The ecological restoration of Te Motu Tapu a Taikehu, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand

The Motutapu Restoration Trust 

Introduction. Te Motu Tapu a Taikehu (Motutapu Island, 1509 ha) is located in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, situated on the east coast of the north of New  Zealand’s North Island. It lies immediately adjacent to Rangitoto Island which is a volcano that last erupted approximately 500-550 years ago. This, and previous eruptions would have regularly devastated the forest and wetland ecosystems on Motutapu.

After a history of Maori settlement, European clearing and farming and use for military purposes during WWII, the Island was transferred to what is now the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 1970. The island is now designated a recreation reserve, open to the public.

Pollen records suggest that after the Rangitoto eruptions ceased around AD 1500, Motutapu recovered to be covered by a patchwork of lowland podocarp/broadleaf forest typical of that found in the Auckland region, and presumably was habitat to birds, reptiles, bats, fish and invertebrates similar to those on other Northland islands and the mainland.

Habitat loss through anthropogenic disturbances including fire, clearing for farming, and the introduction of mammalian predators saw many species of native bird, reptile and plants extirpated. Prior to restoration started in 1994, Motutapu was almost entirely covered by pastoral grassland dominated by exotic species, except for a few, very small forest remnants, and a depauperate native faunal communities.

Motutapu Island is a 40-minute ferry journey from Auckland City. Map: Department of Conservation

Restoration project

Planning of the ecological restoration program is undertaken by the Natural Heritage Committee of the Trust, a group of some 15 volunteers who meet monthly to plan, and discuss implementation. Members are highly qualified, skilled and enthusiastic practitioners. Together the committee  brings sound ecological theory and practice to the  restoration of flora and fauna. Published plans they work from include the 1994 Motutapu Restoration Working Plan and subsequent 2010 audit.

The objective is to return the island forest and wetland ecosystems to a post-eruption state, with a goal of reaching 500 ha of restored forest and wetland over coming decades. Although this area is far less than the full area of the island, it allows the conservation of cultural and archaeological sites, such as pā, WWII infrastructure, and farming landscapes. The post-eruption state can be described as lowland mixed broadleaf/podocarp forest, with a suite of seabirds, waders, forest birds, reptiles, bats and invertebrates interacting with each other so that natural evolutionary processes can once more resume for these taxa on the island.

Implementation of the ecological restoration of Motutapu has been underway for 23 years, since the formation of the Motutapu Restoration Trust (MRT) in 1994. To date,  in excess of 100 ha of pasture has been converted  to pioneer forest representing an estimated 450,000+ trees  planted. Volunteer hours total 21,462 between  2005 and 2015, and is currently in excess of 3,200 hours annually.

The major activities of the ecological restoration are:

  • Seed collecting from the island and wider Auckland region
  • Plant propagation in the island nursery – year round
  • Planting in the winter months
  • Weeding year round
  • Fauna translocation and monitoring (birds, reptiles, fish and crustacea) in conjunction with DOC

Planters in action: Photo: MRT

15,136 plants went into Hospital B paddock; one of the most difficult planting sites on the island.
Photo: MRT

Home Bay forest, with Motuihe Island and the Auckland mainland in the background. Photo: MRT

Revegetation. The original strategy (1994 – 2009) was to initiate successional processes by planting pioneer phase species, which would later give way to mature phase species dispersed naturally by birds. However, it was realized that mature phase species would be slow to arrive, as the island is isolated from native forests on nearby islands and seed dispersal from them is unlikely. If seed is dispersed from its own remnant forests, any new forest will continue to reflect the depauperate nature of these remnants.

In 2010, the planting strategy was updated to include enrichment planting of mature phase forest species into the forests planted up to 15 years earlier. Seeds for this were eco-sourced from the wider Auckland region, within boundaries agreed with DOC, and brought to the island nursery for propagation. This was an opportunity to return species to the island that are currently absent, including Swamp Maire (Syzygium maire), Tree  Fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata),  Pigeonwood (Hedycarya  arborea), White Maire (Nestegis lanceolata), Black Maire (N. cunninghamii), Turepo (Streblus  banksii) and a number  of podocarps including Matai (Prumnopitys taxifolia), Miro (P. ferruginea) and Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum).

The project has a large nursery, operated by one full time volunteer and supported by other volunteers during the week and weekends. The nursery provides all the plants for the planting programme. Seed is collected by a small team of collectors who travel Auckland’s and the Island’s forest remnants for seeds all year round. Growing media is supplied pro bono by Daltons and Living Earth and delivered by DOC boat. The risk of importing the introduced pests Rainbow Skink (Lampropholis delicata) as eggs and Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile) precludes bringing potted plants onto the island.

Weeds such as Woolly Nightshade (Solanum mauritianum),  Moth  Vine (Araujia  sericifera), Evergreen  Buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus), Apple of Sodom (Solanum linnaeanum), pampas (Cortaderia  spp.), and Boneseed (Chrysanthemoides monilifera) have been  present on the  island for many years, and in pasture had been kept in check by grazing. However, when pasture is retired, populations of these weeds  explode and threaten the plantings on not only Motutapu  Island, but also by dispersal to neighbouring Hauraki Gulf Islands. In particular, Rangitoto Island is threatened by invasion of weeds from Motutapu.

