Kakabeak rescue under way

A happy meeting of minds and opportunity could lead to the critically endangered native kakabeak plant thriving again in Northland.

In a nursery project on Roberton Island (Motuarohia) in the Bay of Islands on Saturday 46 young kakabeaks were planted in a public/private partnership scheme involving the Department of Conservation, volunteer environmental group Guardians of the Bay, a Roberton Island property owner and Hawkes Bay-based Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust (FLRT).

In a sense even celebrity and supermodel Rachel Hunter is involved - she is the patron of the seven-year-old trust that runs several public-benefit conservation projects on private land.

Those also include the central North Island Maungataniwha and Pohokura native forests.

The intention on Roberton Island is to create a "seed orchard" providing stock for the wild - with the help of the birds and bees, and conservationists.

It is one of four seed nurseries established by the FLRT in an effort to bring the crimson-flowered kakabeak shrub back from the brink of extinction.

There are only 110 known kakabeak (Clianthus maximus), which Maori called ngutukaka, growing in the wild, mostly in the central North Island.

A tiny island in the Kaipara Harbour is Northland's only site of the once-plentiful northern variety - it has a single surviving specimen.

The Roberton Island plants were propagated from a cluster of bushes found clinging to cliffs deep inside Te Urewera National Park, adjacent to FLRT-owned land.

Those plants, which had survived because of their inaccessibility to predators such as snails, goats, deer and pigs, became the source of thousands of seedlings propagated by trust property manager, Pete Shaw.

A hybridised domestic variety bred from one original kakabeak has been available commercially for many years.

"That is a pretty inferior species with no genetic value whatsoever," Forest Lifeforce director and founder Simon Hall said.

"It doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the native plant."

Mr Hall is the executive chairman of Auckland food company Tasti Products Limited, which provides a funding stream for the trust's activities, and is a friend of forestry-magnate Andrew Kelly, who offered his property on predator-free Roberton Island.

Mr Kelly said the kakabeak project continued work started by former owner Mike Alexander whose extensive re-afforestation programme on the once-farmed island under which he planted over 250,000 trees.

Mr Kelly has also planted hundreds native plants over the past three years.

"I fell into the environment side of having this place," Mr Kelly said.

"I bought it because I wanted privacy and a view. I inherited by default something that was ecologically valuable."

There are five private properties on the western side of the island where Captain Cook landed in 1769, while the eastern side is part of the DoC estate.

DoC Bay of Islands biodiversity manager Adrian Walker said the kakabeak project was an example of the kinds of partnership that could help return other species, including birds, to the area.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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