19 Apr 2024

Mt Taranaki ranger Tāne Houston - 'we let the forest talk for itself'

From Country Life, 7:29 pm on 19 April 2024

Imagine your office as the side of a mountain, and one as revered as the great volcanic peak at the heart of the Taranaki region.

It's the place of work - but also a place of wellbeing - for mountain ranger Tāne Houston.

If you're out on one of the tracks, you might bump into him checking traps or passing on his knowledge to visiting school kids.

He's part of the  Taranaki Mounga project which aims to bring the maunga and the community living around it back to health.

Tall and burly, Tāne strides ahead of me as we head up the track one morning in early autumn.

He wears trampers' leggings, well worn boots and a high viz vest.

His pockets are bulging with all the things you might need for trapping and keeping safe in the bush.

Just before the path begins to rise steadily up the mountain flank, Tāne stops to offer karakia.

"This maunga is my grandfather, this maunga is my grandmother," he explains.

"I engage with the mountain as a living being."  

Mt Taranaki is considered to be a sleeping active volcano (pdf). The last major eruption was around 1655.

It stands just over 2500 metres high, one of the most symmetrical volcanic cones in the world, like an island, surrounded by a sea of rich fertile farmland.

That makes it somewhat easier to get rid of predators and pests and fulfill the project's mission of restoring the landscape.

The Mounga project, a collaboration between several organisations and volunteer groups, has been going nine years and it covers 34,000 hectares, including the Pouākai and Kaitake ranges to the northwest of the mountain and the Ngā Motu/Sugar Loaf Islands.

In 2021-2022, goats were stamped out after an intensive hunting campaign, but the war against other pests - ferrets, stoats, weasels, rats and increasingly feral cats - continues.

Feral cats like bear cubs

Tāne has been with the project four years now. He's worried about the increasing number of feral cats being caught in the lower regions of the mountain.

He says the cats - two or three generations down from their domesticated ancestors - appear to have evolved to suit the wild. 

They look like bear cubs, with thicker fur and stubbier, stronger legs and necks, he told Country Life.

"They don't look like your fluffy cat you have at home, that's for sure."

He fears the damage they will do to the returning birdlife, once they adapt more fully to the environment.

"They still look kind of clumsy when they're in the bush, but if we give it another five years, maybe a decade, we might have a real issue when these cats are going to turn into real predators ... get bigger, get stronger."

On average two or three wild cats are trapped every week. 

A Norwegian rat trapped and killed by a DOC200 trap

Today the kill is a Norwegian rat Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Today, the kill is a young Norwegian rat. Tāne unscrews the trap, a DOC200, baited by volunteers with a prune, a walnut and a fake egg.

He prises the rat free and chucks it into the bush.

He's impressed with the creativity of the volunteers.

"It's obviously worked. This is quite a common sight for us here on the mountain. It's a win but ... it's also a reminder.

"It just shows us we've got a lot of work to do."

A track on the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki

The mountain rangers cover on average 14 kilometres a day Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

The elimination of goats has allowed the undergrowth to flourish and Tāne reaches off the path to to pluck a leaf off the kowaowao plant (Hounds Tongue Fern).

"I'm always on the lookout for different things to eat."

It has a nutty taste.

"If we're working deep in the forest ... after a little while you need that fresh bite."

Kowaowao (Hounds Tongue Fern)

Tāne has learnt to distinguish edible plants in the forest. The young leaves of the kowaowao plant have a nutty taste. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

His job also involves connecting the community to the mountain.

"We brings kids in and we just expose them to this space. We don't really do much talking. We just let the forest talk for itself."

They come out excited and interested to find out more.

For him, working on the maunga has been life-changing, Tāne says.

"High levels of oxygen, good physical activity and just no noise, no pollution, birds, tree life, drinking from the rivers."

"The wellbeing that's provided from the mountain is immeasurable."

The peak of Mt Taranaki wreathed in cloud

The peak of Mt Taranaki wreathed in cloud Photo: RNZ/Sally Round