How a shortage of rakes led to the creation of an extraordinary environmental legacy

Author: Jim Eagles, taken from the Dawn Chorus Bulletin 113Date: May 2018

Jim Battersby was first and foremost a Presbyterian minister, having been ordained in 1953 and retired in 1987. In an article written for a church magazine in 2006 he recalled that, ‘Like many of my generation of students, I felt the call to ministry early after leaving secondary school, and so ministry became my whole career. I served 22 years in three parishes, and about 13 years in a hospital chaplaincy.’

Unsurprisingly, when he retired from the ministry, it left a big gap in his life. And, as it happens, about this time the island of Tiritiri Matangi had stopped being farmed and, thanks to the efforts of people like John Craig and Neil Mitchell of Auckland University, was slowly being re-afforested under the supervision of former lighthouse keepers Ray and Barbara Walter. And the Battersbys started to get involved.

Asked at one of his talks how he came to get involved, Jim said he thought the fact that he and his wife Barbie had island blood, his people coming from the Chathams and hers from the Isle of Man, made them pre-disposed to like islands. But the immediate reason was that when he was chaplain at Greenlane Hospital ‘a friend who also worked there came to visit us and said she’d been planting pohutukawa on this island. We thought that sounded interesting and she said, “Well, if you want to go, get in touch with Barbara Walter.” 

‘So we got in touch and asked Barbara if we could visit and join the planters and she arranged for the Torbay Garden Society, which we belonged to, to come over planting. There were all sorts of organisations that came over in those days, schools and churches and service organisations, periodic detention people, tramping clubs … all sorts . . . they were wonderful.’

Barbara Walter also remembers those days well. ‘As the planting programme got going we had volunteers coming all the time. Groups like 60s Up used to ring up and say they’d like to help and I used to organise them. They’d come for day trips to do planting mostly or sometimes to stay over to work in the nursery. I particularly remember Jim bringing a church group which did a lot of planting, including some pūriri trees on the eastern side, which are pretty huge now.’

Then in 1988, the year after he retired, Jim and Barbie went to Tiritiri to spend a week in the nursery which was producing the seedlings to be planted. In one of his talks on SoTM’s history Jim recalled, ‘I was given a job of weeding the polythene that was in the setting-out bay. And I said to Ray, “Why do we have to weed this, can’t we get some new polythene?” And he said, “We’ve got no money.” 

‘So I thought and thought, and while I was sitting on the seat that’s still there on the Wattle Track, the idea came to me: if we could get a hundred people from those that are doing the work here now to put in $10 each we’d have enough for the polythene.’

Ray and Barbara Walter’s recollection is that what started things off was a shortage of rakes. ‘I asked him to tidy up the plant holding area and he’d only been working for about 10 minutes when he came back and said, “Can I have a rake,” remembers Ray. ‘And I had to tell him, “Sorry, you can’t, someone else is using it.” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “We’ve only got one.” And it was the same with everything else in those days. We didn’t have much. So he said, “This isn’t right. Something needs to be done about this.” And off he went.’

Either way, Jim bounced his idea of forming a group to raise money for the Island off his wife and the Walters, and they responded enthusiastically, so he decided to go ahead. ‘We met first at my place. About six of us,’ he used to say in his talks, before producing a few handwritten pages with a flourish and adding, ‘and I’ve got here the minutes of that first meeting.’

Next he asked Barbara Walter to give him 25 names of people who regularly came to Tiritiri ‘and then we called a meeting in St Matthew’s Church in the City, because it was so central and somebody belonged there, and that’s where we moved the Supporters of Tiritiri be formed on August 24th 1988. We got going with, I think, about 30 members, who all paid our first $20 donation for the organization that was founded. And we decided we should become an incorporated society and that meant we couldn’t have donations, we had to have actual subscriptions.’

