The island called Motutapu is very old and sits majestically in the centre of Auckland’s inner gulf islands. The newest gulf island, the now dormant volcano, Rangitoto, nudges up against it. Motutapu looks out to the outer Gulf and Coromandel and looks in to Auckland’s waterfront and beaches, a 20 minute ferry trip away. Its story is ancient, historic, of both European and Maori settlement, educational, scientific, farming and it’s a story of recent restoration and of renewing its engagement with people.

Motutapu is the Maori name for sacred island. It’s now an incubator for breeding endangered native birds and increasingly is on visitors’ must experience Auckland itinerary. The island is a Department of Conservation ‘Recreation Reserve’ of 1500+ hectares. Its base is hard rock, 180 million years old while its neighbour Rangitoto was borne by volcanic eruption just 600 years ago.

The Motutapu project started in 1993 in consultation with other interested groups. Together with Rangitoto, Motutapu represented an unrivalled opportunity for ecological restoration close to a metropolitan centre which could contribute significantly to threatened species’ survival in New Zealand.

The island was declared mammalian pest-free in 2011, although possums and wallabies were removed during the nineties. Volunteers have now planted over 100 hectares in 450,000 native trees, a forest that is almost canopy level. Rare and endangered species, as well as unthreatened endemic species, are thriving in the pest-free habitat. The island is now a safe home for a small breeding population of translocated Kiwi and Takahe – some of New Zealand’s rarest, flightless birds.

The Motutapu Restoration Trust’s work provides opportunities for people of all ages to engage in and be actively involved in conservation and to better understand and appreciate heritage values through the restoration of Motutapu.

Island Flora

The majority of Motutapu is in farmed pasture. The original forest has gone but there are small post- eruption native forest remnants including puriri, karaka, taraire, mangeao, kohekohe, and flax. Pohutukawa trees grow on the coastal fringe. There are now approximately 100 hectares of volunteer restoration planted native forest. The island is also host to a number of unwanted plants including rhamnus (evergreen buckthorn), moth plant, woolly nightshade, apple of Sodom, pampas and smilex. These pests are being brought under control through a concerted weed programme. Some exotic trees, planted by the early European settler farmers, such as Norfolk Island pine, macrocarpa, pinus radiata and poplars can be seen in the landscape.

Native Vegetation

Originally Motutapu would have been covered with coastal lowland forest similar to that growing on Waiheke and other Hauraki Gulf islands. The Rangitoto eruption, 600 years ago, understandably had a major impact on this forest as volcanic ash covered island.  Since the arrival of Europeans in 1840 the mixed broadleaf/podocarp forest has been cleared to the point where today the island is mostly in pasture grasses  with only small remnants of the post eruption forest dotted across the island and around the coastal strip.

The forest remnants include pohutukawa, tawapou, kohekohe, taraire, mahoe, puriri, kowhai, mangeao and karaka.  Most of the native vegetation that is growing naturally occurs in the coastal fringe (cliffs, cliff tops and dune areas) and is made up predominantly of pohutukawa some of which are quite old and very beautiful..

The island is undergoing a major transformation with volunteers from the community planting a native forest. Since 1994 approximately 100 hectares have been planted with over 500,000 eco sourced native saplings raised in the Trust’s island nursery by volunteers. The Home Bay Forest is the largest area of native trees, many now over seven metres high with dozens of native seedlings regenerating naturally under the rapidly growing canopy.

The majority of  the initial trees planted are species such as manuka, kanuka, coprosma, ake ake, cabbage trees, flax, houpara (five finger), ngaio, karo, and mahoe – to help establish the forest. After these first phase plants, bigger species that will form the canopy are being planted in the habitat which has been created. These include puriri, pohutukawa, rewarewa and kowhai,  tawapou, taraire, tawa, nikau, kauri, kahikatea, kohekohe, karaka, mangeao, tanekaha and wharangi. Native ferns such as shaking brake and mamaku (black tree ferns) are introducing themselves into the native plantings.

Exotic Vegetation

Motutapu has not escaped the introduction of imported plants. There are a number of large exotic trees planted by the early European settler farmers. Norfolk Island pines can be seen in Home, Station and Emu Bays and there are a number of shelter belts of macrocarpa, cryptomeria, gum trees and pine trees scattered across the island. Surrounding the Reid Homestead and alongside the stream in Home Bay there is an interesting array of exotic trees including Moreton Bay and Port Jackson figs, Norfolk Island Hibiscus, walnuts, flame trees, and London planes.

The island is host to a large number of unwanted plants including rhamnus (evergreen buckthorn), moth plant, woolly nightshade, apple of Sodom, pampas and smilex. Some of these species pose a serious threat to the native plantings. There is a year round programme of weed control by volunteers and contractors to combat these plant pests.

Island Nursery

In the earlier years the trust planted little baby plantlings as “root trainers”. More recently, we moved to “PB3’s” – the 6 month old tree. These make planting more reliable but are slower to plant than the root trainers.

