Before humans arrived Hawke’s Bay was heavily forested. Beech trees and subalpine plants grew on the mountain ranges and foothills. Beech also grew on the southern coastal hills. Conifer–broadleaf forest and pockets of grassland covered the lower hills and plains. Smaller species like mānuka and kānuka grew close to the coast, and pīngao (native sedge) and spinifex colonised the beaches.
Māori burned some of the lowland forest, and much was destroyed by natural fires. By the time Europeans arrived most of this forest, except in southern Hawke’s Bay, had disappeared. Plants like ferns and tutu grew in its place. The Ruataniwha and Heretaunga plains were covered with native grasses. European settlers replaced these plants with exotic pasture grasses for farming. Forests in southern Hawke’s Bay, and on the hill country and ranges, were later burned and felled by farmers and sawmillers.
In 2007, 71.6% of the land in Hawke’s Bay was grassland, 14% exotic forest plantations, 6% mature or regenerating native bush and 2% horticultural land. Most of the very small amount of native forest in the region is found on the western mountain ranges and around Lake Waikaremoana.
Pātangata in Central Hawke’s Bay is the only known site in New Zealand to have the exotic water pest plant the yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea). It is found in Horseshoe Lake and a nearby farm dam. The plant has been controlled at these sites since 1986, which has reduced its coverage to a few small spots. If left unchecked it can choke ponds and slow-moving waterways.
A number of exotic plants have become pests in Hawke’s Bay, though none are considered to be out of control. Plants like gorse, blackberry, Bathurst burr and ragwort are found in the region. Old man’s beard is widespread south of State Highway 5, and drought-prone areas are susceptible to infestations of nodding and variegated thistle. Contorta pine was planted in the Kaweka Range in the 1960s to stop erosion, but it has spread freely and displaced native plants. On the coast marram grass has colonised sand dunes.
Birds and other wildlife
Native wildlife populations in Hawke’s Bay are mainly confined to bush-covered mountain ranges, waterways and coastal habitats.
Many species of native bird are found in the mountain ranges, such as tūī, bellbird, kererū, grey warbler and fantail. Rare species include the blue duck, North Island brown kiwi, North Island kākā and New Zealand falcon. Te Urewera contains all North Island native birds apart from the weka. The ranges are also home to native skinks, geckos, bats and large land snails.
Lakes, estuaries and rivers contain native waterfowl and fish. These places are still important food-gathering grounds for Māori. Pōrangahau estuary is the largest and least-disturbed estuarine environment on the east coast south of the Bay of Plenty. It is an important winter home and feeding ground for migratory wading birds.
Cape Kidnappers hosts the largest mainland gannet colony in New Zealand.
The central plains of Hawke’s Bay are mainly occupied by introduced farm animals, but pockets of bush sustain native species. The Inglis Bush Scenic Reserve near Ongaonga has a population of long-tailed bats.
The first official rabbit-proof fence in New Zealand was built by sheep farmers in Hawke’s Bay in the 1880s. Rabbits had already become a serious pest in Wairarapa, and they were heading north in search of new pastures. The fence stretched from Woodville to the coast at Herbertville through dense bush and steep hills, including two mountain ranges. At first linesmen kept the fence in good repair and it was quite effective, but once it was neglected the rabbits crossed it with ease. No rabbit-proof fences have ever lived up to their name.
The major animal pests of Hawke’s Bay – as in the rest of New Zealand – are possums and rabbits. Both are so widespread that their management is guided by reducing numbers and minimising harm rather than eradicating them. Rabbits are less of a problem in the 2000s than in the past – the spread of the rabbit haemorrhagic virus into Hawke’s Bay in 1998 led to a significant drop in numbers.
Rooks are a serious bird pest in Hawke’s Bay. The population is greatest in the southern half of the region and eradication is attempted in the north only.