Posted By QEII National Trust | January 15, 2024

A shared passion to secure a sustainable future for one of our best loved native birds, the kōkako, has brought together a group of QEII covenant holders and other groups in a groundbreaking landscape-scale project in the Western Bay of Plenty.

The Kōkako Ecosystem Expansion Programme (KEEP) aims to create habitat corridors linking the kōkako population in Kaharoa Forest, between Te Puke and Lake Rotorua, with another at Ōtanewainuku Forest, just under 6 km to the north. Planting of open ground between bush blocks and regular pest control is planned to ensure a flourishing kōkako population.

The land between the two forests includes farms with QEII covenanted bush remnants, public conservation land, commercial and iwi-owned forests, and lifestyle blocks. Kōkako are poor fliers and can’t cross large areas of open land, but the topography of forested areas and bush-clad gorges in the area means the tree planting required to fill in the gaps between forest remnants is achievable.

Landscape of native forest
Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

Landowners and other groups in the area, centred on the settlement of Te Ranga, are enthusiastic about KEEP, say local farmers Carol Burt and her son Liam, who have around 85 ha of bush under a QEII covenant.

“We’ve always been a close community, which makes it easy to work with KEEP and everyone else involved,” says Liam.

Peter Mark, a dairy farmer whose property includes covenanted bush blocks, agrees. “We thought KEEP was fantastic. We as landowners and the catchment groups are aiming for the same sorts of things. The timing was absolutely perfect,” he says.

Larger landowners in the area such as Tapuika iwi, the Department of Conservation and the Port Blakely forestry company are also involved in the project.

The area between the Ōtanewainuku and Kaharoa forests includes commercial plantations and native forest, much of it bush remnants in steep gorges that descend from farmland down to the Paraiti and Waiari rivers and tributaries.

A large number of these remnants are under QEII covenants and some have had predator control previously, but KEEP has made it possible to do this in a more sustained way, in large part through catchment care groups formed around the Paraiti and Waiari rivers.

KEEP and the catchment care groups have attracted strong support from QEII National Trust, Bay Trust, Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Western Bay of Plenty District Council, Bay Conservation Alliance, Forest & Bird, Department of Conservation and other funders and supporters.

Hans Pendergrast stands in front of the Pendergrast Memorial Heritage Park sign
Hans Pendergrast. Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

The KEEP concept was first mooted in 2017 but has gathered steam this year with funding of $351,000 from Bay Trust, allowing Wayne O’Keefe to be hired as part-time operations manager.

Wayne, a former Eastern Bay of Plenty QEII rep, is Operations Manager for the Bay Conservation Alliance, an organisation which supports conservation projects and groups – including KEEP – with administration, fundraising and other help.

Wayne says creating corridors between the two kōkako populations will take years but joining them up is achievable despite the 6 km gap. “The reason it’s doable is that in the area between them you’ve got two very active catchment groups (the Paraiti and Waiari) who are already doing the right thing on their farms. There’s a lot of fencing, riparian planting, pest control and replanting,” he says.

But such a long corridor between kōkako populations has never been created before and it will be a groundbreaking project. “There’s a strong research component to what we’re proposing. It’s all very well saying we’re going to create green corridors for kōkako, but it’s never been done before on this scale.”

Peter Mark checks a trap in the bush
Peter Mark checking a trap. Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

The North Island kōkako is one of our most distinctive birds. Larger than a tūī with blue wattles on either side of its head, it has sleek grey plumage, long black legs and a black “Zorro” mask around its eyes. It can live for 20 years or more and requires large territories of around 8 ha.

Kōkako were brought close to extinction by introduced predators. Eggs, chicks and females on the nest are easy prey for ship rats, possums and stoats. Browsing animals including deer, pigs and goats destroy understorey species, reducing food resources. By the late 1990s the kōkako population nationwide was estimated to have plummeted to just 330 individuals.

Farming families have witnessed the disappearance of the birds. Carol Burt, whose farm is near the Kaharoa Forest, remembers a neighbouring farmer of her parents’ generation talking about seeing kōkako on fence posts.

Hans Pendergrast, a farmer and trustee of Ōtanewainuku Kiwi Trust, encountered kōkako regularly as a boy while hunting with his father in the forest. “We didn’t realise there were no chicks surviving because of the predators. When we got to the 1990s the population just crashed and the last of the adults were gone in the early 2000s.”

Intensive predator control in some of the last kōkako refuges has seen numbers rise nationally to an estimated 2,080 in 2021. The Kaharoa Kōkako Trust was one of the first recovery projects set up with sustained predator control in the late 1990s after a research programme identified the birds’ most serious threats.

Hans Pendergrast amongst plants
Hans Pendergrast. Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

Today the Kōkako Recovery Group, made up of experts from the Department of Conservation and others who have been advising KEEP, has a number of key goals for kōkako conservation groups. These include diversifying kōkako population genetics by achieving a target of 500 breeding birds in each population and increasing pest control to at least 2,000 ha of suitable habitat.

Kaharoa is about 1,000 ha in size and Ōtanewainuku about 1,200 ha, so the combined areas along with bush blocks in the corridors will be vital over the longer term to ensure a sustainable kōkako population with sufficient genetic diversity.

A census in 2022 of the Kaharoa population counted 57 kōkako pairs and 10 individuals, a population that has grown since the Kaharoa Kōkako Trust was formed in 1997. Translocations from Kaharoa and the Rotoehu Forest, east of Rotorua, to Ōtanewainuku since 2010 have established a population there.

Ōtanewainuku Kiwi Trust has been doing predator control in the forest for two decades to save a remnant kiwi population. The forest is ideal habitat for kōkako and 31 pairs and seven individuals were counted during the last survey in 2020. Kōkako have already started spreading to properties neighbouring Kaharoa and Ōtanewainuku, a strong incentive for stepping up predator control.

The KEEP project and the formation of the catchment groups have attracted more funding from the regional and district councils and other funders for pest control and restoration work. “Having KEEP means we’ve got all the organisations together doing things, they all contribute and have made it much more feasible to do this work rather than us trying to do things on our own,” says Peter Mark.

Landscape shot of mixed farmland and native forest
Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

Hans Pendergrast says he hopes KEEP will be a model for other QEII covenant owners to consider collaborating in landscape-scale projects. “Throughout New Zealand now, as these big conservation projects get well-established, there’s a real opportunity for QEII owners to look around and see if they can be part of that.”

Hans Pendergrast with landscape of native forest behind him
Hans Pendergrast. Photo credit: Stuart Attwood

Want to read more?

The full article can be found on page 8 – 12 in issue 105 of Open Space magazine published in November 2023.

You can find the full digital version of issue 105 of our Open Space magazine, as well as past issues, on our website.