A huge landslide wiped out 20 years of restoration planting, but Dean and Geoff are determined to rebuild their urban “native forest”. By Zoë Brown
A version of this story was first published in the Winter 2023 issue of Forest & Bird magazine.
Discovering their beloved coastal forest had collapsed into the sea amid a record-breaking deluge is not how Dean Sutcliffe and partner Geoff Williams had intended to spend their Auckland Anniversary holiday weekend.
The long-term Forest & Bird supporters arrived home from work on Friday, 27 January to find a large portion of their backyard had collapsed. What had been a flourishing native ecosystem, brimming with pōhutukawa, karaka, and kohekohe, had turned into an exposed cliff face.
Their painstakingly restored coastal forest, along with precious layers of topsoil, had plummeted from their Hillsborough home into Manukau Harbour. Pīwakawaka fantails, tūī, and riroriro grey warblers were among the bird species that nested in those trees.
“It is still a bit hard to get my head around. It just vanished like that. It’s pretty clear it all went in a big rush,” said Dean, who is a Professor of Music at Auckland University.
“We’ve speculated at length about what [the slip] might have looked like,” added Geoff. “I suspect the whole thing just went in one big hit. It carried the whole slope, with all the plants, in one huge cascade.”
Dean and Geoff, who is a research chemist, volunteer with the Motutapu Restoration Trust and are passionate about planting natives.
Twenty years of mahi, including careful pest control and persistent weeding, meant their property became a haven for native wildlife. Luckily, their house and the remaining land, which used to belong to Dean’s parents, remained intact following the landslide.
An epic 24.5cm of rain bucketed down on Auckland in the course of 24 hours during the January storm – the equivalent of about four months’ of rain in a typical year.
“Climate change is an absolute reality, and this is another demonstration,” said Geoff. “Seeing the damage to neighbouring properties and across the city brings it into sharp relief.”
Despite the loss, Geoff and Dean have their sights firmly fixed on restoring and stabilising what is left. They are planning to use native colonisers that in time will give way to natural coastal vegetation.
“For us, it’s about trying to make the most out of the situation that we have and continuing to try to be positive and upbeat,” says Geoff. “We accept the way we’re going about the restoration will be long term and probably beyond our own lifetimes.
“We will lay the foundations and let nature continue the process. We feel very strongly people can make a difference. This work will be for future generations to enjoy.”