Conservation work on the Wildside started 30 years ago when a farmer Mark Armstrong, who grew up with little blue penguins all over the farm, was showing visitors a penguin nest under his woolshed. He lifted the floor board to find a ferret in the nest with two dead adults. This ferret was found to contain the remains of seven newly hatched penguin chicks. Local farmers had wondered why penguin numbers were dropping and Mark had spent eight years looking for a reason, but this was the first definitive proof that something was really wrong and action needed to be taken. That was in 1988 – the first year that adult penguins started to be predated upon and six yellow-eyed chicks were also lost. Sixteen ferrets were trapped in that first year but it was five years before he caught the last one and the carnage stopped, but not before two-thirds of the white flippered penguin population were killed in Stony Bay.
Landowners approached DOC and were able to borrow half a dozen traps. It soon became obvious that halting the decline meant stopping predators well before they reached the penguin colonies, so trap lines were established by the landowners up the valleys. Ten years later DOC established extensive trap lines along the ridges to cliff edges.
Landowners Shireen and Francis Helps are well known examples of farming conservationists and are often called the ‘penguin farmers’. They were so used to the sound and smell of penguins that they were alarmed when in the 1980s penguin numbers started to plummet. Predator control, building nest boxes, and monitoring nests ensured that the decline of penguins was halted in Flea Bay/Pōhatu. In other areas of Banks Peninsula penguins were pushed back to caves and cliff faces where predators had less access. In 2000/01 the first survey of Pōhatu was undertaken and 717 pairs were counted; even then this was found to be the largest mainland colony of penguins in Australia or New Zealand. In 2004, 893 penguin pairs were counted. In 2008, 1063 pair and in 2012 a staggering 1304 pairs; a year on year increase of five percent.
Yellow-eyed penguins are found at their northern nesting limit on Banks Peninsula and while the population is small it appears to be robust and isolated from the mass mortality and disease events of Otago, which makes this population on the mainland particularly valuable. In the late 1980s up to ten nests produced eleven chicks per year. However, each year a number of predated penguins were also recorded. Over time this loss had a real impact on the population culminating in a dramatic collapse of penguins down to one nest and no chicks throughout the early 2000s.
Yellow-eyed penguins have been an inspiration for Wildside Coordinator Marie Haley. She will often talk of how as a child she was at the stream in Goughs Bay white-baiting with her family when six yellow-eyed penguins came ashore and walked across the beach to their nests. With the support of the Wildside collaboration and working with the community, Marie now spends much of her summers monitoring nests. Hoiho numbers have dropped across mainland New Zealand and are now listed as endangered, with the population on Banks Peninsula remaining small and very vulnerable. A recovery plan needs to be implemented to ensure that this breeding area is safe for penguins migrating north from the core mainland population in Otago.
Titi or sooty shearwater were once common across Banks Peninsula along with many other species of burrowing petrel, but by 1995 only three pairs remained in mainland Canterbury at Stony Bay on the edge of a 200m cliff. Intrepid landowner Mark Armstrong drove a post in to the ground and secured himself to it with a rope around his waist, before lowering himself on to the slip-prone area where the titi nest on the top of this sheer cliff. There he built a chicken wire fence around that last pair. He also established a defensive line of predator traps. This was enough to ensure that the last pair were never truly the last.
In 2009 Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust (BPCT), Department of Conservation (DOC), Environment Canterbury (ECan), Josef Langer Charitable Trust (JLT) and Christchurch City Council (CCC) formed a collaboration to build a predator-excluder fence around the colony. In 2010 the fence was closed and the story for this titi colony dramatically changed. In 2009, 21 adult pairs attempted to nest with only one chick fledging. In 2010, 27 pairs attempted nesting and 20 chicks fledged. Year on year numbers have increased until we had 50 nesting attempts this year with 33 chicks recorded pre-fledging.
Initially the Wildside was a reaction to the issue of predation of little blue white flippered penguins, endemic to Banks Peninsula. At the same time the community of traditional farmers was struggling with the 1980s financial downturn and started to look to diversify their income with on-farm tourism operations. One of these was the Banks Peninsula Track. This brought about a shift from traditional farming to regenerative farming where beautiful scenery, biodiversity, and healthy forest were valued for economic reasons.
When in 1987 Hugh Wilson confidently set out to use gorse scrub as nursery canopy for spontaneous native forest restoration, Hinewai was among the first projects to apply this ecological understanding on a significant scale. It’s impact has been widespread. Hinewai is now the largest private reserve in New Zealand at 1250ha, turning around a marginal farm covered in gorse to native forest within 30 years. Hugh envisioned a reserve that protects the full range of vegetation and wildlife from summit to sea. This is still in the process of being realised at Hinewai. However, neighbouring conservation covenants across the Haleys’ and Simpsons land in Fishermans’ Bay have seen this become a reality as the first full catchment on Banks Peninsula is protected ki uta ki tai.
Hinewai is not alone. It is now connected into the Akaroa town catchment by protected areas owned by the NZ Forest Restoration Trust, by Misty Peaks Christchurch City Council Reserve and along the crater rim in both directions by DOC Ellangowen Reserve and by Queen Elizabeth II National Trust (QEII) and BPCT covenants, and other DOC and private reserves including Josef Langer Trust’s Panama Reserve. The Wildside is connected into the ocean by two Marine Reserves; Pohatu and Akaroa.
DOC Ranger Robin Burleigh was involved with the protection of both species of penguin and managed the comprehensive Banks Peninsula little blue penguin census in 2000/01. The overwhelming impression was that the penguins were found in greatest numbers from Le Bons Bay to the Akaroa Headland, with a higher range of biodiversity, less weed pests and fewer exotic habitats than the wider Banks Peninsula. Robin was the visionary who dreamed of the Wildside, an area with biodiversity worthy of special protection and with landowners who were deeply engaged in conservation that needed support and collaboration with agencies. Robin talked to key researchers, agencies and landowners and with wide ranging support, and funding from the Josef Langer Charitable Trust to contract trapper John Stuart and Wildside Coordinator Marie Haley, the Wildside was born.
The focus of the Wildside has moved on from the initial protection of pelagic sea birds to become a truly collaborative whole landscape restoration project within a living and working environment. The successes are considerable. Collaborative predator control has resulted in a dramatic turn-around for sea bird species. Twenty-four percent of the Wildside is protected through private covenants (17.5%) or public reserves (6.5%), and this figure is ever increasing. The first whole stream protected from summit to sea through farmland in New Zealand was on the Wildside, and seven other Wildside catchments currently have freshwater fencing underway, with the majority of each stream protected in nearly every bay.
In 2017 the Wildside was the winner of both the Green Ribbon national Community Leadership award as well as the Inaugural Biosecurity Award. Giving acknowledgement to this humble community who for 30 years have gotten out in all types of weather and across all sorts of terrain to protect and celebrate the special species who live here alongside us.