A forgotten desert | Otago Daily Times News Online

A large public reserve on the edge of Otago Harbor is neglected and largely unknown. Now a group of walkers want to ensure the mature native trees, grove of orchids and impressive harbor views of the Burns Preserve are protected and made available to the public, writes Bruce Munro. But will they get the help they need?

The professor, let alone professor emeritus, was still out of sight when Jim McQuillan first heard of Burns Reserve.

In 1976, McQuillan had recently returned to his alma mater, the University of Otago, as a lecturer in the chemistry department, after several years abroad. He and his wife bought a house in the nearby Dunedin Hill suburb of Opoho, and as an avid wanderer he began to explore its backyard – including the hillside bush under the centenary memorial of the town, on the slopes facing the port of Signal Hill. .

Curious about this patch of land covered in native bushes and scrub, McQuillan’s inquiries were rewarded with a name he had never heard before, Burns Park Scenic Reserve.

He took this name to the offices of the Lands and Surveys Department about to be disbanded and asked for a map.

“I wanted to know, ‘What is this area? How far does it exist?'” McQuillan recalls.

“I was trying to figure out where [Burns Reserve] was and where were the limits.”

The map McQuillan received revealed that here, less than 4 km from the Octagon (as the crow flies), was a major public reserve that had existed since 1907.

“Its current size, 87 hectares or 216 acres, must make it one of the largest scenic reserves so close to a major New Zealand city and yet almost completely unknown to the people of Dunedin,” says McQuillan.

Obviously, this caught his attention. And that interest has persisted over the decades, despite a long and arduous academic career.

“There were times when I wasn’t able to think about it or do anything.”

Since McQuillan retired seven years ago, however, Burns’ reserve has returned fully to the frame, especially in the last three years.

“I’m pretty excited about it, actually.

“I must say that it was a good thing to get my teeth into.”

Chewing is what McQuillan did – uncovering the fascinating history of the Burns Park Scenic Reserve, taking a few exploratory trips to understand the terrain, gathering a group of like-minded individuals and dreaming of what this good forgotten audience could become .

McQuillan was the first person in more than three decades to open the Burns reserve file held by Archives New Zealand since it was transferred there in 1987, when the Lands and Survey Department was absorbed into the new Department of Preservation (Doc).

He also traveled historical Otago Daily Times and Evening Star articles and tracked down obscure books referring to the reserve.

McQuillan discovered that the Burns Reservation was created as a result of pressure from West Harbor residents in the early 1900s, concerned about the extent of local deforestation.

“The reserve contains mature rimu, totara and miro trees, which escaped the sawmills more than a century ago when the citizens of the borough of West Harbor successfully appealed to the government to preserve part of the remaining native bush,” he says.

Their success was aided by the support of local politician, EG Allen, an MP in the Liberal Party governments of Richard Seddon and Joseph Ward.

In 1907, the government purchased the land and created the Burns Reserve (named after the town’s pioneering spiritual leader, Thomas Burns), setting it aside “for public good, enjoyment and use”.

Fencing and monitoring the reserve’s long boundary has always been a problem, McQuillan says.

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, it was reported that up to 40 people a day took trucks loaded with firewood from the reservation. As a result, the reserve was transferred from West Harbor Borough to Dunedin City Council (DCC) control.

Part of the land was transferred to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs to build a VHF radio tower, in 1958.

At this time the reserve was often visited by the people of Ravensbourne, and others, whose engraved signatures can still be seen on the rocky outcrops.

Two decades later, the DCC authorized the razing and bulldozing of 12ha of reserve land covered in gorse and broom, earning the council the ire of botanists and conservationists, including the future Sir Alan Mark.

The DCC then gave control of the reserve to Doc. Around the same time, some of the cleared land was sold and adjacent plots of land containing native bush were purchased and added to the reserve.

Underdeveloped, slowly, steadily, it slipped out of public consciousness.

Today Burns Reserve is a forgotten 87ha stretch of rolling land stretching along the Signal Hill seafront from the western end of Ravensbourne to the middle of St Leonards.

McQuillan only began venturing into the reserve with deliberate intent since his retirement.

It all started with an outing he organized for the Tuesday Tramping Club.

“This involved clearances from five cooperative private landowners.

“It put me on the right path to requesting access to the Burns Reservation and other parts of West Harbor without always having to get permission.”

He also met the founding father of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Ralph Allen, St Leonards jeweler Tony Williams and several others, forming the West Harbor Walks Group.

“It’s this group that’s working on creating a Friends of Burns reserve,” McQuillan says.

