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West Coast forest sanctuary plants a native tree a day for Kiwis

Photo: Paparoa Wildlife Trust

Lockdown has provided the perfect opportunity for the passionate manager of the only dedicated crèche facility in the world for roroa or great spotted kiwi, to do what needs doing – tree planting.

Ray Beckford manages the completely predator free Atarau Sanctuary in the West Coast’s Grey Valley, a dedicated, fenced facility of 12.5 hectares of private land for raising great spotted kiwi.

The Sanctuary was opened in 2010 as a project of the Paparoa Wildlife Trust and has become a huge asset for growing the South Island endemic kiwi population.

Ray lives next door to the crèche so, every day, he simple walks two minutes over a paddock to his place of work. And, during lockdown, he has been working hard to restore a portion of ineffective land within the site back to a thriving native forest for the kiwi.

“Pines were felled on 1.5 hectares of the land back in 2009, and that area became a mass of gorse and blackberry. My mission is to rehabilitate it back to native and pull down the internal fence to enable our kiwi access to a wild environment comparable to their own,” says Ray.

“As I’m the only person in the crèche there’s no issue with Covid risk so I’ve been planting native trees every day. I have a self-imposed rule that, no matter what my day entails, I have to plant at least one native tree a day! To date, the most I’ve planted in a day is 190 trees.”

Ray intends that the fenced-off area become a beech forest again. He is well into a two year programme of planting sub canopy species – coprossmas and mānuka – to support the planting and growth of beech in years ahead. 

Environmental charity Trees That Count has supported the Atarau Sanctuary restoration project via the provision of 4000 free native trees in the past two years.

“We couldn’t do this without this level of support. It’s not just about planting native trees; it’s about giving our young kiwis the best chance of survival and helping us create a safe transition for them,” says Ray.

The crèche, which has successfully raised 34 kiwi chicks over the last decade, helps boost recruitment of juvenile Kiwi back into the Paparoa Range where eggs are sourced at 30-40 days after laying, via the Operation Nest Egg programme permitted by DOC.

“Intervention is definitely the best way to ensure survival,” says Ray. “But, sadly, last October we only managed to source a single egg due to the beech mast year. There were just too many predators - rats, possums, stoats and weasels – eating our kiwi eggs.”

The single egg was sourced from the Roa Coalmine permitted area. All of our eggs are sent to Willowbank hatching facility in Christchurch, during their critical incubation period with high tech equipment to protect the chicks.

“When October’s chick came back to us I named him George because this area is named after George Moonlight and this little fellow will be released back in to the Moonlight Valley.”

Ray recently saw last year’s kiwi chicks released, Najima, Tarn and Royal. Najima was a name chosen by the Muslim community in respect of the Christchurch massacre. Royal named according to the Willowbank staff, earned her name because she was a ‘real Queen’.

“It’s very emotional, letting them go. They’re like your own offspring,” adds Ray.

The PWT has over 1300 trap boxes in the Paparoa Range and the birds are only released in areas not over populated by other kiwi and where there is effective trapping in place.

“Kiwi will staunchly defend their territory. We monitor and listen over several nights in advance of releasing to ensure the area is not overpopulated.

“Once released, we track our kiwi with transmitters so we can follow them and ensure they are doing ok for 12 months. A smart transmitter weights 25 grams and is attached to the kiwi’s leg, so we can receive coded beeps from up to several kilometres away. We physically track them down, bag them and weigh them to do a visual inspection and to ensure weight gain. This determines whether the release area has been a successful choice.”

Kiwi chicks in the crèche need to reach a target weight of around 1.5kg before release back into the wild. At this weight they are able to fight off a stoat.

When asked what future success looks like, Ray’s ambition and unbridled passion come to the fore.

“We need to better study our kiwis as longevity and breeding is not well understood. There are improvements underway in our tracking technology but, with a declining population, and without sustained, proper management, we will get to a point where there are no kiwi left to track,” says Ray.

“Within the crèche, my ambition is to plant our beech trees and see them thrive. The day we can lift that internal fence around the 1.5 hectares – that will mark success. We’ve purposefully planted that land in grass to suppress the gorse but we need big enough trees to survive the grass.

“It would also be great to see this land used for other species beyond kiwis. Maybe takahē. Let’s see,” concludes Ray.