Rekindling the 'red beacon'

Martin Palmer and his daughter Robyn Ashton stand in front of Moturata/Taieri Island. They have...
Martin Palmer and his daughter Robyn Ashton stand in front of Moturata/Taieri Island. They have been working to restore the island's ecology for 30 years. Photo by Dan Hutchinson.
Over the past 24 years one family has been quietly going about setting things right on Dunedin's coastline. The Star reporter Dan Hutchinson takes a look at the work being done to restore Moturata/Taieri Island to its former glory.

3A Taieri Mouth family is going to extreme lengths to restore a ''red beacon'' of rata forest to Moturata/Taieri Island.

The island is in a tough spot - at the mouth of the Taieri River - but that has not stopped Martin Palmer (83) and his daughter Robyn Ashton persevering for more than two decades.

The island was covered in rata trees before humans, rabbits and erosion stripped it clean of vegetation.

''In the old days, for some of the old explorers or missionaries who came past, it was known to be like a red beacon,'' Mrs Ashton said, referring to the colour of the rata's summer flowers.

The island holds a special place in the pair's history - they are descendants and members of the Moturata Taieri Whanau - a Kai Tahu hapu affiliated with Te Runanga o Otakou.

The island was a pre-European fishing village, a whaling station in the 1830s and a pilot station assisting river traffic during the gold rush era.

Bringing it back to its former beauty is a big job and 23 years of ground work is just starting to bear fruit.

Mr Palmer was a driving force when the project started - arranging lottery funds for loads of manuka slash (branches with ripe seed) to be ferried to the island by helicopter, to stabilise the soil and allow regrowth.

Trips were made up the Taieri River to collect soil and seeds, which were grown at Taieri Beach School and then planted on the island.

Some of those plants survived but all early attempts to grow rata failed because of the lack of shelter and water.

An attempt to plant 50 rata in 2010 was more successful and 30 were still alive. Fifty trees were planted last year and only 10 have perished.

Mrs Ashton said they can walk out to the island at low tide during certain phases of the moon and get two or three hours of work in before the tide sweeps back over the 1.5km long sand bar.

''Sometimes you only get 20 minutes [on the island], so it makes it a little bit exciting.''

A holidaying family was lucky to escape earlier this year, after getting caught in the tide as the sun was setting.

''It was really lucky that the first-response people, like my neighbours just above, were actually watching them ... that was really close.''

Knowing the dangers and with help from volunteers, loaded with soft drink bottles full of water, they have been able to keep trees alive and plant more.

''You can get about 18 litres on [each person] with a front pack and a back pack. There is a wee cliff, so you have got to be really careful and you climb up about 25m above sea level.''

Possums made an appearance last winter - ''attacking and stripping'' some of the young rata trees. Five possums were later trapped.

The 7ha island is home to yellow-eyed penguins and royal spoonbills, so care has to be taken not to disturb their burrows.

Mrs Ashton and Mr Palmer know it will take a long time to cover the island in rata again.

''We really want to see it from the mainland glowing red when it flowers.''

Half the island is owned by the Department of Conservation and the other half by Moturata Taieri Whanau.

Project Crimson - a group that helps restore coastal rata and pohutakawa - has been instrumental in providing the right trees. It is one of the southernmost sites where rata can be grown.


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