Along with mature native trees over many acres of potentially passable bush, McQuillan and his group discovered “a fairly large grove” of native orchids, autumn ear and Earina mucronataand a rocky outcrop known as Gerry’s Rock which offers fabulous harbor views.

Who knows what other treasures might be in the stash.

“We are counting on the specialists to guide us there. We hope that they can indeed come to the party.”

Tititipounamu (shooter) and pipipi (brown creepers) were present but have not been seen here for over three decades.

What the Burns Preserve has, unfortunately, are feral goats munching on plants and Darwin’s barberry, a prickly-leaved exotic that can muscle native shrubs.

To date, the goat population has survived culling efforts.

Barberry is listed as a West Harbor pest by the Otago Regional Council (ORC), which says it aims to “gradually contain” the invader. But these are “empty words,” McQuillan says.

In response, the ORC’s chief operating officer, Dr Gavin Palmer, said the regional council is developing a plan to “support communities and agencies” to tackle barberry.

What it has in goats and barberry, the reserve makes up for in a lack of groomed trails and, equally important, no easy access. It is landlocked – almost entirely surrounded by 24 private lots.

McQuillan says it appears there is no management plan for Burns’ reservation.

“Doc has done little work in the reserve apart from maintaining the boundary fences and controlling the goats.

“As he is largely invisible to the public, it seems Doc has chosen to give him a low priority in the face of an overwhelming task and shrinking budget to run the current Doc estate.”

In McQuillan’s mind, however, Burns Reserve is a “hidden gem”, a public good preserved by a far-sighted previous generation, a “recreational opportunity” just waiting to be realised.

He sees his potential mainly for walkers.

It’s good that Dunedin has trails for mountain bikers, he says, but the Burns reserve would ideally be the preserve of hikers and trekkers, individuals and groups, traversing a large area of ​​mature and regenerating native bush. right on their doorstep.

“It’s a scenic reserve. It’s not a recreation reserve.

“And it’s so close to town. But people just don’t know it exists.”

Track formation in and through the bush is high on the list of things to do if it really wants to become a public reserve. Dealing with non-native flora and fauna will also be a significant challenge.

“A major difficulty is the lack of any convenient public entrance from the harbor side, to allow citizens of suburban West Harbor access to the reservation they fought for at the turn of the last century.”

McQuillan hopes this can be rectified with a grant application to the Walking Access Commission.

The West Harbor Walks Group also spoke to Doc about forming a trail to the volcanic outcrop at Gerry’s Rock.

“They declined that suggestion,” McQuillan says.

“However, we are allowed to form walking routes with temporary markers and to study flora and fauna, but not to cut exotic vegetation.”

Doc’s response was frustrating.

“We thought Doc was encouraging community involvement to make up for his lack of funding and staff.”

It looks like little official material help will materialize, but there is always a way up.

This week, in response to questions from The mix of the weekendDoc operations manager Clement Lagrue said a “permissions process” could allow Burns Reserve to be developed by volunteers.

“Dunedin is blessed with many other forest areas which provide high quality recreational opportunities. This means there is no good reason for us to invest in any other facilities of this type at Burns Park,” Lagrue said.

But Dunedin has a strong culture of groups doing valuable conservation work on land managed by Doc, he adds.

“These groups go through a licensing process which allows us to ensure that the work they undertake is done to the same standards as if it were done by us.

“There is little potential for us to re-energize people working at Burns Park. Instead, we would use the clearance process… to ensure that any work undertaken was in line with best practice and delivered good results.”

The future of Burns Reserve, it seems, will be decided by the enthusiasm the citizens of Dunedin have – or do not have – to fulfill the vision of their ancestors.

McQuillan already has 40 names on his West Harbor Walks Group mailing list.

He hopes to expand that roster, which could include founding members of an incorporated society, Friends of Burns Reserve.

“We are bringing together interested locals to form a community-led organization to facilitate public access and combat the invasion of alien species.”

There is a lot to do. This will require many willing hands.

But McQuillan’s hikes on the Burns reservation leave him confident it will be worth it.

He stood on the summit ridge of Gerry’s Rock, gazing around him at the gorse and broom that will need to be pulled up, the barberry that will require a concerted program of stump poisoning.

Then he looked up, drinking in the spectacular views of Otago Harbor from Taiaroa Head to the harbor basin and saw a pair of karareea, falcon, giving an exultant acrobatic display in the southern updraft, expressing in stole his optimism that Burns’ reservation can become a valuable bush refuge.

About Meredith Campagna

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