Ngā Manu Nature Reserve began not as a place, but as an idea in a person’s mind. That person was Peter McKenzie.

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Peter McKenzie was 20 years old and working as a zoo keeper at Wellington Zoo in the early 1970s. A series of discussions with David Mudge and a number of colleagues evolved into the idea of creating a ‘zoo’ of indigenous, rather than exotic, species. This idea stemmed from a concern at that time that the zoo was doing little to create awareness of New Zealand’s indigenous fauna. However, it soon became clear that the group did not have access to the kind of capital required to turn such a concept into reality. However, a few weeks before his 21st birthday Peter was told that he was to receive an inheritance from his grandfather (Sir John McKenzie, founder of the McKenzie’s chain stores and one of New Zealand’s early philanthropists), the decision was quickly made to gift one-third of it for the establishment of Ngā Manu, and the dream became a possibility.

From left to right: Peter Mc Kenzie, Sir Robert Falla, Prof John Salmon, David Mudge
From left to right: Peter McKenzie, Sir Robert Falla, Prof John Salmon, David Mudge

Peter gathered together a group of exceptional people with the necessary skills and experience to serve as Trustees on the Board. They were David Mudge, with expertise in aviculture, and who had been pivotal to much of the discussion about the idea; Sir Roy McKenzie (Peter’s father), who brought business experience and knowledge of setting up charitable trusts; Sir Robert Falla, ornithologist, conservationist and museum director; and Professor John Salmon, author of numerous books on NZ flora. The Trust, established in 1974, was named Ngā Manu, Māori for ‘the birds’, with its primary objective being “to establish reserves and sanctuaries for the maintenance and preservation of New Zealand wildlife and native bush and plants, and in particular to advance knowledge of the living and breeding habits of indigenous fauna”.

Finding and establishing Ngā Manu

In late 1977, the Trustees heard of a block of land for sale in Waikanae that sounded like it had all the characteristics that the Peter and the other trustees sought: a water body (stream, lake, pond or swamp); some remnant native vegetation; an environment that had the potential for improvement through management and development; and accessibility to visitors. On their visit to the site for sale, the group climbed to the top of a small hill to survey the surroundings. There, laid out in front of them, was a small valley encompassing a wetland surrounded with bush. Peter remarked to John Salmon that if they could not get the block that was for sale, this block would be a perfect site for the reserve.

Soon after, the trustees made an initial approach to Moss Smith regarding the land that they had seen at the back of his farm. Although he was not particularly receptive to their idea, he did not dismiss them out of hand. The greatest difficulty he had was understanding just what they were proposing to do, and coming to terms with the fact that anyone could see any value in the ‘swamp’ at the back of the farm. However, with time, he not only seemed to come to accept the trustees’ proposal to establish a reserve, but he also agreed to lease the site to the Trust, for a nominal fee, for 13 years and 11 months – the maximum period that was possible under the law. Though not as ideal as an outright purchase of the land, this was nevertheless acceptable to the trustees, because they figured that if they were still there in 14 years, they would be fairly hard to shift! In March 1978 the Board approved the proposed lease, and in April the Nga Manu Trust took over the site.

Excavation of the major ponds started in April 1978 and continued for about three months. By early June, the major excavations were finished and the boundary fence almost complete. At the first inspection of the Waikanae site, the Trustees looked down over the newly excavated ponds that Peter was proudly showing them. There was a long silence, and then the first comment from John Salmon, who exclaimed: “What a bloody mess!” Peter recalled feeling absolutely shattered. He had felt extremely positive about the progress of the ponds, but at the same time, he was able to visualise the final product of the work.

Growth of the project

Slowly Peter McKenzie’s vision took shape. The Trust developed the Reserve, creating wetlands, planting many indigenous trees and shrubs, building aviaries and animal enclosures to house numerous native birds and lizards, including the ancient tuatara. The project was joined by eminent botanist John Dawson and geologist and naturalist Charles Fleming (later to become Sir Charles Fleming). The Arboretum was planted and battles commenced against an army of introduced pests, including starlings, rabbits, rats and possums. Scaup and grey teal were introduced and in 1981 an Information Centre was built.

Ngā Manu Sanctuary was opened in late 1981 by the Minister for the Environment, Dr Ian Shearer, and was attended by local politicians, representatives from the New Zealand Wildlife Service and conservation organisations, along with many of those who had contributed to the establishment of the sanctuary. Not long afterwards, Ngā Manu was purchased from Moss Smith. By 1984 there were over 17,000 visitors per year, and in 1989 the Nocturnal House was built. The 1990s saw a significant increase in the number of visitors to the Reserve and a new Education Centre was built, which also provided a function venue for weddings and celebrations.

In 2012 Nga Manu Trust sadly lost its founder Peter McKenzie, but his legacy lives on in the plants and animals of the Reserve. Ngā Manu Nature Reserve not only encompasses a valuable and rare fragment of original lowland forest, it also symbolises a future where our indigenous natural heritage is not only valued and preserved, but is integrated back into our landscape, lives and consciousness. Ngā Manu is a vital ‘stepping stone’ for birds from Kāpiti Island and the Tararuas. The presence of Ngā Manu heightens the awareness and knowledge of our precious natural heritage among the next generation of New Zealanders, with our education and awareness programmes. Ngā Manu plays an important role in wildlife breeding programmes, research on the native species which inhabit the Reserve, and gives visitors first-hand experiences of nature.

This short history was edited from the Nga Manu History Project blog, written by Dr Catherine Knight, who was previously a Ngā Manu Trustee (Dec 2010 to July 2017).