Q&A: Stephen Hartley

According to Stephen Hartley, it’s easy to be green.

Associate Professor of Ecology and Conservation at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka, Stephen’s work often involves community driven conservation. That means being involved with groups like Predator Free Wellington, the Aorangi Restoration Trust, the Sanctuary to Sea project, and the Wairio Wetland Trust. His current research includes monitoring forest biodiversity in response to the control of introduced animals, wetland restoration, and urban nature.

Stephen loves the fact that tūī, kererū and kākā (three charismatic birds) serenade him on the way to work, eating stir fried noodles from Jasmine Thai, and ecological restoration.

What are the top three things that Wellingtonians can do for our ecosystems?

Wellington is fortunate to encompass a great variety of ecosystems, from the hilltops to the coast. Starting close to home and venturing out, my top three picks would be:

1. Enjoy what we have! Lockdown wasn’t great, but one of the positives many people noticed was the chance to slow down and appreciate the nature already around us. We are unlikely to protect what we don’t value.

2. Allow some messiness and diversity in the garden: like a pile of rotting logs to encourage fungi and insects, a shallow dish of water for birds, and let the native plants go a little wild. If you don’t have a garden, a window box or planter with flowers can attract bees and butterflies.

3. Join a local environmental care group. The website naturespace.org.nz can help you find out who is doing what in your neighborhood.

What’s one thing you’d like to change about Wellington?

Wellington has undergone an ecological and cultural transformation over the past 20-30 years. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the past 18 years: with the spread of tūī, kākā and kererū across the city coupled with the proliferation of community-based environmental groups caring for their local neighbourhood patch. If I could change one thing, it would be to see all these initiatives boosted and connected so that tīeke (saddleback), hihi, forest geckoes and peripatus (velvet worms) are also thriving across the city, and then fast-forward three-hundred years to see majestic totara, rata and rimu gracing the inner and outer greenbelt. 

What are some cool projects happening around the region?

There’s a huge number of student projects being conducted by undergraduates and postgraduates.

A few examples from the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology include: monitoring the tuatara population on Matiu / Somes Island, using automated methods to recognise bird song from digital recorders, wetland restoration in the Wairarapa, and measuring the effect of Predator-Free initiatives on lizards, insects and mice. There are projects looking at tree ferns and their role in forest dynamics, viral diseases of ants and honeybees, and many marine projects in and around Wellington’s Taputeranga Marine Reserve.

What’s a skill you have that people wouldn’t guess?

My teammates from Masters football wouldn’t guess that I’m actually an excellent football player. Seriously though, I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of playing football for the past 10 years.  

What book is beside your bed?

I tend to have several books on the go at once, right now I’m reading Zealandia: The Valley that Changed a Nation by Jim Lynch as well as Bob Brockie’s A Living New Zealand Forest. There’s an interesting symmetry between these two books: both are based on 25+ years of observation and research from nearby valleys – one in Karori and the other in the Orongorongo Valley. For something completely different, my wife and I are reading Northanger Abbey.

What’s something you’ve always wanted to try?

I’m fascinated by different views and perspectives of landscapes, whether it’s a map, from a plane or from a drone. Something I’d love to try is a hot air balloon ride. I imagine the sensation of floating in the air would be eerie and awe-inspiring. A balloon trip over the African savannah would be amazing. But New Zealand landscapes are amazing, too!

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