On a Saturday morning, the sky still soft and pink, I drive to the Haupauri gates on Ocean Beach Road to join a fleet of volunteers with decent 4×4 vehicles (unlike my own, which promptly gets stuck in a puddle) and spades. We drive through farmland to the beach, and into Cape Sanctuary, making sure, of course, to close the gate.

Cape Sanctuary is the largest privately owned and funded wildlife restoration project in New Zealand, encompassing 2,500 hectares of multi-use land at the tip of the Cape Kidnappers Peninsula, and bounded by a 10.6 kilometre stainless-steel predator-proof fence. The sanctuary was established in 2006 on properties owned by the Robertson, Lowe and Hansen families, and now has the largest abundance of biodiversity in any one site in the North Island.

Ecologist Dr John McLennan has been involved in the conceptualising and planning of the project since 2003; the sanctuary is managed by Tamsin Ward-Smith (Msc Ecology). Department of Conservation’s Dave Carlton describes the work being undertaken as “visionary and cutting edge”, but for most people, what goes on there is a bit of a mystery.

Ocean Beach dune restoration

I’m with Ben Doggett, who’s employed to restore the sand dunes, a job that demands intensive ongoing weed control through targeted handgun spraying. The biggest undertaking, he tells me, is “conquering 9km of marram”, a dominant rhizomatous grass (think convolvulus) introduced originally to stabilise the sand dunes. Dunes are a mobile landscape, and by reducing this mobility marram inhibits the entire expression of an eco-system. He’s replanting them with pingao (used traditionally in weaving) and sand tussock – spinifex takes off on its own. The chief threat to this restoration, says Ben, are “weekend cowboys on motorbikes, who can rip up 10 years’ work in an afternoon.”

Today we’re planting sand tussock, largely extinct in the region. The plants have been grown by Plant Hawke’s Bay Ltd using seed sourced from Portland Island (Mahia) and Castlepoint. Marie Taylor explains that the aim of her business is to grow rare and uncommon local plants and “get them back into the landscape.” The sanctuary provides that opportunity, though she’d like to see the scope broaden.

As the plants are off-loaded from the trailer, Ben discovers cat prints in the sand, and promptly organises for traps to be laid. “You’ve got to be careful talking about cats, people get upset, but Gareth Morgan has a point.” Feral cats are the sanctuary’s “biggest murderers” and a harbinger of disease. Since 2007, they’ve caught approximately 1,000. The predator-proof fence is a ‘leaky system’ and by the dunes where the fence peters out, cats (and other vermin) find their way around.

800 plants, 30 volunteers – it takes less than an hour. People rest up by the hut in the dunes (it has basic facilities and bunk beds) – a gesture of thanks from Cape Sanctuary to its volunteers, who need only phone in to book. “It’s magic, “says a man, gesturing to the ocean. “Anywhere else in the world you’d pay to see this.”

Muckboots and lippy

With her stylish sun-glasses and lipstick, landowner Liz Lowe makes conservation look glamourous. But what is tangibly evident is her passion for the work itself – “This is about us giving back to New Zealand.” She’s on the ground 40 hours a week (unpaid) at the Cape, planting trees, checking bait stations, monitoring birds, and today acting as our tour guide. “Write that down in your article,” she says as she shifts gear up the rough track to the Seabirds Site. “We’re planting a million trees over 10 years; we’ve planted 300,000 already.”

We pass a stand of manuka saplings and stop at the takahe enclosure. We’ve come empty-handed but the pair of plump birds eye us up expectantly from behind the scrub, keeping a shy distance as the camera clicks.

Liz Lowe

A little further on, we come to a beautiful carved pou with its own tiny whare looking out to the ocean in honour of the late Paratene Te Huia (Ngati Mihiroa), who played an integral role in the establishment of the sanctuary. I am told the relationship between the Maori landowners of Ocean Beach and the Lowe family in particular is a close one, and Ngati Mihiroa, supportive of the project, are consulted every step of the way. Speaking with Lily and David Stone later at Mihiroa Marae, I hear the story of their tipuna, Pukepuke Tangiora, and of their role at the sanctuary. Elders formally receive all translocated species from the iwi gifting them, “giving the karakia” before handing them over to the Cape.

