Two former farmers who’ve discovered that paperwork is the key to conservation success are making great strides towards their ambitious plan – a bridge of  bird-filled forest connecting the east and west coasts across the top of Auckland. Gill and Kevin Adshead spoke to Alexia Russell. 

A passion for the natural world is a given when it comes to being a dedicated conservationist. But the reality is, a talent for paperwork will get you further. Offer to fill in the forms – pages and pages of them – funding will come, and farmers will thank you. This is how the Adsheads are building, fence by fence, a pest-controlled, native forest bridge from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Kaipara Harbour on the west coast. 

Parts of it are already in place, from their own bush-clad farm land at Mataia on the Kaipara Harbour to the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary in the east and its 2.5 kilometre pest proof fence, which was strung across the peninsula in 2004. The Adsheads hope there will be a time when those gates can be opened and the birds can fly safely across the country. 

In 2003 the couple gave up farming for a stint of volunteer work in the Solomon Islands. Gill was carrying out agricultural training and education. Kevin’s plans to be a house-husband and go fishing all day were dashed when he embarked on project management work. The experience changed their lives. They realised they needed a lot less than they had – nothing they’d put in a storage container for those two years, for a start. But they say the rape of the land in the Solomons spurred their conservation efforts at home. 

“We flew over and from the plane you could see a plume of orange soil flowing into the harbour from the cutting down of virgin forest. It was awful,” says Gill. 

Back home they got involved with a Forest & Bird project on their doorstep – and from Mt Auckland could see the pohutukawa trees on their own land had become deciduous through pest damage. Auckland Council agreed to put cyanide through their 200 hectares and got 550 possums out – “it was just seething with them.” 

They got their own cyanide licences and went to work, but then it was pointed out that now there would be plenty of food for the rats – and getting rid of the rats would let in stoats and weasels. That’s when serious trapping started. 

“Auckland Council was fantastic, and DoC was fantastic in providing support,” says Gill. “But of course you had to write funding applications. Kevin and I are incredibly lucky that we’re educated and we had reasonable internet access so we could do these applications and get the money.”

Their land was ideal for releasing kiwi, so next they went down that track. A 68 page application document arrived in the mail, many, many conditions had to be met, and the family decided to retire 400 hectares that had been used as stock grazing for the restoration project.

“When you decide to undertake a project like releasing kiwi on your farm, you actually commit your family forever,” says Kevin. “You have to make sure they’re all on board with the constant trapping – and they were.” Over three years from 2013 they released 40 kiwi, going through horrible situations where some were killed. But in the second year motion sensor cameras picked up nine chicks. It’s not clear how many are there now, but the chicks they can track will be microchipped. 

Local school children got involved. They were able to see and touch the kiwi and were sent reports on their progress. That eventually led to the couple developing a trapping programme designed for schools and led by conservationist and trapper Liz Maire. The children would in turn get their parents keen – and big traps would be provided for mum and dad – as long as the catches were recorded. It was all monitored by the University of Auckland, which also created a game around the work. Kevin likens it to the anti-smoking campaign long ago aimed at kids who would then nag their parents to stop. 

Their video on the Forest Bridge website has children revelling in their kills … and a write up in a New York magazine on their work sparked reaction from an American who wrote to them – saying “how dare you teach the next generation to kill things”. “They just didn’t understand our problems,” says Kevin. 

One of those problems is the Hoteo catchment, which is now the subject of concentrated effort to clean it up. Sedimentation from the river has been flowing through sea grass meadows into the Kaipara Harbour and a key snapper breeding ground. Last year the government’s Freshwater Improvement Fund contributed more than $1 million to support the five-year, $2 million project to reduce the amount of sediment discharging from the river. 

The couple formed the Forest Bridge Trust in 2015 to raise funds install fences around the valuable native bush and wetlands in the 95,000 hectare catchment area, and also for pest and predator control.

“We went to a farmers’ meeting in the Hoteo,” says Gill.

“Auckland Council had this thing called sustainable catchments. The team did fantastic work but unfortunately there’s a legacy of Auckland Council and farmers … they’re chalk and cheese. It’s all to do with how the Council has gone about relating to farmers in the past. There’s this real suspicion about them coming in with a big stick and beating them up over something. Farmers are very individual and independent.” 

Gill also says she’d open a Forest & Bird magazine and there’d once again be a picture of a cow in a drain … “but nobody knew that actually to fence one kilometre of one side of the river with a post and batten fence was $25,000. To buy plants for that kilometre is $20,000 and that doesn’t include putting them in the ground. It would cost between $75,000 and $80,000 to protect one kilometre of stream. 

“Kevin and I knew how much it cost to fence all these streams … but people were always pointing their fingers at farmers.” Some funding was available to help, but farmers would give up on the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for it using dialup internet connections that dropped out all the time. 

“With this in mind we looked at each other and said, farmers need to be the ones who need to say want they want to have happen when it comes to protecting the Hoteo catchment. So we went home and scratched our heads … 

“We just felt that somehow we had to connect the powers that be with the people on the ground which is farmers,” says Kevin. The couple found farmers wanted to act, but often didn’t have the spare cash to do it. So they put their skills to work in obtaining the funding that was already in place for the job. “We ask them, if we gave you the resources would you set it up? And they do.” 

“Everyone is cash, time and energy poor … we can’t keep banging on at people to fence off their waterways.” 

Now there are hubs of intensive pest control in the bridge area, and in between there are connections of people doing trapping. Kevin hopes the bridge will form from a halo effect. 

Because of the way Auckland is growing the vast majority of the land they are aiming to protect is now on life-style blocks. When it comes to farms they’re encouraging trap lines, and are looking for corporate help to raise volunteers to do the work. 

The Auckland Council is looking at funding a connectivity study that would help plot the bridge path. (A council spokesperson told Newsroom nothing is confirmed or approved at this stage – “the biodiversity team is currently in the planning phases of the wider project, with their connectivity study as a potential component. Funding and project specifics will be confirmed in the new year.”) But Kevin and Gill have a route in their minds using the Hoteo catchment as the main component. “We started with a scattergun approach but now we need the scientists to drill down for the best route. Long term it would be great to just take the (pest free) fence at Tawharanui down and just let them walk out … at the moment it’s a zoo!

“People will have kiwi and kaka and bellbirds in their back yards … geckos and weta on the ground. People will see the difference.” They don’t think we will get saddlebacks and stitchbirds, saying there needs to be almost zero rats for them to survive. 

“These remnants of bush have been degenerated for 100 years, and we don’t know what it was like before,” says Kevin. “But you read about James Cook having to shift his boat off shore because of the noise of the birdsong – it was deafening. This is about living more in harmony with nature – it’s got out of balance. Man’s come here and put his stamp on it very strongly, with our cats and our dogs.

“Tourism’s going to be a big thing for New Zealand and at the moment it’s a bit embarrassing in some places – we have to have something to show people. It can be much better.” 

Kevin says John Key lit the flame with his Predator Free 2050 scheme. “People say ‘you’ll never achieve that’ but it doesn’t matter; he’s put a line in the sand and it’s something to aim for. We don’t want to lose that impetus.” 

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