Thirty years ago Fergus Sutherland traveled to the United Kingdom to bring volunteering ideas back to New Zealand. Today the programme he first created in Southland is believed to be the largest structured conservation volunteer programme in the country. It boasts some impressive long serving volunteers like 70-plus Mavis Johnson.

Believed to be the first programme of its type in the country, the DOC Southland and Otago conservation volunteer programme celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013.

Back in 1987, Fergus Sutherland travelled to the United Kingdom to find out more about how conservation volunteering worked and to bring ideas back to New Zealand explains Catherine Sutherland – Community ranger Invercargill. Soon after, Fergus was employed by DOC as a part-time volunteer coordinator. His first task was to put together a conservation volunteer programme for the summer of 1988–89.

Fergus Sutherland restoring wall.
Fergus Sutherland works on restoring the sod walls of an old miner's hut near Garston in 1990

"One of the first activities was the restoration of Beech Hut in the Eyre Mountains in February 1989. Without this restoration, it is likely that the hut would only be a pile of rubble today" says Catherine.

"The volunteer booklet produced that year and the schedule of activities organised during the 1988–89 summer was the basis for our current volunteer activities. We believe it's DOC's first structured volunteer programme."

Today the programme is perhaps the largest structured conservation volunteer programme in the country, covering Central Otago, Southland, Fiordland and Stewart Island says Catherine. "We've run an annual programme and published an activity booklet for the last 29 years!"

Over the years local, national and international volunteers have supported DOC by putting time and energy into restoring huts, maintaining tracks, monitoring wildlife, pest trapping, working as hut wardens and much more. This year they are running 30 projects says Catherine.

"We usually have around 100 people involved every year. Many of our huts and tracks are far away so most of our trips are based in more remote country where you will stay overnight for up a week and sometimes a month. The programme is so popular that some people apply for more than one activity but I have to turn away heaps of people."

Mavis Johnston - Southland and Otago's longest serving conservation volunteer

One of those keen volunteers for the DOC Southland and Otago conservation volunteer programme is Mavis Johnson from Gore.

Mavis is a quiet, unassuming, humble 70-plus lady, but definitely not your run-of-the-mill granny says Catherine. "She is a powerhouse of energy that would put many half her age to shame; the epitome of the mantra 'age is no barrier.'"

Volunteers waiting for the helicopter.
Mavis Johnston (right) and Nancy Rieser waiting for the helicopter to collect them on the Jack Mac Hut project, Glenary Station 2011

Mavis is the programme's longest serving volunteer whose first project was in 1991 at Mt Aurum Homestead, Skippers Canyon for six days along with seven other volunteers and DOC staff. They chopped down larch, cleared weeds and undertook general maintenance of the area, leaving behind a pristine historic treasure that is visited annually by countless numbers of tourists.

One of the more memorable moments of the trip was the drive in recalls Mavis . The road into Skippers barrels around rocky headlands and clings to the edges of sheer cliffs. The realisation that there's nothing outside the left-hand window of the truck but a rehearsal for eternity can be a sobering experience!.

Undaunted, Mavis estimates she has completed over 20 activities from programme since then. Why does Mavis volunteer? 'Because there are so many new people, so many wonderful places, so many memorable moments and so much of our country that needs people to help keep it forever". Mavis will continue volunteering as long as her good health allows and this year she will head to Milford Sound to help maintain historic sites in the area.

Good on you Mavis!

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