Pahautane – Seal Island Penguin Fence

There are three main highway black-spots on SH6, the Coast Road, which have claimed the lives of over 100 penguins in five years. They are the McCarthy Creek area, the south side of the Fox River Bridge, and Pahautane Beach to Hatters Bay. The annual penguin census, along with scientific studies, suggest that blue penguin numbers on the West Coast are continuing to decline.

The Trust talked to OPUS, NZTA and DOC about building a $40,000 penguin protection fence along 2.6km of coastal highway, stretching from just north of Meybille Bay through to Limestone Creek since 2009.  On 22nd August 2014, the new fence was officially closed by Buller Mayor, Garry Howard.

A year later, and ahead of the 2015 breeding season, the Trust completed another 300m of fencing along the coast highway at Seal Island to help protect wandering penguins from straying onto the road.  The 2.5km of fence finished in 2014 has cut road kills in that section of highway from 7 birds annually to zero and, with the cliffs between the two fences, effectively 6km of road is now blocked from penguin access.  As far as road safety for penguins was concerned, the 2015 season was another successful one, with no penguins killed on the road where the fence is keeping them safe.

We’re very grateful to the local team at the NZ Transport Agency who have been weed spraying along the road and the penguin fence.  This ensures that the vegetation does not become too abundant and heavy, which could damage the fence. 

Penguin Fence

Unfortunately, some penguins choose nesting sites where they have perhaps nested for millennia, but in the meantime a road has been developed between the nest site and the sea. While they are feeding chicks they will be crossing the road twice a day, putting them at great risk.

The fence is a deceptively simple black geosynthetic mesh that will prevent penguins straying on to the road. Driveway and beach access has been retained, and the Trust has installed spring-loaded gates. 

A similar fence erected by the Friends of Lillico Penguins in Tasmania along a major highway, has been very successful in bringing down the numbers of penguins killed on the road and increasing the penguin population.

In March 2012, the Trust and Conservation Volunteers erected a 100 metre long penguin fence south of Punakaiki, as a trial. It has proved very successful.

How can you help?

The completed fence requires occasional maintenance and costs will be ongoing.  Your donation will help to keep the penguin protection fence working as designed. dONATE BUTTON

Details on alternative ways to donate can be found here.  Thank you.

Latest news:

Radio NZ podcast Radio NZ interview with Trust Manager, Inger Perkins, 16 September 2014 (Afternoons with Simon Mercep)

Fence closing ceremony celebration, August 2014

Invitation to fence closing ceremony

Progress report, 26th June 2014 

Penguin Fence FAQ

Why build a penguin fence?

Penguins have lived around the coast of New Zealand for millennia.  Once humans arrived on the scene, they have developed homes and businesses as well as infrastructure in areas penguins would once have called home.  One such area includes large sections of the Coast Road.  This spectacular drive, recognised world-wide as a special place with stunning ocean views, has been built through penguin habitat.  Blue penguins are the smallest of all penguins, but they can still climb up relatively steep hillsides to find nesting areas that many generations before them have used. Where the Coast Road is close to the sea, penguins may choose to nest on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.  Both parents will feed penguin chicks and they often go to sea to forage every day, leaving around dawn and returning after dark.  These small birds don’t stand a chance against a car or milk tanker and large numbers of birds have been killed on some sections of the road.  A fence on the sea side of the road will restrict the penguins to nesting habitat below the road, preventing them nesting and therefore crossing to the other side of the road.

Why build it here?

The West Coast Penguin Trust has been recording penguin mortality since its inception in 2006.  A few sites along the Coast Road have been found to be hotspots for road kill.  Those areas have been selected for fencing.

What proof do you have of the numbers of penguins that have been killed?

The mortality database is managed by the Department of Conservation.  Penguin deaths reported to the Trust or to DOC have been recorded in the database since 2006 and there is a clear pattern of deaths in specific locations.  For example, in the Pahautane area from August 2006 to April 2014, a total of 60 birds have been killed on the road.  With colonies on the West Coast begin much smaller than in other parts of NZ or Australia, often 20-50 adults, this is a significant number for a couple of kilometers of coast.

Why is it so important to do something about the road deaths?

Coast road traffic has been and continues to be an important cause of mortality for blue penguins.  Numbers of blue penguins are declining.  Their threat status (DOC) is listed as “At Risk – Declining”.  Anecdotal evidence reports many more penguins 50-60 years ago and, with significant numbers of breeding adult penguins being killed on the road, which means that chicks will not survive, the small colony sizes will be reducing.  Mitigating road kill should facilitate recovery of penguin colonies in these areas.

Penguins are a feature of the coast; a much loved character, they provide a connection to the coast for West Coasters.  They are also an integral part of the ecosystem, both on land and in the marine environment.  Many studies have shown how removing one key element, for example sharks or snapper, can have a catastrophic outcome for the ecosystem. 

