Elevating the alpine

Eminent and ever-busy New Zealand botanist Sir Alan Mark has completed a definitive guide to our alpine environment, the result of a passion for plants and wild places that has spanned more than half a century. Shane Gilchrist reports.

In order to outline a fundamental function of Sir Alan Mark's latest project, Above the Treeline: A Nature Guide to Alpine New Zealand, it's not entirely off-topic to discuss the pages of another book.

The Reader's Digest Family Encyclopedia of Animals makes a salient point in its foreword: that such tomes are likely to be revised for two reasons, one admirable, the other sad. On one hand, new discoveries of species would bolster pages; on the other, certain types might no longer exist come any updating of the publication.

Knighted in 2009 for his conservation work, Sir Alan agrees the same considerations apply to Above the Treeline, which could be regarded as the fourth revision of a series he started in 1973 with botanical artist Nancy Adams (others being published in 1986 and 1995).

Approached by Nelson-based Craig Potton Publishing, the 80-year-old emeritus professor of botany at the University of Otago, admits the book required more work than he had expected.

''Our plant taxonomists have been busy and there has been a lot of molecular work done since the last book. There has been a hell of a lot of literature since 1995 so it was a major task to catch up on that.''

Above the Treeline, the first comprehensive field guide to New Zealand's alpine environment, describes and illustrates more than 850 species of flora and fauna and includes more than 1000 photographs in its almost 500 pages.

The flora sections cover conifers, flowering plants, mosses, ferns, lichens and fungi; and the sections on fauna are supplied by Rod Morris (birds), Mandy Tocher (lizards) and Brian Patrick (invertebrates).

''I know publishers are always keen for sales and there are a lot of books around that are the `100 most common ... ' and so on. But, to me, there is nothing more frustrating than taking such a book into the field. You don't know if your particular interest is going to be covered or not,'' Sir Alan says.

''The publishers were keen to make it comprehensive. I must say, I got a lot of support from botanical colleagues and people in government departments, including Landcare Research and the Department of Conservation. They saw my drafts and would comment, `you haven't got this or that', and would tell me where they had found plants.''

Another key source was the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. Established in 2003 with the vision that ''the rich, diverse and unique plant life of New Zealand will be recognised, cherished and restored'', the network's research includes an in-depth website.

''That was basically my bible, and I recognise the effort those people have made to keep New Zealand plant literature right up to the minute.''

Though Sir Alan is a former president of the Royal Forest and Bird Society (1986-1990), a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and recipient of that organisation's Hutton Medal in 1997 and its Charles Fleming Environmental Award in 2010, he steers clear of opinion within the pages of Above the Treeline. Yet the book does contain a message between the lines. The celebration of what lives in our wild alpine places comes with an unspoken caution about what we stand to lose.

''I hope the book will add to the appreciation of what we have and also further efforts to ensure we retain them for their biodiversity value, their genetic value. We have a responsibility to the world at large to protect our unique biota for future generations,'' Sir Alan says.

''It's a shame that we have to defend against some high-impact development on conservation land, areas that have high diversity and threatened species.

''I've been in conservation long enough to realise it is about reducing the rate of loss; there is little to be gained. So hopefully, the book will add to the appreciation of what we have to cherish and encourage people to fight for our heritage.''

According to the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network, 75.4% of New Zealand's alpine vascular* plants are considered ''not threatened''. Read another way, that means a quarter are.(*Vascular plants have a system of ''tubes'' that connect all parts of the plant, roots, shoots and leaves, to transport water and nutrients from one part of the plant to another.)''I think our alpine plants aren't perhaps as threatened as our lowland forest plants, but there has been a fair bit of habitat modification and depletion in the South Island high country. The threat status of our plants and animals is high in international standards.

''Bear in mind, they don't occur anywhere else. And it is also very hard to retain those plants in anything other than their natural habitat.''

Ouralpine plants are special for a number of reasons.

New Zealand has a greater range of alpine vegetation than occurs in most other parts of the world. More than 700 species of flora - a third of the total number of New Zealand's plant life - exist in alpine conditions, yet mountain ranges comprise just 10% of the country's total land area. And of those 700-odd species, 93% are endemic to the New Zealand Biological Region (which extends to the subantarctic islands).

That level of endemism hints at a long history of alpine evolution. But, in fact, the mountain habitat of New Zealand is, by geological standards, very recent, Sir Alan notes.

