Coastal reserve takes beating

Peter Johnston, front, and Andy Whitehead on the beach at Sandy Bay, Oaonui.
Peter Johnston, front, and Andy Whitehead on the beach at Sandy Bay, Oaonui.

Sarah Foy strolls over sandhills at Oaonui on Taranaki's west coast and talks to Sandy Bay conservationists who are fighting to retain a coastal reserve.

Think native reserve and picture bush and birdsong. Think native reserve at Sandy Bay and you encounter sand hills, sparse vegetation and seabirds.

It's the only remaining natural area of sand dune reserve in the region, and this year it has taken a battering.

Peter Johnston is chairman of the Ngatitara Oaonui Sandy Bay Society, which helps conservation work on the 35-hectare reserve.

He is also a neighbouring farmer and land he owns with fellow farmer Andy Whitehead (18.6ha) forms part of the reserve.

Of their portion, 9ha is protected as a covenant under the QEII National Trust.

The weather bombs of March destroyed fences, coastal plants and left surrounding landowners reeling.

"It just wiped everything out. It was unbelievable," says Johnston.

The same storms that felled trees and ripped off roofs in Patea stripped a layer of sand off the bay that Johnston estimates at one metre in depth. At the same time, the high-tide mark moved a staggering 60 metres, further up towards the land. Johnston and Whitehead put that shift down to global climate change.

Aged in his 60s, Johnston has been farming land around Oaonui since 1979. Coastal landscapes are dynamic, but this year's episode is like nothing he has seen before.

The battering destroyed thousands of spinifex planted since 2004 to stabilise sand movement. Dozens of volunteers ranging from school children to Shell Todd Oil Service employees had pitched in for the planting.

Thousands of metres of fencing were also ripped out or fragmented. Some posts remain on the beach, lone markers jutting out incongruously from the sand.

The fences were there to keep beach visitors away from the critically endangered New Zealand dotterel, which nests on the foreshore among debris thrown up by the sea. It is estimated there are just four pairs of the small wading bird at Sandy Bay. From afar, they resemble little mice, scurrying around on the sand. Their eggs are hard to distinguish from tiny rocks, so they must be left undisturbed.

Oystercatchers also call Sandy Bay home, as do black-backed gulls, which once nested there in great numbers.

The Sandy Bay Management Plan shows about 80 pairs of the gulls lived in the area before the 1970s.

Johnston talks of great flocks. "People use to ring from Opunake and ask if they were here so they could come and have a look."

Then motorbikes and dogs got in. "They used to have a ball down here at the weekends when I was at golf," he says of the beach vandals. Fences were put up to stop riders from hooning down the beach, but they were ripped down.

"Then we put barbed wire in and they would cut it up."

The management plan mentions two and four-wheel-motorbike users using the dune system as "an off-road circuit".

"The destructive and erosive effects of that use on the sand- dune system are immediate and long lasting."

Today, there's none of that.

The beach is hard but not impossible to access. It is reached by a track on Tai Rd and pedestrians first pass through a sheltered, relatively green area.

The Department of Conservation, which administers part of the reserve, planted baby flax, pingao and topata here.

In the past, gorse and blackberry have been sprayed and hauled out and slowly the area is developing layers of vegetation, which includes Muehlenbeckia complexa and sand convolvulus (Calystegia soldanella).

Children at St Joseph's school in Opunake were involved in the planting. In the past, Opunake Primary and Opunake High School children have also played a part.

This area is a habitat for the Taranaki goldstriped gecko, which slide into the flax if they sense predators about.

It's greener than the dunes, although survival for both plant and animal species is still a battle, in part because of predators but also because of its dryness.

Johnston points to a lone cabbage tree, barely half a metre high. "It's taken over nine years to get to that point."

Elsewhere on the reserve, dense mats of the native groundcover Pimelea carnosa grow.

The cluster of dainty leaves sits below tiny white flowers and in here lives Taranaki's native moth, notoreas. Found only in this region, it boasts distinctive amber and black wings.

Reaching the beach, through the official track, involves a hike up a short but steep sand hill. Adjacent to that is the gas pipeline, erected in 1976 to connect the Maui platform with the Oaonui Production station. It's not visible. Only signs indicate its presence.

Out on the beach, members of the Sandy Bay Society point to the remaining spinifex - those left from the 27,000 planted between 2004 and 2012.

When restoration work first began in Sandy Bay, late in the 1970s, the aim was to stop wind- blown sand from eroding neighbouring farmland.

That's not the priority now. One reason is because some farmland has been converted into subdivisions.

These days the vision is to "protect and enhance the unique values of Sandy Bay as a legacy for current and future generations".

As well as the unique ecology of the area there are cultural values. For example, an urupa (cemetery) has been identified on the reserve.

However, marram grass, a non- native plant, was initially planted to stabilise the dunes. It's out of fashion on the beach not because it's a visitor to our shore but because it doesn't do the job.

"It won't let the sand move underneath it whereas spinifex and pingao do," says Whitehead as he stands out on the beach.

He explains the sand dunes as a living object. Creating gently sloping dunes less prone to wind is the aim, not high hills and deep valleys. So while the sand needs to be stabilised, it must also be allowed to shift.

Spinifex are there as an anchor. After March, thousands were uprooted, but many hang on, their strong runners creeping along the dunes in a ferocious fight to remain alive.

"If you get just one plant to survive, in 10 years it will have covered a big area, but you don't know which ones will survive, so you plant the lot and hope.

"It's rewarding to see some hanging in there and heartbreaking to think of the ones that died," says Whitehead.

He sees the beach as a magical place.

"It's a whole habitat that's worth protecting.

"It's worth it, just to see some of those plants survive. We will be back [planting] next year, and back the year after that.

"I'd like to think of my grandchildren in 20, 30 or 40 years going down there."

Johnston says several things motivate him. "I just enjoy going down there and looking around and seeing the change, looking to see what birds have been on the beach. I do a bit of fishing. I have a paua spot. It's all part of the farm."

He is philosophical about what seems to an outsider as an uphill battle.

"I've had that many knockbacks that I take it in my stride."


 Sandy Bay is on the South Taranaki coast, south of Kina Rd, Oaonui. The reserve covers 35ha, with about 60 per cent sand dunes and varying degrees of vegetation. Several organisations and individuals own and administer different parts, including DOC, the South Taranaki District Council and the Whitehead and Johnston families. The bay is unique, because it's a beach break in an otherwise continuous boulder shoreline. On shore there is an extensive dune system. The reserve provides a habitat for the critically endangered dotterel, as well as for osterycatchers, black-backed gulls, the native Taranaki moth (notoreas) and the rare native goldstripe gecko. Within its boundaries are urupa sites, although only one has been identified. Work on stabilising the sand began in 1977 and continued through the 1980s. In 2000, Shell Todd Oil Services provided funding and technical expertise to kick-start planning for a new project. Coastal subdivision has been a recent issue. In the past, vehicles and trail bikes compromised planting programmes. The Ngatitara Oaonui Sandy Bay Society works to preserve natural, ecological and biological values and conditions of the dune system. --------------------

Taranaki Daily News