The team preserving and promoting the importance of Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve

Waikanae Estuary Care Group volunteers have spent nearly 20 years protecting the area where the river meets the ocean.

Words: Bryony Ammonds-Smith

Robin Gunston out over the Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve every day. From his home, the Waikanae Estuary Care Group chair can view at least 80 per cent of the area’s rolling dunes and coastal vegetation. He never gets sick of it.

Robin is nearing the end of his five-year tenure, and he’s happy with progress. Under his watch, the group is now dedicated to education as well as scientific preservation. “We are not just here for the local ecology; we are here for the benefit of the whole country.”

Back in the 1980s, famed ornithologist Dr Charles Fleming, who had a bach nearby, lobbied the government to secure reserve status for the land around the estuary. Individuals seeing a need to maintain the unique landscape of the reserve, identified by Fleming as a breeding habitat for 27 bird species and further migratory birds, continued his legacy and established the group in 2004.

Robin, who began his tenure in 2018, led the 10 committee members to maintain the preservation expected of a reserve. Their different skills allowed for frequent maintenance and communal engagement. “Until then, various people had just been involved with growing our own plants and clearing the land.” Members hired an ecologist, who provided an ecological planting plan tailored to the area. A nursery was established in the early 2010s, but more had to be done. “This is a scientific reserve, and we needed to engage with scientific study.”

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And study they did. This new phase of the reserve attracted scientists and researchers, as well as horticulture and environmental studies students. They recruited people with specific skills and let them lead working bees or projects.

The group is now one of the largest environmental organisations on the Kāpiti Coast. It recently registered as a charity with a growing membership of about 120. According to its last annual report, volunteer hours are rising. “Over any month, there are generally 30 or 40 people doing work in different areas,” says Robin.

This includes nursery work, scientific research and trapping mustelids, rats, hedgehogs and mice. Trapping is successful despite an increase in pests accompanying the building of the new motorway north of Wellington. While a reserve bordered by homes and a significant highway will never be entirely pest-free, monitoring shows the wildlife is thriving without threat.

One outcome of increased membership and registration as a charity is interest from schools. A purpose-built education centre is on the cards, ensuring future generations’ attention. “So many young people are involved in conservation and the environment. People are awakening to what’s happening in nature.”

Next year, the group will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Robin is pleased with the work that has been done and continues to happen. Thanks to the committee’s continued efforts and growing local community, the reserve has become a haven for threatened biodiversity, particularly dotterels, fernbirds, spoonbills and mudfish. “I hope people realise this is a very special place.”


Three significant challenges have affected the Waikanae Estuary Care Group’s work this year.

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1. Coastal erosion “The changes of weather, increasing sea levels and storm surges are the main risk to the reserve.”

2. Invasive plants “We’ve had an infestation of german ivy this year that’s very hard to eliminate.”

3. Human behaviour “During Covid-19, the big change for us was the number of people treating this as a recreational reserve. Many of the public have not yet grasped the difference between a walk on the beach, often with dogs off-lead, and entering a very restricted reserve area that is a bird sanctuary. It’s a common issue throughout New Zealand. The native plants, birds and animals were here way before humans came.

We need to respect that before they all disappear.”


Scientific reserves are established under the Reserves Act 1977 to protect and preserve in perpetuity “for scientific study, research, education, and the benefit of the country, ecological associations, plant or animal communities, types of soil, geomorphological phenomena, and like matters of special interest”.

Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve gained its status in 1987, shortly before the death of leading campaigner Charles Fleming. Aotearoa has about 50 scientific reserves.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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