The forest guardians
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- Mahakirau Forest Estate
The Mahakirau Forest Estate in the Coromandel Peninsula consists of nearly 600 hectares of protected native forest divided into 24 private properties. The estate has been ranked as holding “outstanding wildlife value”, and the landowners are the guardians of extremely rare Coromandel striped gecko, Hotchstetter’s and Archey’s frogs, North Island brown kiwi, kaka, Helms’ butterfly and many other native species.
We had a business in tourism in Belgium, had 35 staff, it was people, people, people. All the things with Europe: over-population, disconnection, terrorism, habitat destruction, water crisis, conflict! Where can we go?
We picked the Coromandel before even setting foot in New Zealand. We wanted something on the verge of native forest. We couldn’t believe we could virtually live in a national park. It’s so magnificent because you have a stream that sits in your catchment and it is so clean and clear. Heaps of waterholes and cascades, huge boulders, moss all over them. The Manaia Kauri Sanctuary is on our doorstep. There are more than 400 kauri trees in there that are 1500 years old. It’s monumental, you expect to see dinosaurs! It’s now in lockdown due to kauri dieback.
The concept of the estate is, I think, really forward thinking. It’s a real guardianship. Everybody who has bought into here have done so because they have a love of nature.
Almost every day I am in the bush, cutting tracks, checking traps, putting down bait stations, mapping out sites, documenting and data work. We are going through massive intensification at the moment. We got a huge boost from Waikato Regional Council and Kiwis for Kiwi. We are in the process of putting out $10,000 worth of stoat traps and feral cat traps.
We are looking at keeping rats below 5 per cent. I was trapping a rat a night when I first started. Rats had eaten wiring and hosing under the bonnet of my car and it cost $3000 to fix. We even had rats peering into our caravan at night. I got super-obsessed with getting the rats. I immediately noticed a difference. The insects started coming back. The weta got huge. It encourages you. When you start out, it seems like such a lot of work – but not as much work is needed to keep your gains.
We have a very, very low number of kiwi that we have been monitoring since 2010. The Thames Coast Kiwi Care operation believes kiwi in their patch come over to ours. We want to make sure they have safe passage through us. There are so many long-running kiwi projects on the Coromandel. More than 50 per cent of the peninsula is now predator controlled.
We have the forest ringlet, also called Helms’ butterfly. They are possibly the next species to go extinct. A scientist from David Attenborough’s Butterfly Conservation trust came out to do some work on the butterfly last year. He searched New Zealand for three months and came over here. This was the only place where he found one. And he saw five.
We work closely with Auckland Zoo and Otago University who are interested in monitoring our Archey’s frogs and the Coromandel striped gecko. This striped gecko is extremely rare. And more than half have been found in the estate. I don’t know why: climate, habitat … good energy.
We constantly have biologists coming to see the frogs and geckos. Lately, I seem to have a tour a week. It’s funny, they all get their gears on, wondering how far they have to walk or drive. I have taken a few steps and it’s like, here is one! We have Archey’s frogs right on our doorstep. Every frog has individual markings. They live for more than 35 years and may not move more than a metre in that time.
Where our house will be built, it’s taken a year to flatten the site and slowly remove the vegetation. We examine every fern, every frond. If we hadn’t, if we’d got a bulldozer in, we would have killed a dozen Archey’s frogs. We have time. We often say we have moved here to die. It’s our forever project.