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Restoration Trust Formation and Progress

Formation of the Motuihe Island Restoration Trust

Concessionaire Ronnie Harrison, had the idea of restoring Motuihe Island from its rabbit infested,  weedy state  to an island covered in native bush with endangered birds  and other creatures living on it. She had a Trust document drawn up by Michael Wood, who, in 2016, is still involved with the Trust. She invited a small group of people to be trustees including Peter Whitmore and Mike Lee. There was also a move at the same time by a group of wealthy, influential people with an American connection to lease the island and create a visitor facility on it. Ronnie’s vision was an island accessible to everyone. For some time DOC could not decide which group to entrust the island to. There were endless meetings. The Restoration Trust invited the other group to form a joint initiative, but they were not interested. Eventually DOC decided to give the Motuihe Restoration Trust the go ahead to restore the island. In the early days there was talk of building a visitor lodge on the island, on the land behind the tractor shed. However, the Trust had no money and that idea was dropped. 

Ronnie’s life on the island

Ronnie lived for two years on a scow called Vesper II. It had a coal range and was moored at Islington Bay. She saw an advert for the licensee on Motuihe. Ronnie had helped the previous licensee the Shuttons in the kiosk. Terry and Ronnie applied and got the licence because DOC felt they were used to isolation and would be able to manage on Motuihe.

She lived on Motuihe for 22 years with partner Terry Gibbons and son Michael. In 1984 they took over the kiosk licence and lived in the back of the kiosk.  They did corporate catering with a huge marque and a big BBQ.

In 1987 they took over the farm concession. Motukorea (Browns Island) was included in the concession. The kiosk burned down in 2002 due to a wiring fault in the generator. The gas bottles exploded and much of the history of the island was lost. She left Motuihe in February 2007.

Newspaper picture of Ronnie Harrison.

Pest Control

In the early 1900s Motuihe was infested with pests including rats, mice, rabbits and cats. In 1993 and 1995 and rats and mice were cleared out.

The rabbits killed the farm. Ronnie applied to kill off the rabbits and cats but DOC didn't have the finances for a pest control programme. Finally, after a long battle, Ronnie got resource consent. It was a huge effort on Ronnie's part, involving large documents and consultation with iwi. The island was closed for 3 months while Magtoxin and 1080 carrots were used.  DOC paid for the eradication programme which cost 100,000s of dollars. 

There were a few rabbits left. Don Thompson a trapper was employed for three days a week with his dog and he shot the last rabbits. On a scale of 1 to 10 for rabbits, Motuihe was a 9. It took 18 months to eliminate the last rabbits. The restoration project would not have worked if the rabbits had still been there.

32 cats were shot and Ronnie thought that cats and kittens were dumped on Motuihe when people left for their Christmas holidays. Pest free status was achieved in late 2003, 2004. Previous to this it was almost impossible to plant trees, the rabbits just ate them. The volunteers did weeding work only. 

Ronnie had already started growing trees but the rabbits just ate them.

Moth plant smothering trees before the weeds were slowly brought under control.

Setting up the Trust as a legal entity (interview with Michael Wood)

DOC had suggested to Ronnie that the way forward was to form a charitable trust. She approached Michael Wood, a lawyer who is still working for the trust today, for help with the legal document and he agreed. Michael knew Ronnie from visits his company had made to the island, he had a staff member who knew Ronnie well and also Michael had a background in environmental restoration work in England.

The original trustees were Peter Whitmore (chair), Ronnie Harrison, Terry Gibbons, Hariata Gordon (Ngati Paoa), Mike Lee (Auckland councillor) and Stephen Jackson who was involved in youth outdoor training.

The trust was registered in 2000. There were then many meetings with DOC over the next two years particularly with Warrick Murray. DOC were very sceptical about anything being achieved.

The other trust that was formed about the same time was led by a New Zealander living in the USA. He had visited Motuihe and seen what a mess it was in and decided it would be a good project for some wealthy Americans to be involved in. They would be able to use American tax laws to advantage. He had some famous people connected to his project including politicians and bankers. DOC found him difficult to deal  with, he made lots of promises but nothing concrete. He sent a PR man to the meetings. DOC became suspicious of his motives as he wanted to live on the island and perhaps he was after a life style rather than honestly trying to restore the island. One of his group wanted to grow a thorny hedge around the edge of the island with just one entrance and charge people to go on to the island. DOC had to decide which trust would be best for restoring  the island  and after much discussion decided on Ronnie’s Motuihe Island Restoration Trust because the people involved were local and genuine.

