fishing trips. An enthusiastic tree planter for many years, Peter had established shelterbelts and amenity plantings of native and exotic trees around the farm, and had recognised the significance of the creek on his property at an early stage. Now retired, for nearly 20 years he, Tim and Rose, and another local tree enthusiast Gunnar Lundaal had planted a rich mix of appropriate native species along the streambanks at Harts Creek Farm, funded from the regular farm budget.

Peter was concerned by the issues that Allan described, and could see that a coordinated approach was essential, including if possible all the farmers in the stream’s catchment. He met with Environment Canterbury (EC), and subsequently the Harts Creek and Birdling’s Brook Streamcare Group of thirteen neighbouring landowners was formed, first chaired by Peter. Funding for restoration plantings was sourced from EC and elsewhere, with David Hewson from EC communicating with the landowners, and coordinating the planting process with Peter. The Department Of Conservation, Selwyn District Council, Waihora Ellesmere Trust and the local community all supported the restoration, and the process of protecting both streams from unrestricted stock access and establishing native plantings along their banks was started. Like very long waterside gardens, regular ongoing planting and maintenance in these areas is vital until the native species start shading out weeds and begin self-seeding. It’s been a delicate balance to achieve—maintaining profitable land use while significantly restoring the landscape, wildlife and water quality.

Both streams run through privately owned farmland, and the 1.5 km stretch of public walkway to the lake crosses the Patterson family’s farm. Over this relatively short distance there’s a remarkable variety of landscape —beginning in dense native plantings full of bird life right next to the carpark, and with a sheltered picnic table in the shade. The track soon comes out of the trees, rising to a mown walkway along the creek’s stopbank between big skies and open farmland. A handmade seat along this section of the track is a reminder that this is also a family project supported by several generations. Colin Patterson has noted that while working on the walkway he has met visitors from all over the world, as well as locals.

Native plants along both sides of the creek are now well established, and species have been carefully chosen to provide good cover near the stream and food sources for birds. Cabbage trees, flaxes, Carex grasses and Coprosma have grown particularly well and frame views of the water. The stream itself must be at least 1.5 m deep in some spots, and being so clear it’s easy to see trout hanging in the current. Bird life is abundant, both native and exotic. During a recent visit, apart from bellbirds and fantails I watched a group of nine scaup (diving ducks) and in the evening saw a family of mute swans slowly making their way upstream and settling down on the riverbank for the night. Local photographer Steve Attwood memorably describes in his blog how “these graceful and striking swans frequent Harts Creek, their white plumage a stark contrast to the shaded gloom of the closely wooded sections of the waterway.” Much more secretive residents include the native warbler riroriro, rare marsh crake and Australasian bittern.

The open section of track reaches the Reserve after about 15 minutes’ walk. Thick stands of mature willow close over the path again and timber boardwalks (installed by the Ellesmere Lions Club, like the bird hide itself) lead on among the trees. Being so close to the lake this area of the reserve floods quite often, hence the boardwalks for better access and to avoid disturbance to the environment. It must be a remarkable sight to see the area under water like a drowned forest. A few minutes later the willows give way to dense raupo reeds right on the lake shore and the bird hide itself. This structure has been built well above the typical flood level and looks out across a wide inlet with several smaller islands. Steve Attwood describes how one of his favourite birds, the Australasian crested grebe “is near the limit of its natural range in New Zealand… and at Harts Creek several pairs build their floating nests among the raupo bordering the lagoon; with their splendid crests and elaborate mating displays they are a delight to watch; their zebra–plumed youngsters even more so.”

Harts Creek Walkway takes around 45 minutes return. It’s an experience of moving through enclosed areas of shade and shelter to wide open spaces with views right to the horizon and up to those amazing Canterbury cloudscapes. At a much smaller scale it’s possible to learn from this sequence and develop a garden or even an area of planting which ‘expands and contracts’ as you move through it, taking advantage of the elements of surprise and anticipation to draw you along—a bird hide is optional!

[ WORDS AND IMAGES Martin Wilkie ]