The story of the Bream Head Conservation Trust is an inspirational one. It is the tale of a bunch of Whangarei folk who came up and ran with the audacious idea to return the pest ridden Whangarei Heads Peninsula to its pre-European state of pristine forest. They wanted their birds back – native birds in particular – that had retreated en masse to Whangarei’s eastern offshore islands as introduced pests made nesting on the mainland an increasingly suicidal exercise.
Current Trust chairman, Greg Innes, explains:
“Predators had made Bream Head inhospitable to the birds that once filled its trees and the dawn with their chorus. Surrounded on three sides by sea, the peninsula presented an ideal opportunity for pest control programmes, and with the nearby offshore islands being a sanctuary for the birds that once lived here, we wanted to see if we could tempt them back again.”
One evening, at the monthly meeting of the Whangarei Heads Citizens Association we had a guest speaker, Keith Hawkins. He was a long time DOC employee whose focus of work at that time was the remnant areas of bush at Whangarei Heads. These had been saved from farming by their steepness and were now administered by DOC on behalf of the nation. Keith had overseen the establishment of the first trap lines located on Bream Head on the south side of the privately owned Taurikura Ridge, and on Mount Manaia. He told us that Bream Head was ranked the third most important ecological site in Northland behind Te Paki (first), and Waipoua Forest (second). He said DOC could not look after it adequately by itself and needed community help. This struck a chord with a handful of us on the WHCA committee and as a consequence, Robin and Karel Lieffering, David Monro, Kevin Doar, Pat Gates, and Geoff Pike formed the Bream Head Restoration Committee. We were really only armed with good intentions in those days but soon attracted serious help in the form of Dr Ray Pierce a nationally recognised ecologist, Vince Kerr a marine biologist, and Gerry Brackenberry who worked for DOC.
The stage was now set for some serious conservation.
At this particular time in New Zealand’s conservation evolution, predator fencing was emerging as a viable control mechanism for high value ecological sites such as Bream Head, so that became our focus. The potential costs was significant and the risks high considering it was new technology. We needed a formal organisation in order to attract funding and a new contributor with big ideas had joined us to establish the Trust as we know it today. His name was John Davison, a former resident whose family owned the Patel farm at Ocean Beach. With Don Hewitt as Chair, and Trustees: Robin Lieffering, John Gardiner from Doc, John Davison, the sitting Mayor Craig Brown and Steve Westgate, the Trust got underway. It was supported by the Restoration Committee.
The focus of the Trust for the next nine years was exploring the viability of predator proof fencing for Bream Head, gathering support, visiting existing sites around the country and seeking funding possibilities. By 2010 we had concluded that predator proof fencing was not an appropriate solution for us, given the rugged terrain and risk of severe weather events. Also, the difficulty of paying for the capital cost and on- going maintenance was considerable.
The solution came along in the form of a highly organised and motivated local couple, Pete and Cathy Mitchell. They had recently completed three years as rangers on Matakohe Limestone Island and were ready for a new challenge. Previously, our model had been to rely one hundred percent on volunteers to complete tasks. For instance, the shore line planting around Woolshed and Home Bay under Wendy Holland’s leadership. Our trapping was modest and amateurish but that was all about to change. Pete became our first ranger and immediately set about imposing a grid of bait stations, possum traps and mustelid traps over the highest value bush in the reserve, known as the Core Area. It was a great deal of work for Pete cutting tracks and establishing infrastructure, and for the Trust to find income streams to keep the money coming in to pay for it. In 2012 we had a second ranger, Evan Davies, a young man with lots of energy and a great assistant to Pete.
We also contracted the writing of our first five year ecological restoration plan to Jo Richie. This was a community endorsed document and guided the expansion of the Core Area westward into Area 2, 3, and later 4. We made the improvements as energy and finances allowed. All work was done to DOC best practice and the results were uplifting as each new area came under intensive management. In 2015, Pete took up a position at Hauturu, Little Barrier Island and Adam Willetts joined our crew as the new head ranger. He energetically imposed the intensive management on Area 4, our eastern seaboard and probably the most difficult area to deal with. The second five year plan was prepared and implemented in 2017 by Dr Dai Morgan, consolidating all the gains achieved thus far and heralding in a new stage for the Trust, that of species translocations. Our first species to return was toutouwai, North Island robin in April 2016 and popokatea, whitehead in May 2017, both successfully.
Our current ecological focus is to maintain predator numbers to very low levels, focusing that activity on the northern border with the farmland and residential areas. This is being done with the tremendous help of our extensive group of volunteer trappers. Also, to support the restoration of the remnant oi, grey-faced petrel colony out near the Old Woman. Protecting the Bream Head ecosystem from an increasing range of biosecurity threats such as: kauri dieback, myrtle rust, plague skinks, argentine ants, moth plant etc. has also become a major focus. It has been, and continues to be a very interesting and rewarding endeavour.
Today the Trust also has a growing body of paid-up members, known as ‘Friends of Bream Head’ who assist in planting around a thousand native trees and shrubs on the Reserve annually. These have been responsible for the growing health of its forests and profusion of birds in the last decade that regular visitors will have noticed. Greg Innes says the Bream Head Scenic Reserve would never have seen this transformation which has brought about re-colonisation by a number of iconic native bird species, such as kaka, had it not been for the contribution of this wide community of supporters.
“From our noted patrons to the locals who are the muscle behind the spades on planting days and who service trap lines, count lizards and snails, and maintain tracks, everyone has made a difference and contributed to the outcomes of which we are so proud,” Greg says. “We’ve also had huge support from sponsors such as our principal sponsor, Refining NZ, and Foundation North, Pub Charity and World Wildlife Fund. “Whangarei ratepayers and New Zealand taxpayers have also contributed, with the Department of Conservation, Whangarei District Council and the Northland Regional Council all providing resources to strengthen and broaden the Trust’s capabilities.”
Their combined accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed or unrecognised. In 2013 the Bream Head Conservation Trust won three prestigious awards at the Westpac Business Awards:
The judges commented that the Trust “stood out for its outstanding level of connection with the community and all key stakeholders. It exhibited sound planning and monitoring, clearly defined and well implemented goals and strategies, well thought out long term planning and a sustainability of funding and engagement with the community that would ensure long term success.”
Bream Head Conservation Trust won the Environmental Action in Pest Management category at Northland Regional Council's 2020 Whakamānawa ā Taiao – Environmental Awards.
"For a visionary approach and community effort to restore the biodiversity values of a headland through sustained and intensive pest control. It is wonderful to recognise and celebrate kaitiakitanga in action with so many of our Te Taitokerau community."
Much of our work is done by volunteers and it is wonderful to have that mahi recognised.
That success enters a new phase this year with the completion of the Trust’s second five-year restoration plan and preparations covering the period 2017 – 2022.
In the next five years the Trust hopes to advance its pest management programmes, expand the education resource for schools, grow bird, lizard and insect species monitoring, and encourage lots more people out into the Reserve to support its programmes or enjoy what 20 years of hard work have produced.
As a community, government, iwi and corporation joint project, there can be no doubt that the restoration of this outstanding ecological headland has proved a great success and an example to other groups around New Zealand of what can be done to restore the ecological health of their precious places.
While the Bream Head Conservation Trust looks back in gratitude to those early trustees and all who have helped since, it also looks forward to many more years of protecting and preserving the native creatures of the remarkable Bream Head Scenic Reserve.