The Seabirds Site

The Seabirds Site sits as a micro-sanctuary within the sanctuary, and within this, like a babushka doll, an enclosure with built-in burrows for petrels and habitat for reptiles. I get to meet a handsome old tuatara, eye to beady eye – he’s lethargic with the cold and allows us time to admire him before scuttling off through the grass. Tuatara, various skinks and geckos, and colonies of burrowing seabirds were once a teeming part of the landscape here, and now in this little pocket of the Bay there’s a taste of what was and what could be.

Liz shows us Burrow 104, where the first pair of grey-faced petrels have returned to nest … “the best news we’ve ever had.” It takes 5-7 years for grey-faced petrels to reach maturity, and until now there’s been no guarantee that the intensive work involved in hand-rearing chicks (the first translocation was in 2008) would bring any return.

The outlook is breath-taking. From the vibrant green of native vegetation, in contrast to the bare, eroded hills further south, we look down across the undulating dunes towards Ocean Beach, the volunteer hut a speck in the sand. This is one of the largest dune systems on the East Coast, and of national significance, historically and ecologically (hundreds of midden heaps among the dunes and flats showcase human settlement spanning 650 years, and include such archeological goodies as moa shell). Seeing it in a near-natural state of restoration is persuasive, and I don’t know if it’s vertigo or the ions in the fresh salt air, but from this vantage point everything seems possible.

Access and education

Liz takes us on a detour via the dune lakes (what will eventually be freshwater oases) back to the ‘day house’, south of the fence where our cars are parked. This is where the Lowes envision creating a museum and education centre in the not-too-distant future.

Already the Cape operates as a hub for scholarship, with postgraduate students from around the country conducting research on the various restoration projects. The Cape provides students with accommodation and full access to relevant sites. They have also partnered with a local primary school, and work is happening to develop education programmes, but currently there is not the infrastructure and time-resources to enable access to all schools and the wider public. The other aspect, of course, is that the sanctuary is on property that is also an operative farm, a world-class golf course and high-end tourism venture, and many of its conservation programmes are still in their nascence. However, there are plans in the pipeline for more ready-access and ecotourism, such as the establishment of a ‘bugpark’ (watch this space!).

For most people, the path to the sanctuary is through the volunteer register or groups such as Forest & Bird. Says Vaughn Cooper, chairman of the local branch: “We’ve been given good access to the place. We’ve taken our Kiwi Conservation Club [for kids] there multiple times, and some of our members are involved in the dune restoration and the feeding of petrels.”

DOC contributes resources through staff time and technical support, for example, bird translocations are often jointly undertaken. This year DOC is looking to the Rough Block (remnant coastal forest, mainly kanuka) and Ranaikka Beach (where the dunes begin): doing extensive planting restoration and weed control, and, together with Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, funding a stock fence to protect the dunes. These sites have been identified by DOC as being among the top-50 NHMS sites in New Zealand – the acronym stands for Natural Heritage Management System, representing key ecosystems regardless of the land they’re on.

Another day, another tour

This time we are taken via the Clifton entrance up a winding private road through mature pine plantation. We come to the predator fence with its unclimbable curved top, a sliding electric gate to let us through – it’s like entering a compound, you almost expect guards. And of course it is guarded: 1,200 traps, 3,400 rat-bait stations. Later, driving out along the fingers of the dramatic cliffs that make the cape, we meet Will, whose job it is to check the traps and bait lines in the steeply dangerous gullies.

But for now we’re still among the pines, home to brown kiwi. The habitat’s been so successful the Cape even runs a crèche: juvenile kiwi, more resilient than those raised in captivity, are later released back into their communities in the wider Hawke’s Bay and beyond.

