Jane Demeter – Caring for Canterbury’s Rivers & Birds
Words: Kim Newth Images: Kim Newth & Supplied
In 2010, Jane Demeter was one of 14 elected Canterbury regional councillors dismissed and replaced by government appointed commissioners. Undaunted by events, Jane has continued with her work seeking greater protection of Canterbury’s braided rivers and the region’s unique ecosystems.
It is a still, crisp afternoon in North Canterbury. The twisty gravel road and its long grass verges are in sharp focus. We eventually come to the end of the road and stop to look out over the mouth of the Hurunui River, sparkling blue under a clear sky.
On a day like this it is hard to conceive that anything could be wrong with the world. Former ECan (Environment Canterbury) councillor Jane Demeter describes this river as ‘her awa’. She grew up on a farm bordering the Hurunui River and continues to live not far from it at her home in Gore Bay. Her long association with the river has made her fiercely protective of it. We gaze at the river mouth as Jane explains how all is not well with this pretty stretch of water snaking out to sea.
“It’s a river under stress. Things are changing. We have had extended low flows and toxic algal mats below the State Highway One bridge. From time to time we get outrageously high levels of E. coli in the river rendering it unsuitable for swimming and contact recreation. There are starting to be extended periods of low flows in the river to the point where people are able to walk across the river down near the mouth. With the increasing number of water takes, we may see the river drop to low levels more quickly over summer and staying low for longer periods which will affect the health of the river.”
Limits are in place to control nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the river, but Jane wonders whether these will be adhered to in the future. She quietly observes there are now some “very big” water take proposals on the table.
Years ago, in her childhood, Jane remembers being regularly down at the river, fishing, swimming or chasing sheep. The Martin family ran a mixed sheep and cropping farm, with a creek running through it that was full of eels. “My grandfather, who was of Irish ancestry, first took over the farm in 1893 and I think he probably named the creek after the Maori word for eel – tuna – but somehow the name was registered as ‘tuni’ and the spelling stuck from then on.” The family farm bordered the Hurunui five kilometres from the mouth and included fertile river terraces. Originally the family owned land on both sides of the river. “My grandfather would cross it by sliding off the back of his horse and holding onto its tail as the horse swam across. He often crossed the river that way.”
The family celebrated 100 years on the farm in 1993. “Then Mum sold up and moved into the township of Cheviot.”
Her father was a frequent fisherman, catching salmon, kahawai, whitebait, or flounder in the lagoon. “As kids we were always down at the mouth of the Hurunui. It’s what you’d do – go down to the mouth to see what was happening or catching herring that could be used as bait for larger fish.” One of her vivid childhood memories is of standing at the mouth and watching whales spouting out to sea as they went past.
“Having a rural childhood was a fantastic experience and left me with an understanding of how nature works and its seasonal cycles.”
Jane is the third child of four in her family. She attended Cheviot Primary, as her two older sisters had done before her, and then left for boarding school in Christchurch. While she is known now for her environmental activism and involvement in local body politics, Jane began her working life as a high school science teacher. She taught in Nelson for three years before heading off on her OE, which lasted longer than the norm … she was away for 27 years.
While living in Nelson, she had taken night classes in silversmithing and this paved the way to employment in the high end custom jewellery sector in Canada. Later, feeling she lacked the accuracy needed for this precision-work, she switched to jewellery design and management.
She met her husband, Bill, in Vancouver in 1986 and 18 months later moved to the United States to be with him. On moving to the US, she changed career path again, this time into health care support, IT and software development. “I ended up working on multi-hospital integrated systems development and travelling around the US doing implementation work. My employer at that time, General Electric Healthcare, never took on a client with less than a million patients.”
By the mid-1990s, she and Bill had bought their holiday home at Gore Bay where they now live. They used to fly out from the States for a six week break every summer before finally settling back here in 2003. It was during these breaks that Jane began to be aware of the deteriorating state of the Hurunui River.
“It became clear things were not good in the year 2000 when you could lean over the lower Hurunui Bridge and look at these great balls of green slime. Around the same time, I got incredibly sick from drinking what I believe was poor quality water out of the Hurunui. I was in bed for a week and thought I was going to die.”
It was enough to get her writing to Environment Canterbury with her concerns. Community meetings to see what could be done began in 2003. “I’ve stayed involved ever since.” Jane started to be a familiar face at the back of the room at regional council meetings and workshops. It was a natural step to stand for election in 2007 in Christchurch North, where she and Bill were based at that time. She recalls doing a lot of door knocking and getting surprised reactions from people who had never previously met anyone standing for office. “It also became apparent to me that people were concerned about the state of our environment and water in Canterbury.”
At her valedictory on 27 April 2010, Jane noted it was water that had brought her to the council table and water that took her out before the end of her term.
The Government sacked the regional councillors after a report by former National Deputy Prime Minister Wyatt Creech claimed shortcomings in ECan’s capability to manage water. Environment Minister Nick Smith argued government leadership was needed to address Canterbury’s lack of a proper allocation plan for water.
