Spotlight on Jo Ritchie, Rotoroa Ecologist

This month, we profile one of the special people involved in Rotoroa's environmental restoration. Jo Ritchie is currently business manager for Treescape Environmental, and has been instrumental in returning Rotoroa to its former glory, but if you ask Jo to describe what she does, you don't get the answer you'd expect.

"I am like a spider in a web," explains Jo, who joined Treescape in 2010 after lengthy stints at DoC and various sanctuaries around New Zealand, including Stewart Island and Tawharanui. "I am constantly linking people and ideas together to make projects hum."

For Rotoroa, Jo acts as the island's ecologist. She has coordinated the planting of 400,000 trees, manages a major ongoing weed and pest control programme and is now focussed on bringing back native birds, rare plants and reptiles to the island.

"I got involved with Rotoroa in 2009 and followed a planting plan developed by Boffa Miskell and adapted it using the idea of mirror plantings as we found out what species survived best on the island," says Jo.  Like many small islands, Rotoroa presented a challenge to its ecologists. Wind swept, with poor soil, the island is a difficult environment to replant.

"It's very exposed with the marine and salt environment extending over the whole island," explains Jo. "Because of this, it would probably originally would have been a pohutakawa forest and would have had a 'ring of fire' in summer when the trees were in bloom." Mirror planting, where species are selected on the basis of their hardiness and prevalence in similar conditions, was selected as a strategy to help ensure Rotoroa's fledgling forests would survive.

"Mirror planting is just a term to try and help people understand why particular species have been chosen and what that collection of species might look like in 50 to 100 years' time," explains Jo. "It's often hard for people to visualise or be confident that what you are planning will work. So with Rotoroa, I found coastal sites on Waiheke that had a similar aspect and exposure to Rotoroa, visited them and made a list of key species." Together with Rotoroa Island Trust project manager John Gow, the pair visited comparable bays by boat to see what Rotoroa might one day look like.

This strategy has seen up to 50 species of native tree planted on Rotoroa, from Jo's Waiheke pohutakawa, to kowhai, cabbage trees, flax, karaka and manuka. The intention is to encourage bird life that will help reseed the island independently, and create shelter for more sensitive canopy species like puriri and kohekohe further down the track.

"What we want to end up with is a seamless planting that blends with the remnant bush on the island, but one that is filled with bird song and happy people!"

And for Jo, people are essential to the enjoyment she gets from her work and the success of the projects she's involved with.

"My work is important to me because I love where I live and I feel I have a responsibility to do what I can to help our unique natural environments survive and flourish. People are an integral part of that. Managing our environment is about understanding and accepting that everything is connected to everything else - people and the environment go hand-in-hand. It's only by expanding opportunities for people to be involved in our wonderful, unique, natural places, that we will succeed in sustaining our environment into the future. Projects like Rotoroa are important because they celebrate what is best about New Zealand."

Jo continues to work with the Rotoroa Island team, annually surveying the success of the previous year's plantings and developing future planting plans based on their success. She estimates that over 200 people have been involved with the conservation programme on Rotoroa.

Posted by Angela Bishop on October 04, 2012