What about safety on the road for drivers?

It is likely that drivers who have the misfortune to come across a penguin on the road at around 100kph have no chance to take avoiding action but there is a risk that they may swerve to attempt to avoid them at the last second, having realised what the small thing on the road in their headlights is.  Preventing penguins accessing the road should eliminate this risk.

During the construction of the fence, a traffic management plan will be implemented by Opus to keep contractors and drivers safe.

Will you have to close the road or clear vegetation for the new fence?

A traffic management plan will be in place while contractors may be working close to or on the road edge.  Speed restrictions will be applied and the road will remain open. 

Small amounts of vegetation will need to be trimmed or removed to ensure the integrity of the new fence and to allow the plastic mesh to be buried in the ground to a depth of about 20cm.  The fence will mostly follow the road, keeping as close to the edge of the vegetation as possible.  In places it will cut through areas of blackberry/gorse and in one or two places it may go below the road through native vegetation. The plan is to avoid this, but in places the road edge may not allow fence posts to be put in.  No trees or nikau palms will need to be removed.

How do you know a fence will work?

Fencing is more commonly used to protect wildlife from predators.  In this case, it will be used to keep the penguins from accessing the road.  The trust erected a short trial fence to the south of Punakaiki in 2011.  The opportunity to test materials and techniques has proved invaluable and, although the fence could not be extended as far as the Trust would have liked, it is believed to have reduced mortality at that location.  The new fence will ensure that penguins cannot get around or under the fence.  This will mean careful attention to detail at tricky sites including creeks, culverts and footpaths.

How will people access the beach or baches?

Spring-loaded gates will be installed at each bach access point in such a way as to pose minimum inconvenience to the bach owners.  In some cases, the fence may be built on the seaward side of baches.  We have discussed their preferences with some bach owners already and we will do all we can to work with others in providing something that protects penguins and protects owners’ use and enjoyment of their bach.  Gates will also be installed at each frequently used public access point.

Will users/residents have to look at the vista through the new fence?

For most of its length, the fence will be close to the edge of the vegetation and will be no more visible than the trial fence we built three years ago alongside the highway on the southern side of the Punakaiki River.  There are several places between Hatters Bay and Maybille Bay where the fence will be in the open and visible.  The Trust has chosen a black plastic mesh with a maximum height of 1m to keep visibility to a minimum.  Where it is in the open, the Trust Ranger and fencing contractor will take all practical steps to reduce any visual impact.

Do you propose blocking the culverts and creeks?

No.  At each of these we are working with OPUS to find a solution that protects the penguins but does not affect water flow.

What if the penguins get through a breach in the fence and cannot get back to the beach again?

The fence will be constructed with clever penguin or weka ‘stiles’, which will allow birds to cross over the fence at a few locations from the road to the sea side of the fence, but not the other way.

In addition to the Pahautane fence, will you fence off other areas along the Coast road?

Yes there are several other areas where there have been a significant number of penguin road kills. These are McCarthy Creek and both north and south of Fox River.  These would be done over the next few years.

How many burrows are affected?

We have searched for penguin burrows on the landward side of the highway in the Pahautane location and have found none. Those birds that did nest on the landward side of the highway have probably been run over and those that continue prospecting on the landward side will be run over. There are adequate nesting sites between the highway and the sea and, if the need arises as the population recovers, we will install nest boxes.

Why is the fence so high for such little penguins?

A fence around knee high is too short as the penguins would be able to jump and scramble over.  Thigh high would probably be adequate, but it doesn’t allow for vegetation growing back and putting weight on the fence.  The height that has been chosen is 900mm – 1m, which is the same as any standard fence and allows a safety margin for vegetation growth.  Building the fence to a high specification from the outset means that it is expected to be functional for decades to come.  The only reason that the bush is not crowding over the road now is because the verge is mown regularly.  With the installation of the fence, the bush will soon grow from the sea side and lean over, hiding the fence somewhat.

Are you going to maintain the fence?

Yes, we will maintain the fence.

Will penguins become stressed by being unable to get past the fence and could they die?

Penguins will adapt to the habitat available.  This has been seen in many locations where development or urbanisation has occurred and penguins have found places to nest around wharves and under buildings.  It is expected that penguins will find suitable nesting areas below the road and it is expected that monitoring will confirm this.

If you add gates to rarely used public access points, they may become more visible, more used and therefore create more disturbance for penguins.

We will be installing sturdy, secure and understated gates and will aim not to draw attention to them.  After vehicles, dogs are the biggest (non-natural) killer of penguins on the West Coast.  We have been advocating to dog owners to control their dogs particularly from dusk to dawn and this work will continue.  The concern about uncontrolled dogs is more of a concern than should the number of members of the public increase in these areas. 

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