Jane says elected councillors had all but completed the Natural Resources Regional Plan and the Canterbury Water Management Strategy just before they were dismissed. A new regional policy statement was about to go out in draft form. She can find no other reason than “expediency” for what took place in 2010.
The commissioners’ term was originally due to end in 2013 but has since been extended to 2016. Jane is unsure whether ECan will ever be restored back to how it was before 2010. “I think a lot of ECan’s responsibilities will be given to district and city council except for water which will be managed by appointed bureaucrats and a couple of elected representatives.”
These days, away from the political sphere, Jane and Bill spend 80 per cent of their time at Gore Bay, 20 per cent in Christchurch. Jane has also found time to indulge her favourite past-time: tango. It requires intense concentration but she says it brings about “all kinds of lovely things” including a trip to Argentina in 2010. “Tango is a dance of nuance and subtlety. If I have to be in Christchurch, I always try to make it on a tango night!”
Since 2010 though, most of her energy and focus has shifted to seeking change through education and conservation awareness. She’s involved with the Kiwi Conservation Club, which gives children direct experience of wild places. Monthly club trips take them to places such as Hinewai Reserve (on an insect hunt), Springs Junction (to see long-tailed bats), Godley Head (penguin-watching) and the Rangitata River (salmon migration).
In March she took part in the Nina Valley Ecoblitz, in which high school students and scientists worked together in hands-on activities to discover and document species in the Nina Valley area, Lewis Pass. “Some of the students were surveying areas that had not been done since the 1980s – everybody loved it.”
Once every three months, she spends some time in the Boyle River area assisting with predator monitoring and trapping work there.
Close to home, Jane is also a key player in a local project called ‘Bring on the Birds’ in Gore Bay, which got into full swing last spring started by the bay’s ratepayers group. Parents and their children have helped to build and install trap boxes. There are now 30 in place, catching pests like weasels, rats, stoats, ferrets, feral cats and hedgehogs. There are thought to be cave and tree weta in the bush so weta motels are also being set up as part of the project. Lizard shelters are planned too.
“Now if I’m monitoring or going around the traps I have families coming with me too. One day I had fifteen children with me – I felt like the Pied Piper!”
Jane and Bill love the rich natural environment of Gore Bay and the beach is just across the road from their home ‘Ti-Kouka’, named for its cabbage trees. The bay is home to wading birds in the estuary, coastal shore birds and bush birds including kereru, bell birds, brown creepers and warblers, with occasional visits by tomtits and kakariki. Bring on the Birds is seeking to boost native birds by controlling predator numbers; there are traps both in the bush (Tweedies and Buxton gullies) and on the northern side of the Jed estuary.
On the day of Latitude’s visit, Jane checks two traps: one just up the road from her home, and another in bush above the bay in Tweedies Gully. Along the way she talks about other valuable work going on, such as weed eradication (willows), and points out various native plants growing by the track that local children are learning to identify. There are bell birds calling in the trees, and heavy kereru flapping above us. Jane has become adept at clearing and re-setting traps. The boxes are a clever redesign of the standard trap box. It is as if the box has been turned upside down with the trap attached on the inside of the lid; the rest of the box is hinged, so making the whole contraption easier to manage.
As Jane flips a dead rat from her trap at ‘T1’ – its marker recycled from one of her old electioneering bill boards – she explains how traps are cleaned using old tooth brushes, (with donations always gratefully received through the letterbox at her home).
The traps are re-baited using dead rabbit road kill from her freezer at Gore Bay. “I always have to make sure I don’t mix up the meat for our stir fry with the bait for the traps,” she says, laughing. “It’s a real biodiversity hot spot here. It is so rare on the North Canterbury coast to have accessible coastal bush estuary area, limestone ecosystems, a sandy beach and coastal headlands. There are some special ecosystems here. The more people learn about it, the more they love it.”
A member of the Canterbury Botanical Society, Jane says she is thrilled that six species of native orchid have been found in the valleys behind Gore Bay.
Another role she took on last year was as manager of BRaid, an umbrella group focussed on assisting braided river ecosystems with a focus on river birds. Its work includes advocacy, bird surveys, monitoring, , training and support for river care groups. As Jane observes, the region’s rivers are home to some bird species that are threatened with extinction.
“Unfortunately we have a history of treating our riverbeds as waste lands. That needs to change so people understand what special places our braided rivers are. The black billed gull is the most threatened gull in the world. They nest on our braided rivers in large colonies that are vulnerable to predation and human intrusion. Dogs, quad bikes and four wheel drives can cause problems. These birds have enough challenges as it is with the variability of flows in the rivers.” Jane says greater awareness brings more respect in its wake. She remembers talking to one landowner about the birds on his property. He told her it wasn’t that he didn’t care – it’s just that he hadn’t known what was there.
Meanwhile, her perspective on water continues to be heard via a regional committee, which is part of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and she also chairs its Biodiversity and Ecosystems Working Group.
With so much on the go, 59-year-old Jane says she’s busier now than ever – and is pleased to keep it that way. “It’s about being involved with people and working with the community to bring about change. It’s not about ‘the economy versus the environment’. It’s about ensuring the resources available in our grandparents’ day will be available in the future to our grandchildren.”