Arbor Day – Millions of reasons to love your Gulf

Department of Conservation —  05/06/2020

New Zealand’s first Arbor Day took place on 3 July 1890 in Greytown, complete with a band playing and flags flying. One hundred and fifty-three trees were planted at the southern end of the town, which observed the day as a national holiday. Since 1977, New Zealand has celebrated Arbor Day on June 5, but the day has largely fallen into obscurity.

Planting native trees provides much-needed habitat for our endangered native species to thrive and is an easy way to sequester carbon to help mitigate climate change. However, a 2016 paper named Our Forest Future: Towards a National Forestry Future for New Zealand revealed that New Zealand is trending toward net deforestation. Between 1996 and 2014 alone, we lost more than 10,000 hectares of native and regenerating forest – roughly an area the size of Waiheke Island. In late 2016, environmental charity Trees That Count was established to set a national goal for planting native trees in Aotearoa, and keep a live count of the number planted, which at the time of writing was an incredible 31,384,748.

One area that has a proven track-record of tree planting are the islands/motu of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana. There are 40 predator-free motu in the Park, many of which have undergone radical change since their land was cleared for farming in the 19th century. More than one million trees have been planted by community groups to provide much-needed habitat to help endangered native species recover. These regenerating forests, combined with an absence of predators, has helped reverse the fate of the Mercury Island tusked wētā, tīeke/saddleback, North Island weka and North Island kōkako. For this reason, the islands are described as ecological “anchors” in the Park in the State of the Gulf 2020 report.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the restoration projects in the Gulf and the community groups that have led the charge, as well as the business that has literally helped get them get there.

Tiritiri Matangi Aerial view.
📷: DOC

On Tiritiri Matangi, approximately 300,000 eco-sourced native trees were planted over a decade from 1984 by volunteers, who formed to become the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SoTM) in 1988. Their efforts to restore the island are considered to be one of the most successful community-led conservation projects in the world. Anecdotally, many of the original volunteers (many who were children) have re-visited to see the fruition of their efforts, some 40 years later. Today, the island is run in partnership with Te Papa Atawhai/DOC, and is 60% re-vegetated, while the other 40% has been ring-fenced to provide grassland for species such as takahē, and to protect archaeological remains. From the melodious korimako/bellbird to the bright little hihi/stitchbird, the maturing forest provides for many endangered species to survive and thrive.

Close-up of a hihi/ stitchbird on a branch on Tiritiri Matangi.
📷: Cook, David Wildlife Photography

On Motuihe/Te Motu-a-Ihenga an estimated 450,000 trees have been planted since the Motuihe Trust was established 20 years ago, converting it from a largely pastoral island with 20% remnant bush to a flourishing bush reserve. This has enabled the Trust, in partnership with Te Papa Atawhai, to reintroduce birds, insects and reptiles, including the ancient tuatara. Volunteer corporate groups, schools and individuals plant to infill the gaps, and insert canopy trees now that there is sufficient shelter for them.

Motuihe aerial view.
📷: Motuihe Trust

On nearby Motutapu Island, more than 500,000 eco-sourced native saplings, raised in the Motutapu Restoration Trust’s island nursery, have been planted by volunteers since 1994. While the island is home to Auckland’s largest working farm, remnant forest such as Home Bay forest has been extended and now boast trees that are more than 7 metres high. Earlier this year, the motu received its hundredth Coromandel brown kiwi, which provides an “insurance population” for the species in case of fire, pest invasion or disease on the mainland.

Volunteers planting on Motutapu Island.
📷: Motutapu Restoration Trust

The vision of a healthy and thriving mauri on Motutapu is one step closer with plans by Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki to plant trees on the motu this winter. The location is Hukunui, on the western side of the motu which is an area of historical and cultural importance belonging to Ngāi Tai.

