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Drive To Save ‘Nationally Critical’ Kākābeak Gets Back-blocks Boost

North Island trampers and hunters asked to keep an eye out for crimson in the green.

About 75 specimens of one of the most endangered plants in the country have been planted in three predator-proof areas on a remote property in the back-blocks of Hawke’s Bay this spring. The crimson, pink or white-flowered kākābeak (ngutukākā/Clianthus maximus), a flamboyant and extremely rare shrub, join about 150 of these plants already growing in ‘exclosures’ [subs - a protected area designed to exclude rather than enclose] in the Maungataniwha Native Forest, on the southern boundary of Te Urewera.

Their seeds will be collected at a later date and used by conservationists and enthusiasts to grow more plants in secure locations around the North Island.

The planting is part of work undertaken by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, a Hawke’s Bay conservation initiative undertaking regeneration and restoration work with several different species of native plants and animals. The work is being led on the Trust’s Maungataniwha property by James and Anita Powrie of RedAxe Forestry Intelligence and is part of a wider programme around the Hawke’s Bay region involving Troy Duncan of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, Marie Taylor of Plant Hawke’s Bay, Theresa Thornton of Ngāti Pahauwera and Alan Lee of the Department of Conservation, with funding from the Pan Pac Environmental Trust and Ngāti Pahauwera.

The exclosures at Maungataniwha are part of a network of safe sites where ‘wild’ kakabeak are being grown for their seed. Genetically, these plants are likely to be hardier and better able to survive in predator-free sites in the wild than their domestic ‘cousins’ which have, over decades, been interbred for various display features and now may have lost some of the wild diversity and ability to survive in the hills.

Other ‘safe sites’ include marae around the region, homes, Kimi Ora and Frimley schools in Hastings, a Meridian Energy site in Taupo and a Moteo farm owned by Matt Wilson. By delightful coincidence, illustrating the intertwined nature of the Hawke’s Bay conservation community, Mr Wilson’s late father, helicopter pilot Lin, helped to eliminate wilding pines on a former pine plantation that the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust is reconverting into native forest.

“We are aiming to have the community learn to love and propagate this plant successfully and engage in preserving its genetics for the future”, said Pete Shaw, the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust’s forest manager.

The plantings at Maungataniwha come as kākābeak in nurseries and in the wild erupt into flower, heavy with spectacular bunches of curved crimson petals. It’s an ideal time to spot them in the bush so conservationists are asking hunters and trampers to keep an eye out.

“We’re asking anyone who sees a plant in the wild – and they’re pretty unmistakable – to make a note of the location, preferably using a GPS reader for the most accurate co-ordinates, and to let us have this information as soon as they get back to civilisation,” said Mr Shaw.

Any new find is significant because it widens the pool of wild-grown seed that can be used in propagation efforts.

In years gone by hundreds of plants grouped together would create a stunning spectacle from the Bay of Islands to southern Hawke’s Bay. But today only a few lonely specimens remain in the wild, clinging to the inhospitable cliffs in a desperate defence against goats, deer and other exotic browsers. These pests have decimated kākābeak in the wild to the extent that the species now holds New Zealand’s highest possible threatened plant ranking: ‘Nationally Critical’.

Only 108 naturally-seeded plants are now known to exist in the wild across the entire country.

But the propagation and seed collection programme does offer some hope. Ultimately the offspring from plants now being raised safely by the project team will be planted back in the wild, in areas that have been cleared of posts and predators.

In addition to its work with kākābeak, the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust runs a forest conversion project that aims to turn a former pine forest back into native bush, seeks to provide a secure breeding habitat for the whio (Blue Duck),and undertakes various pest control and eradication initiatives. It has also carved out a name for itself as one of the most prolific and successful kiwi conservation initiatives in the country.

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