We visit the aviary in the Rough Block, where the sanctuary has a breeding programme for kaka and kakariki. The captive kaka, Ned and Ngaio, have just been flown to Auckland Zoo as a display pair, in exchange for WildOne and Mia, who will bring genetic diversity to the Cape. We are witness to the flurry of activity around settling them in and the excitement of new acquaintance. Caring for the parrots appears to be not so much about ‘saving species’ but engaging with ‘personalities’, and that brings a whole other level of commitment, as evidenced by the substantial distances some volunteers will travel to feed them on a daily basis.

People power

Volunteers are the sanctuary’s lifeblood – it is largely due to their enthusiastic gifting of time and initiative that the original restoration plan is two years’ ahead of schedule. Kahori Nakagawa, who works in species restoration, and manager Tamsin Ward-Smith work hard to match the right task with the right person, and to ensure, above all, that people have fun and a sense of ownership over what they do.

There are over 500 people on their volunteer register and 30-100 dedicated volunteers involved in projects at any one time: feeding the parrots, helping out with pest control, cleaning seabird burrows, planting, etc. They’re mostly retired people who are keen to have hands-on contact in conservation, often highly skilled and experts in their own right. A big drawcard, of course, is proximity – quick accessibility to a large urban population – and the cape being such an iconic place.

Volunteer and ‘bush carpenter’ John Berry has been involved from early on, making trap boxes, running bait lines and helping with some of the offshore island translocations; he gifts 30 or so days a year between the different projects. His love is bush birds, and as we speak, he affectionately raises a fist at the free-flying kakariki who have knocked all the lids off his nesting boxes in the kanuka grove. For John, this is an exciting project to be part of, but the simple pleasure comes down to connectivity: “It’s nice to have a community project – I don’t know if that was intended, but that’s what it’s become. There’s something for everybody to do out here.”

For Kahori, who worked previously as a DOC ranger and at Boundry Stream, private funding drives a faster, more ambitious pace. “We’re taking more risks than many public-run projects, which puts us on the frontier, a scary but amazing place to be.”

Mainland sanctuaries versus islands? Kahori responds: “Offshore islands – who can enjoy or see them? They’re great for certain very endangered species, but experience with conservation is the key to bringing people on board – as a whole restoration project, the community-involved approach certainly works.”

Beyond the fence

Vaughn Cooper sees a major benefit to Hawke’s Bay is increased native birdlife in people’s gardens: “We’re going to see more and more bird outflow, but this outflow will only become of lasting benefit if there’s a sustained effort from the community and council to keep the stoats, rats and cats down, this side of the fence.” [Editor: meaning, outside the sanctuary.]

For Dave Carlton, the onus is on Regional Council and DOC to look at ways to link up the different conservation activities in the region to create corridors for biodiversity. With possums in Hawke’s Bay relatively under control, he says the council is looking to redirect funds to extend 2,200 hectares of wide-scale predator control out from the sanctuary perimeter. The Cape to City project is still in the pipeline, but if it goes ahead it will go a huge way towards creating a safe environment beyond the sanctuary for native fauna. Already kakariki are being regularly seen in Clifton-Haumoana, a pair of saddleback were found in Te Awanga and recently a North Island robin was sighted at Te Mata Peak.

“I really think we’ve got to get past the stage of just trying to protect and hold onto the tiny remnants of our ecosystems and biodiversity that we have. We’ve got to look at ways how we can actually grow the habitat and make it safe.” Dave hopes that in due course, instead of people going to the wildlife, the wildlife will come to them. “I look forward to the day when people ring me up to complain that kiwi are keeping them awake at night – wouldn’t that be a great problem to have?”

On the subject of private-public partnerships, Vaughn reflects: “Ecological restoration has mostly been through private efforts, and on the way statutory bodies have contributed, become involved. The reality is, big money does big projects, but in the end, a lot will come down to individuals doing their little bit.”