It was obvious that nothing could be done until the rabbits were dealt with. Ronnie managed to get resource consent for a rabbit eradication programme. Auckland conservator Mr McCullum felt ashamed that DOC had an island in such a degraded state and he spoke to the Minister directly saying that the rabbit eradication programme must happen. It cost DOC hundreds of thousands of dollars but they found the money. Ronnie wanted to keep the stock for a while, with fences used to plant parts of the island and stock on other parts. However it just didn’t work. The stock broke through fences, pugged the ground and it was making more work having the stock there. In 2005 the last of the cattle were removed. John Hawley a landscape architect produced a restoration plan with an overall vision for the island. In 2002, with John Laurence on board, things started in happen in terms of the nursery. The World Wildlife Fund donated $15,000 for setting up the nursery.  Funding  was also received from Sky City for the tractor and Mobile Oil made considerable donations in the first 3 years so the project was launched with secure funding and good people involved.

Ronnie sent out an invitation to clubs to help restore the island. A presentation was made to the Outboard Boating Club  which involved Ronnie and Peter Whitmore plus others. Several other clubs had responded but the Outboard Boating Club was the only one that got stuck in immediately and were keen and involved. John Laurence volunteered to take on the role of Chairman of the Restoration Trust and Peter Whitmore, who had been the chairman previously, became the deputy chairman. John had a nursery business so he was able to get the nursery on Motuihe up and running. 

This is the document that Ronnie sent out to clubs.
There was a daily ferry service at the time and two ferries on Wednesday. The Blue Boats also came to the island, run by the Julian brothers. So it was relatively easy to get volunteers out to the island.

Why did Ronnie want to restore the island?

She felt a spiritual connection with the island and she felt that because it is small it makes people want to care for it. If we care for the land, it will care for us. The historical connections were also important in her decision.

Tony Slark the last naval surgeon was the patron of the Trust.

Seabird Programme

In 2014, a seabird calling system was put in place at Billy Goat Point which is at the NE end of the island. The  system  broadcasts seabird calls during the hours of darkness. Different species calls are  played at different times of the year, to attract birds to the site with the aim of  getting some to stay and nest on Motuihe.

The site is monitored by trail cameras which record any activity. The expert brains behind the programme are Chris Gaskin and James Ross who can identify birds from shadowy pictures and have helped the Trust with appropriately designed  nesting boxes for specific species.

We were delighted to find that one of our recent night visitors was a Fluttering Shearwater. If we can attract seabirds, and get them to stay and nest and rear their young, then young birds hatched on Motuihe will return and breed. In the future and  we can hopefully establish a colony of Fluttering Shearwaters.

In 2016 a group from MacLean’s College students installed 16 of the 20 nesting boxes we made to accommodate Fluttering Shearwaters. International Student Volunteer (ISV) groups will install the remaining few later in 2016. Then perhaps in July we’ll have some nesting birds.

The news gets even better. Following the Fluttering Shearwater activity, a Grey Faced Petrel was captured on one of the trail cam pictures. This means we need to provide nesting opportunities for this bird as well. This is a bigger bird, requiring a larger nest box, so we will need to build a few of those as well to install. This is a very exciting development and is great for the island and for the bird species.

Species Translocations to Motuihe  (to August 2015)



Number released

Habitat requirements



Tieki/N.I Saddleback (at risk)



Established, population increasing, genetic top-up desirable


Red-crowned kakariki (at risk)


Forest, shrublands and grasslands

Established, breeding confirmed, population increasing


Shore skink (not threatened)


Coastal dunelands

Established, breeding and range expansion confirmed, population expected to be increasing

Little spotted kiwi (Nationally endangered)


Forest and shrublands and rank grassland

Established - breeding confirmed, top-up desirable


Little spotted kiwi  (nationally endangered)


Forest and shrublands and rank grassland

Established - breeding confirmed, top-up desirable

korimako/N.I bellbird (not threatened)


Forest and shrublands

Failed but individuals present and likely to re-establish from Motutapu/Rangitoto/Rakino pops


Tuatara (at risk)


Coastal forest and shrublands

Still present, no evidence of breeding to date, monitoring ongoing

Popokatea/Whitehead (not threatened)


Forest and shrubland and cliff habitats

Established, breeding confirmed, population increasing


Common gecko (not threatened)


Coastal forest and shrubland and cliff habitats

Established, breeding confirmed, range expanded, population increasing, monitoring ongoing


Duvaucel's gecko (at risk)



Unkown, no individuals detected since release, first monitoring scheduled for December 2015

Pacific gecko (at risk)


Coastal forest and shrubland

Unkown, no individuals detected since release, first monitoring scheduled for December 2015


Some plants that are rare or were no longer present on the island have also been re-introduced. These include kauri (seeds in swamp show was present in the past), pingao and spinefix planted around coast (2010) and shore spurge planted around coast (2012).

Acknowledgement: material provided by Matt Baber of Tonkin and Taylor