Awesome Aotearoa

New Zealand’s location contributes to a remarkable ecosystem. We sit between latitudes 24 and 47 south, way closer to the equator than any part of Britain.

By Julien Fitter 

Photo: Jackie Whitehead

Photo: Jackie Whitehead

London is further away from the equator than Antipodes Island, 800 kilometres south of Dunedin. In a more continental situation our climate would be called Mediterranean, in the northern hemisphere Auckland would be in North Africa.

Being isolated, we are very much affected by oceanic weather patterns, with lots of change, the Roaring Forties, depressions followed by highs, with the occasional cyclone thrown in.

Add to this a very varied and mountainous topography, with long mountain ranges that interrupt and distort the weather patterns, and you have a huge amount of climate variation in a very small area.

Just look at the rainfall contrast between Fiordland, with up to 12000mm a year and Central Otago, with less than 400mm, and only 100km between them.

One atlas identifies 17 different climate districts from the sub-tropical north to semi-arid continental climate of the central South Island and the very wet, cool, temperate Stewart Island.

The combination of a mountainous topography, a climate that can be described as oceanic Mediterranean, the long isolation and very varied sea levels has produced a most unusual biodiversity.

In the first instance there is the forest. Before the arrival of the first Maori, as recently as 1250, the country was more than 80 per cent covered in dense forest.

Most interestingly for temperate forest, it was almost entirely evergreen.

Only a few trees such as the tree fuchsia, or kötukutuku, lose their leaves in winter, and others such as kowhai are semi-deciduous, losing most of their leaves at the same time. Most evergreen rainforests are tropical; New Zealand is an exception.

This forest, thanks to the many climatic regions and microclimates, and thus very varied habitats and ecosystems, is incredibly species rich. There are, for example, some 700 species of native tree and shrub, compared with maybe 80 species of native tree and shrub in Britain.

Our trees and shrubs are not just native – 80 per cent of them are endemic, or found only here.

My favourite has to be the kauri. I have seen some pretty old and nifty trees, but Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere inspire awe.

You can see spectacular mountains and valleys, and wonderful birds and plants in other parts of the world but you cannot find anything like these two giants anywhere else.

The trees have other strange features. When I first heard the word “divaricate”, I thought my friends were inventing a new word. I discovered divaricating shrubs, which are found only here and in Patagonia, though there they are found only in the open and not in the forest.

Consider the term “juvenile tree”. Of course all trees start small and get bigger, but here quite a few have distinct juvenile forms that do not look in the least bit like their adult counterparts.

The lancewood, or horoeka, is probably the best known example, but pokaka and matai also have juvenile forms.

This is something very special and amazing that is not common elsewhere.

There is no doubt that kakapo and kiwi are amazing and fascinating but the greater interest is in the smaller, less visible members of the ecosystem.

We have at least 11,000 native invertebrates, plus far too many unpleasant introduced ones. We have some 2000 species of lichen, 40 per cent of them endemic.

We have 7 per cent of all known lichens, yet we are only 1 per cent of Earth’s surface. We have a wonderful richness of ferns – 165 species, including eight tree ferns which give beauty and character to the forest.

There are at least 22,000 species of fungi, including the delightful bird’s nest fungi.

An astonishing variety of daisies is here, some shrubs up to 4 metres high. We have more than 40 species of tree daisies and at least 75 species and sub-species of just one genus of herbaceous daisies, the celmisias. These are

The alpine areas are very special, not just because of the wonderful variety of plant life, from the giant buttercup, and the Mount Cook lilly to the Maori onion, or bulbinella, and the huge variety of daisies.

There is also the lowest shrub of all, the aptly named prostrate coprosma that grows to all of 30mm high. Coprosmas are another interesting genus – members of the coffee family – with more than 50 different coprosmas in New Zealand.

Get outdoors and look for the natural wonders that are everywhere in Aotearoa New Zealand. Few people really appreciate our native biodiversity. Wildlife is not a oneoff resource like gold or oil. It is, if handled carefully, an infinitely renewable and sustainable resource.

If we do not look after our wildlife and our ecosystems, we will almost inevitably become extinct as a species