Clearly big money is involved here – the cost of the fence alone is reportedly over $2 million, and then there is the cost of employing five full-time and several part-time staff, the expensive translocations, infrastructure such as roading, to name the more obvious. But I am equally struck by the inspired, proactive individuals I met at the Cape, each doing more than just ‘their bit’. In an age of environmental woes and anxiety, the opportunities here feel refreshingly positive.

Cape Sanctuary has almost completed its original restoration plan. Over the next five years there’ll be an increased emphasis on planting as part of their ecosystem restoration programme, and potential leadership roles in shore plover, penguin and albatross recovery. In a report produced in December last year, John McLennan concludes: “Cape Sanctuary’s coastal location will increasingly define its role in conservation, in particular its potential to re-establish links between the land and the sea. The gannets are just one element of what will eventually become an enduring theme.”

Andy Lowe: project ‘enabler’

“Let’s keep it simple,” Andy says when I speak with him at his Lowe Corporation office in Hastings. “What Cape Sanctuary is about, is endangered species coexisting with human habitation, food production and recreation.”

He speaks in a matter-of-fact tone as if what he’s saying is simply common sense, and yet, it’s quickly clear that Andy’s vision for the sanctuary is audacious in its ambition. “We’re conducting a scientific experiment in a little corner of the country for New Zealand Inc. Our vision is to roll this out across the whole of New Zealand.”

Andy, a keen hunter, had witnessed the bush becoming increasingly, disturbingly quiet over the years and was motivated by the urgent need for action and “a passion for finding a cost-effective solution to save our endangered species.”

Andy aims to merge the values of industry and conservation in a non-confrontational way where no one loses their rights: “We’ve got to find a way where we can all participate.” As he sees it, this is not about returning New Zealand to a primeval state of purity; it’s about being pragmatic and working with what we’ve got.

“We’re researching where the break-points are for our endangered species, and we’re looking to find a holding pattern to save these species until we have the necessary technological advances and knowledge. We’re showing that you don’t need to be pest-free; you can be on a farm growing food, you can have surfers and golf and people enjoying the place, and still do conservation.”

Andy is quick to assert that Cape Sanctuary is not about an individual vision but a team effort in partnership with iwi, DOC, government and volunteers. “I’m a big believer in proving by doing. I like to sit below the radar and just get on with it. And we have shown what’s possible.” He points to the success with introducing pateke (brown teal duck). “Everyone said it couldn’t be done, the Cape was too dry etc, and now we’ve increased global numbers by 10%.”

Kiwi have claimed the pine stand for their habitat; speckled skink, last seen in 1975 in the region are suddenly thriving; the Hawke’s Bay tree weta has ‘popped up’ and the sanctuary is seeing self-introductions of NZ dotteral, reef herron, red-billed gull, amongst others.

“We’re going to have failures, we’re going to have critics, but you learn more from failure than from success. Conservation tends to be conservative, but it’s not getting us anywhere. We’re about learning and experimenting, finding new ways.”

High on Andy’s priority list is reintroducing a sustainable population of NZ shore plover. “Look at this,” says Andy, pointing to a picture of a pretty coastal bird. “They’re about to become extinct – there are only 120 left in the world. If you know this, how can you not do something to save it?”

The Lowes and Julian Robertson fund the work at the sanctuary and will continue doing so. Andy says: “It is important to remember that this is a privately owned and funded initiative and nothing is guaranteed forever … I intend to be around for awhile; I am passionate about the Sanctuary and my aim is to develop the Sanctuary over time to ensure its long-term sustainability.”

He assures me baseline funding has been secured indefinitely for vermin control, and that the project is not operating on a 20 or 50-year plan, but 100-years plus.

Asked who will front replacement of the costly predator-proof fence in 30 years’ time, Andy replies that his ambition is that no fence will be needed; it’s not an end in itself. “We’re moving away from the concept of locking away land. Down the track this will all be self-sustaining.”

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