Left image: From small beginnings, Jim and Barbara Battersby planting a treeRight image: Jim Battersby, during a visit a few years ago, enjoying the beauty of the Island from the Battersby Seat at the top of the Wattle Track. Photo credit: Jim Eagles

One of the people at that meeting was Mel Galbraith, who described in his eulogy at Jim’s funeral how he listened with fascination as ‘Jim introduced the concept of a supporters group for Tiritiri Matangi. Like Jim and the others gathered at the meeting, the Island had become an integral part of my life, and thus we all had a vested interest in the welfare of the project. Jim delivered a very persuasive argument for the formation of the support group, and the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi was launched with unanimous backing. Jim was, naturally, elected chairperson, and I volunteered to be secretary.’

It has to be said that not everyone involved with Tiritiri was very impressed with the formation of this organisation. In fact probably Jim’s favourite story from this time is of the fledgling SoTM going to meet the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board, which at that time was in charge of islands like Tiritiri, ‘and we told them what we were trying to do. We heard afterwards that they thought we were an enthusiastic band of hopefuls that would probably fade out in a year. In a year’s time Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi were going on from strength to strength and the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board had ceased to be, taken over by DOC.’

Despite the pessimistic official response, things were starting to move. Jim described how, ‘At the first committee meeting my wife Barbie was elected editor of the newsletter and the first one was sent out,’ and for his talks he always produced a copy of it. ‘Another of the early things we did was to say we need a logo and somebody said, “I know somebody who designs logos.” So I said, “Well go ahead and get him to do it.” So after two or three attempts they designed the logo with the saddleback as the feature of it and, having said “thank you very much,” we got a bill for $150 and we hardly had $150 in the coffers.’

But the main thrust of the new organisation was to support the work already underway to raise trees and then to plant the seedlings out. So more boat trips were organized to take volunteers to the Island to collect and raise seed, then plant the seedlings and, of course, the organization bought equipment like rakes. Ray Walter says it naturally took time for ‘things to get wound up. But after a while money started to trickle in for all sorts of things, which relieved us from all the problems DOC was having with its budgets. Our founding money was from the World Wildlife Fund, who got funding from about four major sponsors. But when that ran out it all reverted back to DOC and their budget was very tight.

When DOC was formed they ended up with a whole lot of staff from, I think, four departments, many of whom they had to pay off and make redundant. So right from the very beginning DOC was hamstrung and money was just not available. Nothing much has changed there. But we had the Tiritiri Supporters which was able to come up with a little money to buy things.’ Jim was particularly proud when SoTM was able to buy some proper planter spades for volunteers. ‘In the early days we brought our own spades to do our planting with us. Then gradually the committee bought long drain shovels which were excellent for digging holes and we would dig the holes and carefully pull back the grass, put in some fertilizer and stamp the things in.’

That technique was developed very early on, he liked to explain, because on the first day of the big pohutukawa planting ‘1200 pohutukawa seedlings were planted by just popping them in and pulling the grass away to let the light in. ‘And the next morning 700 of the trees were lying on the ground because the curious pukeko had said, hello, these weren’t here yesterday, we better have a look and see what they are. So we learned that whenever the planting was done the tree was stamped in and the grass was pulled up and the little . . . couldn’t see our trees.’

Another thing Jim used to recall with particular pleasure was the times he and Barbie were able to stay for a week in the old bach ‘and we went seed-gathering, all sorts of seeds, particularly the coprosmas and also the ti kouka, the cabbage tree, and various other things. We gathered the seeds and Ray would put them in a bucket for three days until the outer flesh rotted away and then the seeds were taken out and dried and eventually planted out in trays in the glass house.’

Left image: Jim making his last trip to the Island in 2016.Right image: Jim in full flight during his final talk to the guides on the same visitPhoto credit: Jim Eagles

Then he discovered that Ray had developed an even more efficient method of getting seeds. ‘One day I rang Ray saying, “I need to talk,” and Barbara said, “He is out gathering pigeon droppings.” I said, “What on earth is he gathering pigeon droppings for?” She said, “Well, the pigeons eat the puriri seeds and then they pass them through their bodies and Ray gathers them up and plants them as puriri trees.” As easy as that.’ Nevertheless, working on Tiritiri in summer could be hot work and one scorching February day when he and Barbie were out gathering seed ‘we thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a motorbike. So we came back and said to Ray, “Would you like a motorbike?” And he replied, “I’d rather have a quad bike”.’