''It only goes back five million years which, in evolutionary terms, is only yesterday.

''The extremes in temperature, short summers and high rates of erosion all help make New Zealand's alpine environment challenging, not only for the humans who explore it but also for the plants and animals that inhabit it.

''There have been a whole range of adaptations to fill all those various habitats or niches. Plants have evolved in interesting ways.

''For example, our alpine lichens have made three remarkable adaptations: they can become metabolically dormant when the environment dries out; they can photosynthesise at temperatures as low as minus 20degC; and they can colonise nutrient-poor substrata because they obtain their nutrients from the air, rain and snow.''

Other ''remarkable'' plants he lists include the largest buttercup in the world, Ranunculus lyallii, otherwise known as the Mt Cook Buttercup. As with many of New Zealand's alpine flowers, it offers a limited palette.

''A lot of people find it disappointing that our alpine plants don't have interesting flowers - they are mostly white or yellow.

''Some plants [such as the button daisy, Leptinella atrata and its subspecies] do have colour. But often there is no evolutionary advantage to them having colour.

''It seems it is the insects that have let us down. A bit like our plants, insects have been isolated for so long that they are not very specialised. So they bumble about in flowers in which pollination often occurs at night-time.''

Though he readily acknowledges many people aren't interested in grasses, Sir Alan has a fondness for tussocks. It's hardly surprising given he is an expert in upland grassland ecosystems.

''They have an ability to conserve water. They have an adaptation in their fine, wispy foliage to minimise loss. That same foliage is very well-suited to extract water out of fog.

''We have shown through experiments on Mount Cargill that a tussock, sitting on its own, can capture half a litre of water an hour when we can't measure any rain; it just strips it from the fog. It thus provides water downstream for whatever use is required, be it conservation, recreation or exploitation.''

Officially, Sir Alan retired in 1998. Yet he admits he hasn't slowed down too much. Not required to do university lectures, he's able to set his ''own priorities''.

''I've been able to indulge my conservation interests. I've had two Environment Court cases and one Environment Canterbury case recently.

''I've been involved in the Nevis Valley case in which Pioneer Energy has submitted to flood part of the Nevis Valley. I think we made the case the valley was an outstanding landscape with outstanding values,'' he says, referring to the unanimous decision last year by parties to agree to the entire Nevis Valley being reclassified from a special natural landscape to outstanding natural landscape. (A decision from the Environment Court is still pending on another Nevis Valley case - whether the water conservation order on the Nevis River should be amended.)

''Recently, I've been involved with the Environment Court in the case regarding the Denniston Plateau, which is of high conservation value: it has very high biodiversity in lizards, invertebrates and plants. It's conservation land but we now have to defend it against open-cast coal mining.

''I was asked to look at the international significance of the Denniston Plateau so I took in world heritage values and international wetland values.''

(The four-week Environment Court case finished late last year, and a decision is expected shortly.)''Then I had a case with Environment Canterbury which involved taking a look at Lake Sumner, which is the only unmodified lake in Canterbury and one of the few left in the South Island. A two-metre dam was proposed ... but by the time the case was to be heard, the proponents didn't front up.''

Closer to home, the man who has dedicated his academic career to the study of plants, ecosystems and associated issues, does actually find time to spend in his own Dunedin garden.

''I have a small native forest patch and a small alpine garden patch.

''I enjoy the outdoors. I took a group of people to the top of the Old Man Range in Central Otago this week. I've been keen to leave a bit of a legacy behind and put some signage up there explaining various aspects to visitors.

''There is a bit going on, but life is too short to hang your boots up.''

Fact file

• Knighted in 2009 for his conservation work, Sir Alan Mark is emeritus professor of botany at the University of Otago.
• Born in Dunedin.
• Became professor of botany at Otago in 1975.
• Past member NZ National Parks and Reserves Authority.
• Past member NZ Conservation Authority. Fiordland Marine Guardian.
• Involved in Hellaby Indigenous Grasslands Research Trust: first research fellow, then research adviser, and, until 2009, was chairman of its board of governors.
• Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Life member and former president of Forest and Bird Society.
• Member of Ecological Society.
• CBE for contributions to conservation; made a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009.

The guide

Above the Treeline: A Nature Guide to Alpine New Zealand, by Alan F. Mark, is published by Craig Potton Publishing ($49.99)