Key Words: Ecological restoration, reintroductions, island restoration, community engagement, Motuora Restoration Society
Motuora Restoration Society (http://motuora.org.nz) is recognised by the New Zealand Department of Conservation as the lead community agency for the restoration of Motuora, an 80 ha island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Since 2003 the Society has taken responsibility for the Island’s day-to-day management as well as developing and implementing the Island’s long term restoration strategy. Our aspiration is summed up in our statement “It is our dream that future generations will enjoy a forest alive with native birds, reptiles and insects”.
Background. Motuora is located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island near Auckland City. Motuora would once have been tree-covered and have hosted a wide range of native plants, invertebrates, reptiles and birds, particularly burrow-nesting seabirds. It was visited by early Polynesian settlers, later Māori, who would have initially camped, but later lived more permanently on the Island raising crops and harvesting fish, shellfish and presumably seabird eggs, chicks and adults. European settlers later occupied the Island, burning off most of the bush to encourage growth of grasses for their grazing livestock.
Towards the end of the farming period in the 1980s most of the Island’s native flora and fauna were gone. Interestingly however, there were never breeding populations of introduced mammalian pests on the Island so the remnant ecosystem had not been impacted by mice, rats, mustelids, hedgehogs, possums, goats, pigs or deer.
From about 1987 onwards both Government and members of the public began to take an interest in the Island and to promote the idea of adopting it as a predator-free bird habitat. Discussions continued over the next few years and by 1992 a sub-committee of the mid-North Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society had been formed and, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, drew up the first ‘strategy plan’ for the Island. Work parties began seed collecting, trial tree planting, weeding and fencing upgrades. By 1995 it had become apparent that the project could best proceed by way of an independent group dedicated to the task and the Motuora Restoration Society was formed.
The work on Motuora was designed to be a true restoration project combining firm ideas about the model ecosystem desired and a ‘bottom-up’ approach (vegetation-invertebrates-reptiles-birds) timing planting and introductions in a logical sequence. The historical presence of species on Motuora was inferred from comparisons with other less modified islands off the north east of the North Island, and particularly those from within the Rodney and Inner Gulf Ecological Districts, and using paleological information collected from the adjacent mainland. Motuora Restoration Society has resisted the temptation to add iconic attractive species not originally present on the Island which might have raised the profile of the project.
Works carried out. The Society and its volunteers have contributed many thousands of hours to the restoration of the Island since 1995, raising and planting more than 300,000 native seedlings. This was particularly challenging with the logistics of working on an island without a regular ferry service or wharf. The project also included seabird and other species translocations, monitoring, weeding and track maintenance as well as fundraising.
The framework adopted began with reforestation so that appropriate habitat could be reinstated. A nursery was set up and seeds were collected from the Island, from nearby islands and, when necessary, from the mainland. With the exception of some areas of higher ground providing panoramic views from the Island, the land area was prepared (by weed-killing rampant kikuyu grass) and planted with hardy, wind and salt tolerant tree species. Once the trees were established, the canopy closed and sufficient shelter available, less hardy species and those requiring lower light levels were planted among the pioneers. Today the planting of 400,000 trees of pioneer species is all but complete; and the raising and planting of ‘canopy’ and less hardy species continues.
In terms of fauna, invertebrate populations were surveyed and have been monitored as the forest has matured. One species, Wētāpunga (Deinacrida heteracantha) has been introduced. Four reptiles have been introduced: Shore Skink (Oligosoma smithi), Duvaucel’s Gecko (Hoplodactylus duvaucelii), Raukawa Gecko (Woodworthia maculata) and Pacific Gecko (Dactylocnemis pacificus). One small land bird – Whitehead (Mohoua albicilla) has been translocated with 40 individuals moved to the Island. Four seabird species have been attracted or translocated to the Island including the Common Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix), and Pycroft’s Petrel (Pterodroma pycrofti).
Results. The project has restored Motuora from a pastoral farm (dominated by introduced grasses, weeds and only a small remnant fringe of naturally regenerating native forest) to a functioning native ecosystem, predominantly covered in early succession native forest with an intact canopy.
Initially the population of invertebrates was dominated by grassland species but the range and population size of forest dwellers has now much improved and the invertebrate fauna is now rich and plentiful (although rarer and endangered species are still to be added). An initial suite of populations of flightless invertebrates remain depauperate. Whitehead, an insectivorous bird species, has flourished with a current population of several hundred. At this early stage in the introduction of native fauna it is possible to report successful breeding and, for the most part, sufficient survival of initial colonisers of the species introduced to suggest that new populations will be established. Sound attraction systems have led to initial breeding of Fluttering Shearwater (Puffinus gavia) and Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator).
Partnerships. Management of the Island is shared with the Department of Conservation (DOC) who administer the site on behalf of the Crown. DOC has legal commitments to engage with and act on behalf of the general public and particularly with iwi (Māori) who have generally expressed strong support for the restoration project and are expected to have co-management rights over the Island in the future.
Over the years the combined efforts of DOC staff, University researchers, the committee, thousands of volunteers and a host of donors and sponsors have worked hard to bring the Island to its present state.
Future directions. A sustained effort will continue to be required each year on biosecurity and weeding programmes. It will be many more decades before the forest matures and seabird and reptile populations reach capacity levels and a substantial workload is anticipated in managing and monitoring the emerging ecosystem for many years to come.
Acknowledgements: The success of the project is reinforced by the fact that the Society has maintained a close collaboration with a range of scientists and have inspired the active support and engagement of so many volunteers. We thank all our inspiring volunteers and the following participating academics and researchers who have contributed to the project over the past ten years: Plants: Shelley Heiss Dunlop, Helen Lindsay (contractor). Reptiles: Marleen Baling (Massey University), Dylan van Winkel (consultant), Su Sinclair (Auckland Council), Manuela Barry (Massey University). Invertebrates: Chris Green (DOC), Robin Gardner-Gee (Auckland University), Jacqueline Beggs (Auckland University), Stephen Wallace (Auckland University). Birds: Robin Gardner-Gee (Auckland University), Jacqueline Beggs (Auckland University), Kevin Parker (Massey University), Richard Griffiths (DOC), Graeme Taylor (DOC), Helen Gummer (DOC contractor). The restoration project has been supported financially though grant aid received from a wide range of funders.