A few months ago, I took the opportunity while heading down to a conference in Wellington to squeeze in a field trip to the Mana Island Scientific Reserve. The weather was on our side: the view to west was of calm waves and blue skies… not overly common for this part of the country. With the top of the South Island visible, winds and currents are often funnelled through Cook Strait, stirring up the sea and making Wellington a generally impractical place for umbrellas.
Friends of Mana Island Inc (FOMI) run regular weekend trips to the Island. My objective? Simply to spend a day with FOMI volunteers to learn about the Mana’s history and FOMIs role in decades of restoration work.
The restoration project is a snapshot of the work going on in the community environmental sector and particularly on small offshore islands. Tiritiri Matangi is another example of a long-term project where a grassroots society (Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi/SOTM), largely staffed by volunteers, plays a key role in physical restoration (weeding, planting), species translocations, and adding depth to visitor experiences (see Galbraith 2013). Without these groups, islands would be far less visible to the general public, along with the conservation activities and layers of educational/advocacy that they provide.
Setting the scene
Where Tiri is 80 km from Auckland, Mana, an ancient marine terrace, is a short 20 minutes by ferry from Wellington’s Kapiti Coast. In line with biosecurity requirements, we all emptied our bags before leaving checking for mammal stowaways, and that no seeds were tucked into the corrugated tread of our boots or were attached to Velcro fastenings. With no jetty, the ferry shunts up onto the boulder fringe and the resident DOC ranger was there to greet us. Mana was once home to Maori as well as sealers and whalers, and (high calibre) lighthouse keepers… the ideal candidate for the position was required to be male, aged 21-31, as well as…
…sober and industrious, cleanly in their persons and habits and orderly in their families. Any flagrant immorality will subject them to immediate dismissal
Despite the diverse social history, farming has left the most obvious legacy on the island. The woolshed and sheep pens (built soon after John Bell arrived in 1832 with 100 merino sheep and 10 cattle) nestled among shrubland are now an informal museum. Images of the 217ha island stripped nearly bare attest to our fore-fathers desire to reshape the landscape for meat and fibre production. Surprisingly, the island played a pivotal role in NZs farming history, with one of the country’s first wool exports leaving from here. In the 1970s, the island became research and quarantine station for sheep breeding with a scrapies outbreak putting a permanent end to stock on the island.
We embarked on one of the circuit tracks, passing a couple of takahe poking around, stripping seed heads off grasses. Along with other predator free islands (e.g., Tiritiri Matangi and Rotoroa), Mana is a safe haven for birds: the public can get to see them while populations are slowly built up. Re-cloaking the island in native vegetation has meant growing and planting a quarter of a million specimens. Long-term volunteer Alan showed me his list for sourcing seed in reserves adjacent along Wellington’s coast.
Re-establishing seabird ecosystems
Mana has seen a huge effort to restore burrow-nesting petrels. Over 700 chicks of three species were translocated to the island between 1997 and 2008. Teams of contractors and volunteers organised by the Department of Conservation along with FOMI provided critical care for the birds, feeding, weighing and documenting their progress. Today, the younger birds still return, and over 60 have been recorded back so far.
In an effort to lure back gannets, a colony of realistically painted models is set on a headland (artfully ‘guano’ spattered), and taped calls sent out to the bird-world. ‘Nigel-no-mates’, the only real bird, was perched quite comfortably among avian tableau, and appeared completely unperturbed by the concrete company. Another bird occasionally visits, but that is the nature of novel experimentation: it might be successful in the short or long-term… or not at all.
Reintroducing further fauna
It’s easy to focus on the larger and more charismatic species of flora and fauna for reintroduction: the beautiful ngahere/forest gecko has its own enclosure to help species settle and reproduce on the island. But, insects have also been translocated, notably the speargrass and flax ‘mega’ weevils. Both have restricted ranges on the mainland and have suffered heavy predation by pests.
Introducing tuatara may be a future option: in the wild they co-exist with seabirds, occupying their burrows while also dining on their eggs and chicks. The Native cress Lepidium oleraceum was valued by Captain Cook as an antiscorbutic (hence ‘Cook’s scurvy grass’). The plant was originally another part of the seabird ecosystem, thriving in the guano rich soils, but today, thanks to sheep and habitat loss, a single plant remains.
Making positive change
Community groups lead a significant number of proposals to the Dept. of Conservation for species translocations (see Cromarty and Alderson 2013). Although often we can’t quantify community restoration efforts at a local scale, let alone regional or national scale, their efforts have inexorably helped to bring back aspects of native ecosystems that were removed or severely degraded. Working in partnership has its challenges and there is often a tension between professional agency staff (i.e. the ‘professionals’) and volunteers (i.e. the ‘amateurs’) with little appreciation or understanding of the situated knowledge that volunteers – particularly long-term ones – bring to conservation projects (see Callister 2013).
As is typical in many community initiatives, the social outcomes of years of community engagement and input are not measured. But we do at least know that the uncountable hours of effort put into manually re-planting the island with native species has dramatically sped up the restoration of forests and created much needed habitat for range restricted bird species (see Mitchell 2013). Having visited Tiritiri Matangi three times over 17yr and been astounded by the positive changes, I’ll revisit Mana too.
Galbraith, M. (2013). Public and ecology-the role of volunteers on Tiritiri Matangi Island. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 37(3), 266
Mitchell, N. D. (2013). Tiritiri Matangi Island: what if nothing had been done?. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 37(3), 261.
Callister, P. 2013. Eco-restoration, partnership and ageing volunteers: A view from the field. Research Note. Callister & Associates 9p
Cromarty, P. L., & Alderson, S. L. (2013). Translocation statistics (2002–2010), and the revised Department of Conservation translocation process. Notornis, 60, 55-62.