It's not always the easiest job, but rewarding nonetheless for retired couple Malcolm and Helen Shaft whose volunteering efforts have helped to make Urupukapuka and its neighbouring little bird sanctuaries around the Bay of Islands pest free.

They are two of thousands of volunteers from around New Zealand who are contributing to the Department of Conservation work to help keep the country green.

Last year, DoC volunteers contributed a total of 305,432 hours of work to conservation projects and this week they are being recognised as part of National Volunteer Week – including the Shafts.

Malcolm gets assistance from his grandson Finn Galley. Photos / Supplied
Malcolm gets assistance from his grandson Finn Galley. Photos / Supplied

Originally hailing from England, the pair fulfilled a life-long dream when they packed their bags and left the British isle on their boat Muna in 1999 sailing west until they first anchored on New Zealand's shores in 2001.

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Malcolm said the couple had always wanted to see the Bay of Islands and though they kept on exploring the South Pacific after their first visit, they never really left since.

"I think it was around 2008 when we heard there was a meeting in Paihia to talk about the islands," Helen said.

"Everyone there seemed very keen to get the islands pest-free, so we joined in."

Helen is referring to islands of Ipipiri in the eastern Bay of Islands which, over 10 years ago, were invested with predators and invasive species.

Malcolm and Helen's boat Muna anchored in the bay. Photo / Supplied
Malcolm and Helen's boat Muna anchored in the bay. Photo / Supplied

"The first thing we did was weeding. Looking back, it was pretty hairy what we did. We went out there with machetes."

At that stage, the Shafts were no strangers to the archipelago anymore as they had explored the bay various times with their boat.

Helen said when they first landed on Urupukapuka Island they were surprised by its silence; not one bird was to be heard.

Today, birds have returned to the Ipipiri thanks to the work of Project Island Song – a partnership between community conservation group the Guardians of the Bay of Islands, local Rawhiti hapū and the Department of Conservation – which Helen and Malcolm are part of.

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Malcolm Shaft installing a new sign on one of the islands of Ipipiri. Photo / Supplied
Malcolm Shaft installing a new sign on one of the islands of Ipipiri. Photo / Supplied

After the initial weeding, the volunteers started trapping on the seven islands between Russell and Cape Brett targeting Norway rats, ship rats, mice, stoats, Argentine ants and plague skinks.

The Ipipiri have since become pest-free and native species are being reintroduced, including saddlebacks/tīeke, North Island robins/toutouwai and whiteheads/pōpokotea.

Helen and Malcolm have for a few years now taken on the task to sail out to the islands to put up and regularly maintain signage that informs visitors about the pest-free status of the Ipipiri.

"Because it's out on the islands it's a bit tricky logistically to go out there," Malcolm said.

But he said since the couple was often going out on their boat, it suited them well.

"And then Helen had the idea to start talking to other boaties about what they can do to help."

Together with DoC, they set up what they call a "boatie bag" full of information about the islands, the conservation project and how visitors can do their bit to support them.

During peak season Helen and Malcolm cruise around the bay to speak to boat-owners and hand out around 70-100 information packs.

"It's a chance for us to telling people things about the islands that we would have liked to have known when we first came here," Helen said. "It's a lot of fun."

Malcolm said the only time when people tend not to cooperate was in relation to dogs as they are not permitted on the islands.

Malcolm and Helen Shaft speak to visitors about the rules on the Ipipiri islands. Photos / Supplied
Malcolm and Helen Shaft speak to visitors about the rules on the Ipipiri islands. Photos / Supplied

Not everyone understood that their dog could be harmful to wildlife.

But despite the odd hiccups, the Shafts take a lot of pleasure from their volunteer work as they enjoy getting to meet international and domestic visitors, and to see what difference Project Island Song has made over the years.

A lot of their family have moved over from the UK and their grandchildren are happy to help out when their grandparents volunteer.

"It's so rewarding when you're anchoring now and hear all the birdlife. It's been a huge transformation."

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