Focus On: Jill Abigail and Joy Anderton

Their house looks out over the wetland and beyond to Taranaki and Kapiti
Their house looks out over the wetland and beyond to Taranaki and Kapiti

Many Wellington people cherish retirement ‘up the coast’. Jill Abigail and Joy Anderton’s vision fifteen years ago was of purchasing perhaps one acre of land on which to practise organic permaculture. However, a chance drive down Te Hapua Road saw them fall in love with 18 acres of coastal dunes and degraded wetland. Their elevated house, with views from the South Island up to Mt Taranaki, now overlooks their restored covenanted wetland, part of a swamp designated by DoC as an Outstanding Natural Landscape.

Prior to moving to Te Horo, Joy was a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Victoria University. A keen tramper and organic gardener, she was inspired by Geoff Park’s social and ecological history of the remnant wetland at Papaitonga, south of Levin. When the opportunity arose to buy a property with a wetland, it felt like the culmination of many dreams.

Joy was born in 1945 in Nelson but the family moved to the North Island when she was three. Many subsequent moves meant a tally of five very diverse primary schools, including Te Araroa on the East Coast. Her secondary schooling was in Wanganui, where she excelled in science subjects. She did two years of a science degree at Victoria, aiming to become a biochemist. However, this study was aborted by illness and Joy returned to Wanganui and started work as a soil technician.

For many years, Joy’s parents had raised foster children. This inspired her to swap science for social work, and at 23 she became a Child Welfare Officer. Keen to continue her study, this time in her newly chosen field, she undertook a two-year Diploma in Social Work at Victoria University, followed by many years as a social worker in a variety of government and voluntary organisations. During these years she studied part-time for a B.A in Education, as well as becoming part of the flourishing women’s movement. In 1985, Joy joined the Wellington City Council as Community Services Manager, for three years leading a team that distinguished itself with its innovative approaches to community development.

Joy Anderton & Jill Abigail on the edge of their wetland
Joy Anderton & Jill Abigail on the edge of their wetland

In 1988, Joy was appointed co-Director of Policy at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Unfortunately, a restructuring meant that the position was disestablished only a few months later. She was then head-hunted for a part-time lectureship in Social Work at Victoria University. She remained at Victoria for eleven years as Senior Lecturer, always choosing to work part-time because her other interest was in taking groups of women on local tramps around the region. Identification of native flora and fauna was part of the experience she gave to women not used to being out in the bush.
Environmental education became more and more part of Joy’s life, both in her social work teaching and in her Women Walk Wellington activities. Eventually she began the research for a Masters degree on the topic of education for sustainability, pulling together her passions for both social justice and justice for the planet. Part of her research was undertaken in Hull, England. In 2000 she was awarded a Doctoral degree for the final thesis. Ironically, during this time, restructuring at the university resulted in the demise of the Social Work Department. All the staff were made redundant: “treated like lepers,” she recalls wryly. This redundancy, as so often happens, resulted in a positive life change, in this case the move to Te Horo to live a rural lifestyle, with a specific project of restoring a wetland.

Partner Jill Abigail was born in England. Her father couldn’t settle after the war, and brought the family to New Zealand in 1947, when Jill was eight. Always a bookworm, she entered library work when she left school, studying part-time for a B.A. in English at Canterbury University. In 1963, at the age of 24, Jill headed back ‘home’ to England, where she secured a job as photographic librarian with the BBC on a 26-part television series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Great War. Following that, Jill was offered a job as an archivist with a military historian who was writing his memoirs.

In 1966, she went to Finland to work as an English secretary in a pulp and paper mill. She returned to New Zealand at the end of 1968, with a five-month spell in Canada en route. Jill worked in broadcasting for five years, first as a film librarian and then as a current affairs researcher. Back in London, she became an Information Officer with Shelter, the charity devoted to ending homelessness and bad housing. At the age of 39, Jill studied for a post-graduate Diploma in Librarianship in London. She also undertook a night-school course on the history of the women’s movement, which introduced her to feminism. This was a life-changing experience for Jill. She returned to Finland, and began to study Finnish, a particularly difficult language. She was regularly offered work editing academic theses and articles by Helsinki University staff writing in English, so editing became a new career strand.

Jill returned to New Zealand in 1981 and got a job researching careers education for girls. At the same time she involved herself in numerous feminist activities in Wellington, including teaching women’s studies through the WEA. In 1986 she was appointed Director of Information & Liaison in the newly established Ministry of Women’s Affairs. These were exciting times. “Your job is to change the world,” said Prime Minister David Lange to Ministry staff. They all believed him. But then the dark shadow of Rogernomics fell on the department. In 1988, Jill’s position, like Joy’s, was disestablished and she lost her job.

By this stage, Jill and Joy were in a committed relationship. Jill was appointed Programme Director at the Wellington YWCA, staying there for “six good, rich, productive years”. This was followed by two years as project manager for the Judicial Committee on Gender Equity, organising training on gender issues for the entire New Zealand judiciary. Following several months in England in 1997 during Joy’s research sabbatical, Jill undertook training on oral history recording with Judy Fyfe and Hugo Manson, and carried out several oral history projects.