One of the youngest predator-free islands, Rotoroa, which has been leased by the NEXT Foundation for 99 years, has undertaken a radical transformation in the last decade with the removal of pine trees and re-planting of natives. Just eight years on they are being rewarded with canopy closure in some areas, and the introduction of species such as the nimble pōpokatea/whitehead and the cheeky tīeke/saddleback. Combined with the island’s history, museum and exhibition centre and stunning beaches, it’s not hard to see why they were named New Zealand’s top hidden gem on TripAdvisor. 

Pōpokatea/whitehead perched on a tree.
📷: Shellie Evans

Motuora Island, 5km east of Mahurangi Heads, is barely recognisable today from the almost bare island it was in 1990, when volunteers took action. After the Motuora Restoration Society (MRS) was formalised in 1995, the programme gained momentum, planting 30,000 native seedlings per year grown in their nursery. Today, the island is almost entirely covered in 300,000 native trees and the strategy has now shifted to infilling gaps, and planting canopy trees. Those trees provide much needed cover for a kiwi crèche run by Operation Nest-Egg, as well as a resident population of 150 North Island kiwi.

Restoration programmes aren’t just limited to predator-free island sanctuaries. Since 2015, the Waiheke Resources Trust has planted nearly 14,000 eco-sourced native trees in four significant wetland habitats and surrounding environments: Te Matuku, Te Whau, Rangihoua & Matiatia Headland. They calculate that this has been achieved with the help of more than 2,000 volunteers and 6,000 hours of volunteer effort. With locals like that, there are high hopes for a successful eradication programme led by Te Korowai o Waiheke, so that endangered native birds from our predator-free Gulf islands have another safe haven to grow their populations.

With the exception of Motuora, these islands and their various community groups are supported by Fullers 360, who see themselves as kaitiaki (guardians) of the Hauraki Gulf. They run regular boats on Sundays throughout winter for fortnightly public planting days, as well as providing subsidized fares for some regular volunteers. Fullers 360 support biosecurity efforts to stop the transfer of weeds (found present in soil found on our shoes) through shoe cleaning stations, and are also the means by which endangered species get to the islands once the forests are able to provide food and habitat.

Motuora Restoration Trust nursery.
📷: Motuora Restoration Trust

More widely in the Gulf, iwi, trusts, societies, groups and landowners are involved in conservation efforts on Ahuahu/Great Mercury, Aotea/Great Barrier Island, Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier, Kaikōura, Motuora, The Noises and Pakihi islands. Many of their efforts are recorded on the Trees That Count website, who have also set up a ‘marketplace’ to connect ‘tree funders’ with ‘tree planters’.

It would seem that New Zealanders are keen to get behind native tree planting, even if they can’t do it themselves. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, Trees That Count reported an 175% increase in the number of people gifting native trees, put down to strong kiwi values of generosity and manaakitanga, even in times of crisis.

Native trees really are the gift that keep on giving. They are an integral part of our ecosystem, providing habitat and food for native birds and insects. They are also wonderful vacuum cleaners, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere to help reduce the negative impact of greenhouse gases on our climate. They also stabilise marginal land and reduce soil and rainwater run-off, protecting our waterways.

Here’s to the million planted, and the million more to come in the Hauraki Gulf.

Want to get involved? While COVID-19 has put public planting days on the Gulf’s motu on halt, you can plant a native tree in your own garden. If you want it to be counted on Trees That Count, the trees must be:

  • Native – that is, indigenous to New Zealand (click here for a suggested list).
  • Species that have the potential to reach a minimum height of 5 metres at maturity.
  • “In addition” to nature – that is, deliberately planted and not counted through natural regeneration.
  • Planted with the intention of being maintained and protected until maturity.

Within the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana there are 30 groups of islands and 400 individual islets. Of these, 93 islands are over 5 hectares and 40 are predator-free island sanctuaries providing safe haven to some of our most endangered and vulnerable species. Many of these islands are open sanctuaries, including Rangitoto, Motutapu, Motuihe/Te Motu-a-Ihenga, Tiritiri Matangi, Motuora and Rotoroa Island. Fullers 360 will be resuming their ferry service soon – you can check their COVID-19 updates here.

Love it, Restore it, Protect it.

If you want to read more about forests of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, read the blog post “Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul”.