Rimu Seedlings on Motutapu

Island Fauna


Motutapu has a wide range of birds, both native and exotic, who either visit or reside on the island. Surveys undertaken by members of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand in 2007 and 2008 have identified 61 bird species on the island: increasing numbers of birds, and species are being revealed every year following the pest eradication –  exotic , native, and endemic (found only in New Zealand). Translocations of species such as Coromandel Brown Kiwi, takahe, pateke (brown teal), shore plover, whiteheads have occurred,  and more are arriving on their own!


Five native lizard species (copper skink, moko skink, Suter’s skink, common gecko and the Pacific  gecko) are present on Motutapu – along with the invasive exotic rainbow (or plague)  skink. Fossil records from Motutapu provide vivid evidence that the island once supported a much more diverse assemblage of reptile species than it does today. It is anticipated that there will be dramatic changes in the reptile populations now the islands are pest free.


Motutapu has not escaped the introduction of exotic animal species since the Europeans arrived in the mid 1800’s. Unfortunately, they have had a detrimental affect on the flora and fauna of both Motutapu and Rangitoto. Wallabies and possums were successfully removed from Rangitoto and Motutapu by the end of the 1990s. The eight remaining animal pest species (cats, stoats, hedgehogs, rabbits, rats (ship and Norway), kiore and mice) were eradicated in 2009. The islands were declared pest free in 2011.

As Motutapu is a working farm, sheep and cattle can be seen in varying numbers on the island throughout the year.

Exotic birds such as blackbird, chaffinch, mallard duck, goldfinch, greenfinch, magpie, myna, rosella, skylark, sparrow, starling, thrush, turkey, yellow hammer have all been observed on Motutapu.

Geological History

Motutapu and Rangitoto, although ‘cheek by jowl’ present islands of great contrast. They are the smooth and the rough; the oldest and newest in the Hauraki Gulf.

Motutapu is a Jurassic park, consisting of hard greywacke sedimentary rock laid down 175 million years ago and overlaid with more recent soft Waitemata Group sediments.

There are tightly folded beds of red and green chert at Administration Bay. A walk from the Causeway to Administration Bay showcases the tops of early Miocene greywacke stacks, sticking up through Waitemata beds. Deep-water barnacles from 20 million years ago are found fossilised in siltstone around the base of a stack.

When Rangitoto erupted from the sea about 600 years ago, Motutapu was cloaked in layers of volcanic ash or tephra, with the deepest layers up to three metres in the north of the island because of the prevailing wind at the time. Farm road cuttings reveal the friable dark ash, which filled stream valleys and smoothed the hilltops compared with the rubbly surface and stream free island of Rangitoto – our ‘Hawaiian’ volcano.

History – Settlement

Motutapu has a spectacular cultural landscape, spanning the entire period of human occupation in New Zealand. It consists of an intact archaeological landscape with evidence of a Maori village where dog and human footprints are pressed into the fresh ash from a Rangitoto eruption. This provides the only record of Maori witnessing an Auckland volcanic eruption.

Maori did not just leave footprints – more than 300 archaeological sites have been recorded, which include undefended settlements, terraced house sites, storage pits, cooking areas, middens, quarry and stone-working sites, and paa.

Overlying this pre-European Maori landscape are the effects of 160 years of European activity, principally farming and the military occupation during World War II. The island is currently an operating farm, working closely with the Motutapu Restoration Trust.

Motutapu’s history represents a richly layered tapestry of change – the preservation and interpretation of its many heritage sites is an important focus of the Trust.

Early 1300’s is the probable date of initial Maori settlement – with occupation of west coast of island at Sunde site, Sandy Bay and Pig Bay.  ‘Archaic’ Maori material culture has been found at the Sunde site on southern west coast.
Activities included adze making from greywacke, hunting of a wide range of forest birds,  little clearance of bush.  Dog and rat (Kiore) provide protein.

There are 12 Pa sites on the island, located on most of the easily defended coastal headlands. Their position suggests that most threats were from outside the island.

After the ash fall from Rangitoto, the island inhabitants lived on fishing (mostly snapper), shellfish and horticulture. Their settlements were dispersed over the landscape with people moving from place to place and gathering on occasion into the larger settlements and pa.

History – Military

The gun battery commanders were confident they could  defend themselves against ships but were concerned with the threat of a direct enemy infantry attack on the island via landing craft.  To combat this, the army created infantry defences using a short range howitzer battery to defend the big guns. The small three gun battery was intended to defend the island against direct assault. The howitzers were light enough to move around on the back of a couple of old Bren carriers. They could fire a 9kg shell about 6km.

In 1941 when Japan entered the war, a decision was made to build 16 pillboxes to guard the battery and adjacent gullies up which the enemy might approach. They had wooden sleeping benches, softboard linings and were in telephone communication with the battery. Two men slept while the third kept watch.

Motutapu defences included heavy and light machine guns, rifles and 3 inch mortars at the ready.

In 1942 the United States decided that Auckland Harbour would become the US Southern Pacific fleet operating base.  This resulted in a massive military build up of troops, ships and aircraft into the area.  A huge base was to be built at Yankee wharf on Rangitoto and Motutapu was to become the main storage bunker location for munitions.