That conversation turned out to be rather significant because it launched SoTM into its hugely successful programme of getting grants from various funding bodies to buy equipment for the Island. The chosen vehicle and trailer were bought for a good price through somebody who knew somebody but, as Jim recalled, ‘they’re gonna cost $9000 and where do we get $9000 from? And somebody said, “Why don’t you try the Lotteries Board.” But I was a Presbyterian Minister! Lottery? But the majority, of course, prevailed so we applied to the Lotteries Board and to our surprise we got the $9,000 we had applied for.’

Ray says the arrival of that quad bike was ‘the single thing that made the biggest difference in those early days because it opened up the whole of the Island to the rangers and made it so much easier to get around and do things.’ Another key difference SoTM made was with the shop, which Barbara had started in the teeth of opposition from DOC. ‘They told her, “We don’t have shops in DOC any more because they lose money”,’ recalls Ray. ‘But eventually, they gave her $400 which she used to buy t-shirts. ‘She rang up on Monday and asked for more money because she’d already sold the lot. And they said, “Oh, no, that $400 was your annual budget.” So she said, “Okay, I’ll spend my own money to buy stock and the proceeds can come back to the Island.” And later on, of course, Tiritiri Supporters provided the money to buy stock. ‘That’s why, when concessions came up on Tiritiri, it was the Supporters who got them because they were already providing the funding. And that’s why all that income from the shop and guiding comes back to the Island instead of going somewhere else.’

But, although SoTM was thriving, its membership growing, donations and grants starting to come in, celebrities like Prince Philip and David Attenborough coming to call and the work of restoring the Island progressing well, Jim himself was going through a difficult period. After three years as chair, he stepped down; he and Barbara had sickness problems, sold their home, which was proving too big for them to look after, and moved into the Hillsborough Heights Retirement Village in Mt Roskill. Then they took a three-month trip overseas ‘during which Barbie became ill, tour plans had to be changed considerably. Barbie died five days after we returned and my life exploded.’ Barbara Walter remembers that during this difficult time Jim kept coming to the Island to help ‘but he seemed a wee bit lonely, and we always needed more guides, so I asked him to become a guide. As a guide he got to mix with more of the Supporters and more of the guides and he became more well known. He was a wonderful guide because he had so much history to share. A lot of the later guides didn’t know how it all happened in the beginning and he was always there, especially on our guides’ days out, with advice or to answer questions.’

That involvement naturally began to slow as he got older but Jim continued his involvement with the Supporters, giving his last historical talk to members – on which this article is partly based – in 2016 and speaking at last year’s AGM. Mel Galbraith commented in his eulogy, ‘I believe the SoTM committee, and indeed the Supporters collective in general, became Jim’s flock. Under Jim’s pastoral care, we were managed efficiently, but with a delightful sense of fellowship. Our early committee meetings were held at the Battersby residence and after each meeting it was always compulsory to take home some homegrown produce – usually a bag of grapefruit. Jim hated to see surplus fruit going to waste!

‘Our society does not have the provision for a Patron, but we certainly had one anyway. After Jim had left the committee, he continued to be a participant in the project, and a staunch supporter of the society. His encouragement and, most importantly, his carefully measured guidance, was a regular general business item at our AGMs.

‘Any of us who had become entrenched in the Tiritiri Matangi project could have initiated a supporters group for the Island. But we didn’t. Jim had the vision, and applied the people-management skills associated with his ministry to effect. He mobilised us, he encouraged us, he cared for us. ‘SoTM is an example of the power of citizen participation in conservation, with its achievements recognized both nationally and internationally. The SoTM is Jim and Barbara Battersby’s legacy to us.’

Left image: Jim with Ray and Barbara Walter, 2014Right image: Jim receiving his life membership from Carl Hayson, 2003