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Exciting developments in the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project
Part 1

Dorothy - 25/08/06

The Rotoiti Nature Recovery was launched by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 1997 with the establishment of a “mainland island” in Nelson Lakes National Park in New Zealand’s South Island. (A mainland island is an area which would be treated like an island and given intensive pest control programmes.) At that time the Hon Dr Nick Smith, Minister of Conservation, outlined some of the possible results of the project – restoring 800 ha of beech forest along the eastern edge of Lake Rotoiti to as near to its original state as possible, and mistletoe and kaka in particular getting a boost from the removal of their enemies. However people had to realise that the innovative conservation work to be begun would not produce instant results. It would only be early in the next century that the benefits would become evident. Now, in the new century nearly ten years later:

  • there are increased bird numbers of the species such as bellbirds, tui, tomtits, parakeets, robins, fantails and rifleman which had been suffering a decline
  • the number of kaka has steadily increased
  • the kiwi has been re-introduced
  • plants, especially mistletoe, have been freed from attack by possum and are growing vigorously
  • there is a substantial and growing body of scientific research produced by DOC staff and visiting researchers
  • the area being treated for restoration has been considerably increased
  • teams of volunteers have given faithful and effective support.

 Map by courtesy of the Department of Conservation.
Map by courtesy of the Department of Conservation.

Click here to view a larger version

Looking down from the St Arnaud Range across the mainland island with St Arnaud township in the middle distance
Looking down from the St Arnaud Range across the mainland island with St Arnaud township in the middle distance

Click here to view a larger version

1999 Report on the attack on pests
By spring 1999 the staff reported on the war on wasps undertaken in conjunction with Landcare Research using a new bait based on the poison Fipronil. The aim was to control wasps on 300ha. The result was a dramatic and rapid reduction in wasp activity.

As with all statistics based on the results of work in the Rotoiti Recovery Project the figures are compared with statistics recording infestation in an area outside the control area.

Bait stations targeting possums and rodents with Talon poison and the use of Feratox encapsulated cyanide have resulted in a satisfactory reduction in possum numbers.

The heavy beech flowering the previous spring and the subsequent heavy seed drop (beech mast) led to a huge increase in the number of mice. The recording of footprints in special tunnels showed that in 100 tunnels set up in the Mainland Island there was an increase from 4% before the beech mast to 74% after it.

The growth in mouse numbers meant increased food for stoats and an increase in stoat numbers. Extra measures to reduce stoat numbers were planned for January to protect from stoat attack the young kaka chicks which would be at a vulnerable stage either in the nests or at the fledgling stage calling out to the parents for food from high in the trees - and attracting the attention of the predators as well.

Two feral cats caught at Lakehead were fitted with transmitters which revealed that in three months the black male called Jet had travelled round the lake twice with a twenty kilometre range in his travels, and a tabby female called Cassandra had moved only around the river flats at the head of the lake.

Two new walks – the Bellbird Walk and the Honeydew Walk
These walks, starting at Kerr Bay, have interpretation panels giving an outline of the Mainland Island project – and as people walk the track the birdsong is confirmation of the success of the project for the bellbirds. The 50+ group from the Waimea Tramping Club and the Nelson Tramping Club, the Nelson Rotary Club and local residents planted several hundred trees to enrich the new walks.

A productive kaka breeding season in the Mainland Island
In winter 2000 the newsletter, “Revive Rotoiti”, reported that the predator control system within the Mainland Island was reversing the decline of kaka in the area. In the three years of the project 12 out of 14 nesting attempts had been successful with 35 chicks fledging.

Statistics from outside the project area proved the value of the project. At the Rotoroa non-treatment site in the 1998 and 1999 seasons only one out of ten nesting attempts was successful with just four chicks fledging.. At Big Bush where Landcare scientists studied kaka between 1985 and 1996 only one out of 19 nests was successful with only two chicks fledging.

In the 1999 season because of the beech mast the breeding rates were high and two females in the project area managed to produce two broods.

The success of the 1999 breeding season was very gratifying because it was achieved in spite of a huge increase in predator numbers.

Restoring the dawn chorus
There has been a threefold increase in the number of bellbirds in the project area – not in areas outside it. Parakeet and tomtit numbers have also increased.

Progress Report 2000

The achievements listed in the report included a considerable increase in the number of kaka nesting in the project area, robin nesting successes, increased birdlife in the St Arnaud area, increased honeydew in the summer in the project area, improvement in the health of many plants, especially mistletoe, and a strong level of public interest and support.

Why such achievements?
Factors contributing to the team’s success include:

  • The largest ever successful wasp control operations in New Zealand
  • Possums and rats kept to low numbers through poisoning
  • Large numbers of stoats and some weasels and ferrets trapped
  • St Arnaud people taking responsibility for controlling own pests, especially wasps
  • Advocacy and education programmes and fostering of research
  • Development of new tracks and interpretation panels.


  • To sustain populations of the rarer native birds by extending the work area.
    (Extending the wasp control to the Big Bush area with good honey dew on the lower slopes would benefit kaka, tui and bellbirds and reduce wasp re-invasion of the village.)
  • To encourage the St Arnaud village community to control possums, stoats, ferrets, rats and mice as they have done with the wasps
  • To extend work to new areas to support kaka, kiwi, mohua and tieke (saddleback) populations
  • To develop a core area at Lake Rotoroa and manage links between the two.

Positive approach in Revive Rotoiti in the winter of 2001
Encouragement for the work came with a national review of the six mainland islands in New Zealand and the resultant strong support for this approach.

There was great satisfaction in the fact that despite the 2000 season having the largest seedfall ever recorded - 4800 seed per square metre – in the project area the birds still held on. There was a huge increase in predator numbers, but there were also record numbers of stoats trapped. Robins had a 76% nesting success in the recovery area compared to only 26% at Rotoroa. Kaka did not attempt to breed, either because there was no beech seed in the autumn of 2001 or because of their high breeding success in 2000.

LEARNZ 2001, an on-line educational resource using website-based information to take schools out into the field, had as its theme that year “Island Odyssey” and included a section on the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project. Staff and local residents and school children took part in this outreach to over 11,000 pupils.

Visits from school parties and from New Zealand and overseas scientists and conservationists have all helped to spread the word about what is happening through the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project.

More news of the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project in Part 2 of this article

Editor's comment
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