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Making lasting change at Motukauri

Photo: Paul Quinlan

Motukauri Whakaora is an inspiring native planting project on the Guest whānau’s 200ha farm in the north Hokianga, not far from Motutī. For the older family members this has long been a dream, a legacy for future generations.

Now, with Bill the family patriarch aged 99, the time to transform these dreams into reality has arrived, guided by the project coordinators David and Diana Mules, and the farm manager Lindsay Guest. 

David says that, with the support of the wider family, this vision is proving to be a strongly uniting influence. They have planted 20,000 trees already, and aim to plant in excess of 60,000 in total over the next three years, with 33ha involved in the entire project. 

However, listening to David and Diana talk about this project, with Taupae one of their four mokopuna playing nearby on the beach, it is clear that this is not only about leaving an environmental legacy, but it is also deepening the connections and sense of belonging to this special place. 

Motukauri includes a pā on a 12ha headland that juts out into the Hokianga Harbour. As its name suggests, it is almost an island, being joined by a grassy sand spit between mangroves to the mainland farm.

It is clear why the pā was built by the tūpuna on this site, with stunning views in all directions of the twists and turns of Hokianga, from the wahapū up to Rawene. The headland was originally purchased for sawmilling in 1831 when kauri was in hot demand for shipping, and two years later it became the site of one of the last battles of the musket wars in the north.

The Guest whānau have been farming this land since the early 1900s, with their sixth generation now growing up at Motukauri. 

So, there are many historical and cultural values embedded in this landscape, with its ancestral connections for many Hokianga whānau. With this background, there was never any question about what to plant. Naturally it would be native trees, for all the environmental, biodiversity, and cultural values that they hold, to be recognised and enjoyed by all who wish to be associated with this project.

David says that the project “reflects the changing ideas and attitudes about what the right thing to do is, at this time, in this era.” But support from outside is helping make it happen. 

“Support from Trees That Count has helped make it real for us. And that this is not just an isolated project, but part of a significant national movement – part of something bigger that represents the renaissance of a more respectful relationship with Papatūānuku.”

Trees That Count, in partnership with the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai, were proud to offer Motukauri Whakaora native trees as part of a native tree planting initiative in honour of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. Motukauri is one of 15 outstanding restoration projects planting 100,000 native trees across Aotearoa New Zealand for the Jubilee, all of which will benefit local communities as well as future generations.

The aims of the Motukauri project are certainly lofty big-picture ideas, such as restoration of indigenous biodiversity, including in the estuarine environment; improving the water-quality of Hokianga; opportunities for mana whenua to reconnect with the cultural landscape; mitigation of climate change; and the landholders fulfilling their stewardship role (including fencing the shoreline and riparian margins, and reducing livestock numbers). 

The way David rattles these off makes them sound easy, or as if this project can bring all that about by itself. But then, the physical and visual way Motukauri stands out makes its presence an inspirational symbol of a local effort trying to do the right thing.

Although those involved make light of their own hard work, they are quick to acknowledge the support and work of others. Many other people and organisations are involved with this project and this site. These include not just the extended whānau and friends, but also Motutī and Panguru hapū, local kura, Te Rūnanga o Te Rawara, the One Billion Trees programme, the Northland Regional Council, and several local nurseries. 

Support has been forthcoming because the project aligns well with their values, roles, and interests. Everybody likes to support something positive and meaningful. And working with so many others in sharing this journey has been an important part of the pleasure for the whānau. 

There is a lot of hard work. At present, heading into winter, it is mostly getting new areas ready for planting. This has been spraying, mulching and track development. But propagation is also going on in the background, and of course, there is always releasing and weed control of the already planted areas. As the planting establishment phase is completed, the activities will change. New tasks such as pest control will gain priority. 

When David reflects on what keeps him enthused and motivated, the first thing mentioned is the pleasure of working with others on such a positive and worthwhile project. He enjoys seeing the short-term gains, as he envisions the long-term outcomes. The trees are doing well. He says it also keeps him physically active and learning new skills. And, as he looks at his grandchild, the inter-generational aspect is an obvious pleasure. “But really,” he says, “it’s the bringing together of people. That is what is so special.”

Members of the community who wish to help to plant native trees in honour of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations and to support this project are warmly invited to attend a Motukauri Whakaora planting day on June 4. Register to attend here, or learn more at