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Tūhaitara Coastal Park: A thriving 200-year restoration project

The sun rises over Tūhaitara Coastal Park: Photo credit: Allan McGregor
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In 1998, as a part of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act, the Crown returned the culturally significant Tūtaepatu lagoon to Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.

The surrounding lands in Waimakariri, North Canterbury, were then established as a reserve and gifted to the people of New Zealand.

Once considered by many in the local area to be ‘swamp’ this mostly unused area is now bustling with recreation, settlers, infrastructure, biodiversity, educational school projects, and conservation.

Named “Best Coastal Restoration Project” in New Zealand in 2013 – this area has undergone significant rehabilitation where wildlife, freshwater, and natives are thriving alongside the parks ever growing number of visitors.

From Waikuku to the Waimak

Tūhaitara Coastal Park is located between Waikuku beach and the mouth of the Waimakariri River spanning 10.5 kilometres.

The park contains a 49-hectare spring-fed lagoon – Tūtaepatu, that is the source of the freshwater system that runs the length of the park and connects the Waimakariri and Ashley rivers.

Being spring fed, this site is considered an important Mahinga kai site (meaning ‘to work the food’) and relates to the traditional value of protecting food resources and their ecosystems.

The park also consists of significant wetlands, fore dune and back dune habitat, coastal protection, biota nodes, commercial forestry and 100 hectares of farmland that converts to open wetland.

With such diverse needs and interests, the crown, Ngāi Tahu and the Waimakariri council determined that the best way to manage the area was to establish a trust based on strong bicultural values, to represent the communities of interest.

The Te Kōhaka o Tūhaitara Trust was established and a subsequent management plan to rehabilitate and manage the park’s concept and vision was set in motion.

Recovery and rehabilitation

In November 2010, Greg Brynes was hired as the trust’s general manager and has seen first-hand the transformation and growth of the park over the past 12 years.

“The original recreation reserve was around 497 hectares,” says Greg. “But has grown as more land has been acquired. It now sits at approximately 800 hectares.”

“Trustees have been active in making the reserve bigger and bigger over time.”

Over the past 10 years approximately 100,000 natives have been planted, female grey willow and old man’s beard controlled and approximately 4500 animal pests eradicated.

Horse paddocks have been restored into wetlands seeing the return of native species and hives of blackberry and silver poplar cleared and turned into beautiful walkways and cycleways with growing mid and upper canopy.

Horse paddock 2010

Pā, Harakeke, and wetland 2022

The Lagoon and its freshwater network support a diverse range of indigenous biota e.g. wetland and swamp plants, fish e.g. inaka, tuna (eel), kowaro (mudfish) and birds e.g. kotuku (white heron) bittern, kotare (kingfisher) kōrimako (bellbird) and ruru (morepork).

In early 2020, a pair of NZ Dabchicks were sighted, becoming the first sighting in Canterbury for over 100 years.

The trust has been successful in transforming the area because of its initiatives in engaging the wider community, education providers and short-term project funders.

For example, the trust’s emphasis on maintaining cultural values, has seen it increase the parks biota node numbers by linking to the New Zealand Science Curriculum and enabling students to manage a site and take ownership of it (Tūrangawaewae).

It is easy to restore this land because there is natural water,” says Greg.

 

Where it was once sandy, gorse and lupin covered land, is it now covered in biota nodes; a series of small, localised points of native wildlife which, as they mature, will grow to form a type of ‘biodiversity skeleton’.

A White Heron forages for food on the wetlands. Photo credit: Sarah Perrins Photography

Each node is adopted and maintained by a school, class, whānau, or community group. There are currently 65 and the plan is to add two more each year.

“Māori have lived here for hundreds of years,” says Greg.

“They know the land. So, it is important to us to continue this special value by educating locals and encouraging students through experiential learning.”

Community engagement  

“A fantastic group of volunteers have been our bread and butter,” says Greg. “There is a very limited amount of funding, so we rely heavily on involvement from the community.”

Greg has been blown away by the help the trust has received from locals.

“It was ‘spot the native’ as far as planting goes, and now there’s all sorts of stuff growing that is regionally significant,” says Greg.

Volunteers have been involved in creating field guides, which include a traffic light system on species status within the park as well as building traps for pest control.

They have undergone species counting and huge planting sessions, and are now in the process of building an app so that park users can identify native species, learn how to forage sustainably and access information on the local flora and fauna.

With a 200-year vision being an intergenerational project, the trust’s plan has been broken up into eight key projects and is based on performance objectives and set parameters.

One of the goals we have is to increase the population of local native species, says Greg.

 

“For example, we are translocating mudfish from our native population throughout the biota node network to increase habitat.

“We are working with the University of Canterbury to increase the species gene pool and have brought in adult fish from other locations including a dairy farm in the west of the district to ensure resilience and non-extinction.

“We are doing the same with freshwater crayfish and are having success because it is a compact area that we can contain with pest control.”

With the area becoming vastly more populated by the day, the trust is constantly looking at how best to serve recreational users while managing conservation and conflicting interests and expectations.

The trust hopes that with ongoing education and improvement of services it can encourage users to adopt a sense of individual guardianship over the park and lagoon.

While Greg should be immensely proud of what the trust has achieved, he is the first to point out how much more they hope to achieve.

“We keep our heads down and work on objectives,” says Greg.

“There is an old saying… ‘Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka The kūmara doesn’t speak of its own sweetness’.”

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For more information:

Please visit https://www.tuhaitarapark.org.nz/

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