The entire defence structure of the area had to be upgraded to protect The US Pacific Fleet which was going to anchor between Tiri and Rangitoto within the gun and mine defences of the port.

The entire complex cost $13.6million (2008 dollars) – the US Navy Fleet never came and the magazines were never used. The war had moved quickly north in 1943.

The US Navy handed them over to the New Zealand Army who blew a few up for demolition practise.

Gun Emplacements

Strategically located at the entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, Motutapu was the home of New Zealand’s most important gun battery during World War II. Advanced for its time, the battery had radar overlooking underwater minefields stretching from Motutapu to the island of Tiritiri Matangi.

During the Japanese advances of early 1942, the threat of invasion was very real. At that time Motutapu’s three 6” MK 21 guns comprised the only long-range counter bombardment battery capable of repelling an invasion fleet attacking Auckland Harbour. Installed in 1938, the guns continued in service until being scrapped in 1960. Today the gun emplacements, just 30 minutes walk from Home Bay, are open to the public but require further restoration for which the Trust is seeking support.

In recognition of the battery’s historic importance, the Trust partnered with Devonport film company 4D Canvas to bring the story of the guns back to life. The result is a short educational movie “The Guns of Motutapu”. Created to encourage interest and support for Trust projects, the film tells the layers of history from early Maori occupations to WWII fortress to farm. It includes narration from Major Derek Thorburn, who in 1942 at the age of 20 was posted to the battery. Derek later rose to become Commander of the Guns and has clear memories of what military life was like on the island as they waited for an invasion that never came.

Creating “The Guns of Motutapu” required building 3D computer models of the guns, emplacements and topographical features as they existed in 1942. The finished 3D animated film is a benchmark for historic visualisations.  This is free and available to see at Reid Homestead – the Trust’s visitor centre which is open on the weekends (10.30am – 3.30pm).


Motutapu is one of the earliest Maori settlement sites in the Auckland Region. The island was settled way more intensively than other islands in the Hauraki Gulf except for Motukorea (Browns Island). Ash from the Rangitoto eruption destroyed villages, gardens and forest but also provided a new wealth of rich ash modified soils enabling settlement to be re-established.

The Sunde Site – Motutapu’s ‘Pompeii’

The Sunde site discovery is one of the most acclaimed and unique in New Zealand and has also aroused international interest.

The site was first discovered by archaeologist Rudi Sunde in 1958 when he noted a collection of artefacts that were eroding onto the beach. It is Motutapu’s earliest recorded settlement, radio carbon dated to between 1250 and 1450.

In 1981, Reg Nicol from Auckland University carried out more intensive excavations and found footprints beneath the ash layer  of at least eight individuals (including three children) and their dogs.

When people first settled here, the island was cloaked in native forest. They had quite a varied diet including fur seal, dog, tuatara, 25 species of bird, and fish (mainly snapper), but only 3 species of shellfish. (298)

The Farm

Motutapu is the largest pastoral farm within a significant radius of the Auckland city centre.

There is potential for conflict between farming and conservation but Motutapu is an excellent example of how different groups can work effectively together for their mutual benefit.

The current farm leaseholder, Rick Braddock, is one of our Motutapu Restoration Project trustees.

In the mid 1940’s,  following the cessation of wartime defence activities on the island, farming resumed under the Department of Lands and Survey. In the late 1980’s Lands and Survey was split into the Department of Conservation and Landcorp. DOC became the landlord and Landcorp the tenant but Landcorp exited all its DOC leases in 1992.

When  Motutapu Farms Ltd assumed the current lease, Motutapu had been largely ignored for over 50 years and had been allowed to deteriorate into a poor standard of improvements.  Also at that time a terrible weed problem threatening the open pastoral landscape.

Motutapu is an opportunity to demonstrate sustainable farming practice in partnership with conservation, add to that this beautiful island in the Hauraki Gulf and only 30 minutes from Auckland.

Farming on  Motutapu is not without its challenges – animals have to be taken off the island by barge, all the farm equipment has to be barged out and the farm manager can’t just nip down the road and hire a digger for the afternoon.

‘Sheep and cattle produce methane, a serious contributor to farming’s carbon footprint, but by having conservation activities in conjunction with agriculture, a balance can be reached which makes it possible to deliver a carbon neutral product to the market. It’s all part of sustainability for the future’

Motutapu is a chance to see commercially viable farming on a NZ owned recreational reserve working in tandem with other conservation projects.

The farm is critical to the success of our overall restoration programme, it is essential for maintaining the lansdscape of Motutapu

  • Pastoral farming is recognised as an excellent way to protect the approximately 300 archeological sites from regrowth and subsequent root damage
  • Pastoralisation is critical on Motutapu to control weed reinfestation
  • The military heritage sites will never be planted out, pastoral farming is the obvious method to maintain these cultural landscapes
  • Kiwi and takahe are indoubtedly enjoying the pasture environment since their arrival in 2011/12
  • The farm is the first and only pest free farm in the world following the pest eradication programme.

Farming has been carried out on Motutapu since 1840 and is thus an important Heritage activity. Farm tours are being planned for the future.