In 1999, Joy Anderton and Jill Abigail bought 18 acres of land in Te Hapua Road, Te Horo. The remainder of this story tells of their achievements….
Wetlands, which used to be called swamps, were originally wild, wet places sheltering birds and fish as well as carrying out their primary function of natural water purification. For Maori, they provided food, fibre and passageways. On the Kapiti Coast, Maori were originally able to paddle their waka from Paekakariki through to Foxton along these coastal waterways. But from the late 1800s onwards, European arrivals drained them on a massive scale, for farmland, for roads and even for rubbish dumps.

The wetland
The wetland

The 10-acre wetland on Joy and Jill’s property is part of a larger complex known as the Te Hapua Swamp. An ecological report commissioned by the Wellington Regional Council recognised the Te Hapua Swamp, which covers 30Ha now spread over a number of private properties, as the best representative example of what would have been a much more extensive area of wetlands.

Joy and Jill purchased an elegant Alan Minty-designed house overlooking a wetland that to most people would have been a source of despair. Attempts to drain it had confined the open water to a farm drain and flax had been bulldozed to make way for pasture grasses. Cattle had grazed there, causing more damage. The couple’s first task was to set about removing the unwanted plant species threatening the wetland, such as blackberry and lupin. The worst issue was crack willow, identified in the ecologist’s report as ‘the biggest woody weed problem in wetlands of New Zealand’. Failure to remove their 120 trees completely would have resulted in the entire area becoming totally invaded, to the exclusion of all other plants. Joy and Jill were advised that the only way to eliminate their willows was by poisoning them, which was a blow to their organic practice. The Regional Council funded the poisoning programme over a three-year period, while Jill and Joy employed contractors to take out the dead trees. These were used for firewood and garden edging, or piled in heaps to become insect habitat.

Weed and animal pest control demanded ongoing effort. Additionally, Joy and Jill spent much time over several years actively opposing various subdivision proposals in other parts of the Te Hapua wetland complex. These would have threatened the viability of the wetland.
Fifteen years on from their arrival, their wetland, now subject to a QEII Open Space Covenant, is a delight. KCDC, which has recognised the Te Hapua Swamp as an area of ecological significance, has included it on their heritage register, and continues to give Joy and Jill encouragement via funding support and rates relief. The Department of Conservation, which has designated the total Te Hapua Swamp an ‘Outstanding Natural Landscape’, gave them a grant to build a 60-metre boardwalk, which allows year-round access. Friends and volunteers have contributed to the planting and weeding programme over the years, but essentially it’s Joy and Jill’s vision, ongoing commitment and hard work that has made the difference.
That difference is very apparent when viewing some areas of the Te Hapua Swamp that have not been restored. The neighbouring land, still grazed, is pretty dismal to the casual observer. Joy and Jill’s wetland is teeming with growth, with abundant birdlife. A pukeko, nesting in the top of a manuka shrub, gave us a telling-off with cries of alarm to warn the dabchicks, shoveller ducks, paradise ducks, mallards, black swans and harrier hawks that inhabit the wetland at various times.

So how did they do it?

Obviously, from such intellectually robust women, careful research was applied. Apart from weed clearance, their biggest challenge was planting into the exotic grasses that grew in the area. Salt-laden westerly winds discouraged all but the hardiest natives, with heavy winter frosts a further problem. Getting plants established without water required some ingenious solutions for several years before they got water laid on from the garden area to the wetland.

Their thousands of plants were eco-sourced where possible. There were some unexpected failures. Ngaio were victim to winter frosts, while some pittosporum didn’t thrive. What did work? Essentially, natives with small thick leaves proved the most successful. Olearia solandri, ake ake, griselina littoralis, coprosma propinqua all established well, as did cabbage trees, manuka, kanuka, karamu, corokia, flax, toetoe and carex secta, a grass that is particularly suitable for bird and fish protection. Manuka proved to be a great ‘nursery plant’. Once established, it is able to give protection to other natives. Whilst totara and kowhai survived in the more exposed grassland, kahikitea and pukatea have responded well to being planted within the shelter of the established manuka stands.

The restoration of the wetland is not a task that has a completion date. While the major work has been done, further improvements could be made through continued planting of a wider range of natives to create a lowland coastal forest. But Joy and Jill feel it is time to hand the property and the guardianship of the wetland on into younger hands now, and they have put it on the market. After 15 very happy and satisfying years, it will be a huge wrench to leave, but they do so knowing that the wetland is in an infinitely better condition than when they took it on, and that its covenant keeps it protected from development, drainage or other harm. As early as 2006, Joy and Jill won a Ballance Farm Environmental Merit Award for their work, and in 2014, the Regional Council named their wetland as one of the few Key Native Ecosystem Sites within the greater Wellington region. The wheel has come full circle, from the high value placed by early Maori on wetlands, through a century and a half of destruction and neglect, back now to recognition at government administration level of the importance of these ecological treasures.