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Seed-shooting gun to save kakabeak plant

Sunday 13 Jan 2013 3:58 p.m.

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Conservationists have come up with an ingenious way to save one of New Zealand’s most iconic and rare native plants teetering on the brink of extinction.

It involves shooting the plant's seeds from a shotgun into areas where predators like deer and goats can't eat them.

“This is a rare one,” says Pete Shaw, manager of Forest Life Force Restoration Trust. “We've only got a handful of these plants, which has come from W2 over in the wild there.”

Only 109 native kakabeak plants are known to exist in the wild. It’s the red cousin of the kowhai, and a favourite of native birds.

Kakabeak numbers have been rapidly declining. Just 15 years ago there were twice as many. So the Forest Life Force Restoration Trust has hand-reared the specimens and come up with a unique plan for their seeds.

“We can load the seeds into shotgun cases and blow them back onto the cliffs in the wild and get them going again,” says Mr Shaw.

Trust patron Rachel Hunter was one of the first to learn about the new approach and see how the critically endangered natives were growing in the Maungataniwha Forest Nursery.

“They're a delicate little plant that clearly likes a bit of shelter,” she says. “They don't like being right out in the open.”

Now they're protected from predators like deer and rabbits, but nurturing them has been difficult.

Even hybrid kakabeak plants available from nurseries take a lot of nurturing. But they aren't true natives.

In the wild, kakabeak take a strong foothold on cliff faces like the Waiau Bluffs, so to save the iconic red shrub, the trust plans to begin shooting seeds from helicopters early this year.

“We've tried other methods and we've found that putting seeds into a shotgun cartridge is the way to go,” says Barry Crene of the Forest Life Force Restroration Trust.

“Using the shotgun out of the helicopter you should be able to target those places that are just perfect to put the seed into,” says Mr Shaw. “You know the browsers can't get there. A little bit of soil up on the cliff face, pump a few shots in there and you should be seeing kakabeak there a couple of years later.”

There was some early good news for the conservation effort, with one more wild kakabeak discovered deep in the forest. 

“Blow me down!” says Mr Shaw. “There was a flowering kakabeak there. They're so rare. Every one that you find is very special.”

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