Weeding of the planted forests takes place in a strategic and planned way year round. Volunteers routinely grid search the plantations and control the infestations (using the hip chain method). Sources of reinfestation on other parts of the island are addressed by contractors who have the training to get at inaccessible weeds (e.g., cliff faces). New drone technology is in the process of being recruited to  identify infestations of weeds  from the  air, where they cannot be seen from the ground, or where access is particularly hazardous (e.g., cliff faces).

Pest species management. The suite of mammalian predators and herbivores on the Island prior to 2009 were detrimental to both flora and fauna, and their continued presence would have meant that neither locally extinct bird and plant species could be reintroduced, nor palatable plant species thrive.  These pests included: rats (Rattus rattus,  R. norvegicus, R. exulans); House Mouse (Mus musculus); Stoat (Mustela erminea); feral Cat (Felis catus); Hedgehog  (Erinaceus  europaeus occidentalis) and the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).

The successful eradication of pests from Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands was undertaken by DOC in 2009 using helicopters to disperse broadifacoum. DOC employs a biosecurity ranger on the island who responds to any new rat, stoat or other incursions.

Recent arrivals of North Island brown kiwi bring the total to 26, closer to the target of 40 required for a founder population. Photo: MRT

Further releases of takahē will bring the breeding
pairs to a total of 20, the largest total outside Fiordland. Photo: MRT

Faunal translocations. A major milestone was the declaration in 2011 of pest-free status for the Island, and the subsequent re-introductions of birds and aquatic taxa that this allowed.

The island’s pest-free status gives safe refuge to some of New Zealand’s rarest bird species. Since it became pest-free, the following rare, endangered and non-threatened species have been translocated:

  • Coromandel Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
  • Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)
  • Tīeke (Philesturnus rufusater)
  • Shore Plover (Thinornis  novaeseelandiae)
  • Whitehead (Mohoua albicilla)
  • Pāteke (Anas chlorotis)
  • Redfin bully (Gobiomorphus huttoni)
  • Koura (Paranephrops planifrons)

Survey and Monitoring.  Annual surveys of terrestrial birds and shorebirds by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand have been undertaken since 2007. As well,  a survey of seabirds nesting on the island is underway, and monitoring of translocated birds by MRT volunteers in association with DOC is ongoing. Stream fauna and reptiles are surveyed and reported on annually by DOC.

The Island’s native and exotic plants are also being surveyed to ascertain progress of the recovery over time, and plant survival rates have been monitored informally via regular tours of the plantings to assess what is working and what is not.

Evidence that recovery processes are securely occurring on the island

It is clear that the 100ha of restored vegetation has resulted in natural processes of vegetation recovery occurring, with natural regeneration evident for many species. Once the fruiting forest is fully established on Motutapu Island we envisage that it will be fully self-sustaining via seed dispersal by frugivorous birds.

Populations of fauna, with four exceptions, appear to be self-sustainable on Island. Many of the reintroduced bird species are clearly reproducing on the island and populations are growing without human intervention as evidenced by our bird surveys. The exceptions are Shore plover and Pāteke which naturally disperse away from the Island, necessitating several translocations to ensure the populations build to create a resident population, and are viable. Kiwi and Takahē populations are still being built up to founder population size.

 Bird species (terrestrial diurnal including waders):

  • an increase from 50 species in 2010 to 60 in 2015
  • Re-introduced populations expanding: Takahē, Whitehead,  Tīeke
  • Self-introduced or now detectable: Kākāriki (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), Bellbird (Anthornis melanura), Spotless Crake (Porzana tabuensis), Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor), Banded Rail (Gallirallus phillipensis), Grey-faced Storm Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera  gouldi).

Reptiles: Population and range expansions of the four native and one introduced species. The following are the natives:

  • Common Gecko (Woodworthia maculatus): up to ten-fold at some sites since 2008
  • Suter’s Skink (Oligosoma suteri): up to a hundred-fold at some sites since 2008 baseline
  • Copper Skink (Cyclodina aeneum): up to ten-fold at some sites since 2008 baseline
  • Moko Skink (Oligosoma moco): up to ten-fold at some sites since 2008

Fish:

  • Giant kokopu (Galaxius argenteus) now

Secure engagement with local  stakeholders.

There are a number of stakeholders that are fully engaged in the project through the MRT,  including:

  • Department of Conservation – MRT’s partner since the inception of the Trust in 1994, which has been responsible for some of our biggest milestones, such as the eradication of mammalian predators 2009-2011.
  • Motutapu Farms Ltd – leases the pasture from DOC to farm beef and sheep, becoming Auckland’s largest Another long-standing partner, helping the ecology of the island and wider Hauraki Gulf by farming organically.
  • Ngāi Tai ki Tamaki – the iwi who have mana whenua on the island and give their blessing to reintroduced fauna
  • Ngāti Paoa & Ngāti Tamaterā – Coromandel iwi who are kaitiaki of the North Island Brown Kiwi (Coromandel  subspecies) on
  • Motutapu Outdoor Education Centre (MOEC)  – use the island for accommodation of school groups gaining outdoor
  • Pāteke recovery
  • Takahē recovery group
  • Auckland Zoo – monitoring the populations of Redfin Bully ( Gobiomorphus huttoni) and Koura (Paranephrops planifrons).

Contact : Liz Brooks, Manager, Motutapu Restoration Trust, Newmarket, Auckland 1149, New Zealand.  Tel: +64 9 455 9634; PO Box 99 827; Email:  liz@motutapu.org.nz

 

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