Weka Weka Woo
Weka Farming and conservation
Weka, or Woodhen is a flightless native bird, endemic to New Zealand.
In the wild Weka normally have one to two clutches of 1-4 chicks per year. Juvenile Weka are sexually mature at about four to six months old. Mature females weigh between 500 – 850g and mature males weigh between 700 – 1200g. Weka are omnivorous, they have a preference for insects, but will eat fruit.
Weka are highly territorial and parents chase away offspring from their territory at about four months.
The Weka were a favourite food of Maori and the colonial explorer Brunner described them as being 'better than chicken'.
We should be known as 'Weka' because they are closer to our psyche than Kiwi. They are cheeky, outgoing and vivacious. Weka have special significance for people of the Chatham Islands. Chatham Islanders call themselves 'Weka's in the same way that New Zealanders call themselves 'Kiwis'.
Eastern Buff Weka, (Gallirallus australis hectori) were taken to the Chatham Islands in 1905 from Canterbury. They died out on the Eastern Coast of the South Island by the 1930’s. Weka have done well at the Chathams because there are no stoats, weasels or ferrets. They can legally be hunted on the Chathams. Also, DOC has a policy of exterminating them from nature reserves.
Passion for conservation
Roger Beattie spent 17 years at the Chathams often involved with conservation. Weka were a constant companion from the thick bush to the shore. You can’t live on the Chathams and not have empathy for the Weka.
Roger and Nick Beattie left the Chathams in 1992 and bought a farm on Banks Peninsula. They could see an opportunity to use Kowhai Vale as a base for re-introducing the Eastern Buff Weka to Canterbury. Roger figured that because DOC were killing them on the Chathams as an ‘introduced pest’, and also because Weka were native to Canterbury, that it would be simple. How wrong he was.
Geordie Murman, who had worked for the Wildlife Service on many of New Zealand’s offshore islands, sowed the seeds in Roger’s mind of a large predator-proof reserve. Soon after DOC was set up in 1987 Geordie suggested they build a predator-proof reserve for the Taiko on the south coast of Chatham Island. DOC wouldn’t do it. It was too radical and unproven.
The fall and rise of Eastern Buff Weka
There have been several attempts over the years to re-introduce the Weka back onto the East Coast of the South Island. They were all unsuccessful, largely due to predation. In 1994 the Kowhai Vale predator-proof reserve became the site of the first successful Weka re-introduction.
What Roger learnt from his Chatham Island conservation experience was that “…sheep, cattle, pigs, possums, rats, cats and dogs can have a severe effect on the survival ability of species that evolved without four-legged predators. Providing a secure habitat is the solution.”
50 acres at Kowhai Vale were fenced off in 1993 especially for re-introducing Eastern Buff Weka. At the time this was the first of its type and largest predator-proof reserve on mainland New Zealand. The fence took six months to construct.
The first introduction of Weka into the reserve
Permits from DOC to ‘transfer’ 8 birds and ‘hold’ this endangered species, were granted after a 14 month application process.
The formal opening of the Kowhai Vale predator-proof reserve was on 23rd of April 1994 and marked by the release of the 8 Weka into the reserve. Around 100 people were invited, that created an inspiring sense that the innovative Kowhai Vale predator-proof reserve was a turning point in conservation.
As with all new ventures there was a rapid learning curve. The Weka settled in and seemed quite at home. Then EUREKA! The Weka were breeding. At least three chicks were hatched and raised in quick succession during October 1994 to early winter 1995. This was amazing – it almost seemed too easy.
As it turned out the risks to the fence had been underestimated. The terrain was steep and rocky. If Roger and Nicki could make the Kowhai Vale predator proof reserve work, they could also work anywhere.
Towards the end of 1994 a large rock rolled down the hill and put a hole in the fence. Fortuitously a male and a female survived and within six months the numbers had built back up to eight. If nothing else, it is clear that if predators could be kept away, Weka breed like crazy.
The problem now was that without some new birds, there would end up to be a seriously in-bred population.
The second introduction
In March 1995, 10 new Weka were brought in from the Chathams under another transfer permit. Again the Weka settled in quickly, started breeding and by August 1995 there was a total of 15 Weka including a new chick.
Then another set back. In early 1996 a cattle beast kicked a hole in the fence allowing a stoat to get in and wipe out most of the birds. It just killed and left them! Traps were laid and a single large stoat was caught. The fencing base was strengthened by putting a stronger mesh around the base.
Nature now dealt another blow. 1996 was a particularly wet winter and in late August a landslip took out one corner of the reserve. There was no evidence to suggest that any Weka were left in the reserve. There was still hope that some had survived and were lying low. Meantime, with a digger and new fencing materials, they began to repair the damage and get in some more Weka.
The third introduction
On the 24th September 1998 we put in our third application for a transfer permit. After almost 2 years, DOC gave over conditional permits to transfer and hold 16 Weka from the Chathams.
The 8 Weka that were brought over and seized under these permits, had been so stressed by excessive handling that several died within a short period of being released into the predator-proof reserve. “We were able to maintain numbers with the survivors but we didn’t get the build up in population we were hoping for”.
The fourth introduction
This conservation project discovered that the dominant male and female Weka would kill off their offspring once they became sexually mature at about four months. To give offspring a chance, sub-compartments within the predator-proof reserve were set up. Once these were ready, the permit for the other 8 Weka had expired. Once again, another application was prepared and submitted in November 2001.
Finally in July 2003 a three-year holding permit turned up - with an apology, Roger was told “we can’t have DOC killing them and yet not allow Roger Beattie to have Weka. It’s bizarre.”
From the time of the first predator-proof fence in 1993 ideas around the material and construction regarding predator-proof reserves had steadily improved. Although the reserve at Kowhai Vale remains the corner-stone of Roger Beatties’ Weka re-introduction operation and is a lesson in native habitat restoration in its own right, Roger is the first to recognize that it has limitations as regards building up the Weka populations. The highly territorial nature of Weka makes survival of juveniles problematic even in the absence of predators.
“We are now building more efficient, less expensive structures and have now shifted our focus to smaller areas (about one-tenth of a hectare) in which we have a breeding pair. We shift their offspring at about three months when they become sexually mature to avoid parents killing the offspring.
We have had one pair of Weka that have successfully raised 21 chicks to maturity in 15 months. This is a New Zealand record.”
It is remarkable how on a small budget and doing things on a part time basis there has been so much achieved. Roger has supplied over 200 Weka to organisations and groups such as Willowbank Reserve, the Kiwi and Birdlife Park in Queenstown, Ngai Tahu and Motatapu Station; the largest private conservation program in New Zealand.