• Tabitha Becroft by her favourite Lyford Reserve artwork.
  • Tabitha Becroft on the bridge in Lyford Reserve.
  • Tabitha Becroft by the bridge made from recyled plastic.
  • Tabitha Becroft at her favourite spot in Lyford Reserve.
  • Fairy tree house in Lyford Reserve.
  • No plastic sign in Lyford Reserve.
  • Spread kindness sign in Lyford Reserve.
  • Lyford Crescent entrance to Lyford Reserve.

Tabitha Becroft – Planting seeds, growing community

Heather Barker Vermeer takes a walk with Tabitha Becroft around Lyford Reserve in Sunnynook

When you begin to walk a path, there is often no way of knowing where it will lead. If a path is yet to be forged, new ground has to be broken and a way paved for others to follow. Tabitha Becroft knows a thing or two about leading the way – she’s an expert in planting seeds…

Two moss-covered rocks mark the entrance to the peaceful sanctuary of Lyford Reserve. Unassuming, natural, uplifting, this pocket of woodland in the suburb of Sunnynook is a labour of love for local resident Tabitha Becroft. Unassuming, natural and uplifting herself, Tabitha has made Lyford Reserve into a magnet for many, at a time when connection to nature and community is needed more than ever.

When, as part of Sunnynook Community Association, Tabitha made an approach to the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board more than four years ago, she could not have foreseen the future need she was seeking to fill. A successful funding application led to work commencing on a 750-metre path project to create a bush walk and nature sanctuary for the North Shore neighbourhood. An unkempt area adjacent to Sunnynook Primary School was to be transformed into a useable, enjoyable landscape.

“For a long time, this was just a bit of forgotten bit of bush. It was originally farmland that was left to grow over. Some of it was covered in pine trees, much of it had become overgrown wetland. In 2016, we got funding to start planning a path to go through it. It allowed us to decide where the path would go and all the engineering work that would need to be done.”

Local engineering firm Stellar Projects got to work. “My husband is an engineer, so I roped him in to the project. He and his company did more than double the amount of work they were contracted to do; I really made the most of him being involved! His team went way above and beyond.”

There was an existing path from Sunnynook Primary School that ran to nowhere but a few metres into the overgrown bush area. This was a natural starting point, which came with the opportunity of collaboration. “The neat thing with having a path running from the school was that the school could become very involved with the project too.”

Tabitha’s four children (now aged 12 to 16) attended Sunnynook Primary. Since they left, she has stayed strongly connected to the school, not only as a result of the Lyford Reserve project but also by teaching gardening classes there three days a week.

With the school on board, a core of 12 volunteers from the school and Sunnynook Community Association rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Next, more than 20 helpers from the locally based Shanshan Chinese group came along to help. “The people from Shanshan were amazing!” More and more locals joined the effort. “There were often several families down here with their kids. People would come down here to hang out and help out.”

Tackling the task of clearing the way for the path took a massive collective effort. Volunteers did what they could with what they had. “The big trees we didn’t really touch, we’d be taking out the wattles and the weeds. As volunteers, we were not allowed to get stuck in with chainsaws! We had to leave that to the professionals.”

A stream runs through the reserve, the natural fauna helping clean the stormwater before it hits the estuary. “It’s one of the main areas where water flows into the Wairau Estuary. I feel good knowing that at least that water is getting cleaned before it goes out to the sea.” This meant bridges also needed to be part of the plan. The widest of these ended up being created entirely out of recycled plastic.

All the work came to fruition with the 750-metre path being completed in early 2019, ahead of an official opening in March last year. More than 1000 trees have been planted over the past year, with 700 of these being planted by the local school. Tabitha delights in taking schoolchildren into the reserve to learn about the eco-system, as well as running a garden-to-table programme, which involves pupils cooking and eating veggies they’ve grown themselves. The path is also used for the school’s cross-country running events.

The extraordinary times of 2020 meant Lyford Reserve really came into its own. “One thing that lockdown showed us, was how much we value our reserves,” says Tabitha. “I think people were really grateful to have this place to come during lockdown. I know I was. As well as daily walks, I also got a bit obsessed with plant photography over that time. There is so much to see and take in here.”

Tabitha’s mum Genevieve Becroft paved the way for her daughter, inspiring her with her love of nature. “My mum was really passionate about gardening and conservation.” Also a prominent advocate for, and patron of, the arts, Genevieve now has dementia but, Tabitha says, remains in good spirits.

During the daunting days of April, May and June this year, messages of kindness and motivation sprung like hope eternal in Lyford reserve; hidden in bushes, written on stones, etched into planks and even elaborately crafted into fairy tree trunk castles. “It was quite special! The reserve provided people with a place to go; a place they could connect with nature and spend some time outside. The lovely messages and artworks that appeared were really wonderful. I added a couple myself. I never quite got around to doing the workout routine someone wrote out, though!”

Sunnynook Bush is how the reserve is known, according to council records. “I don’t like that name,” says Tabitha. “There’s a Sunnynook Park and a Sunnynook Bush. They’re too similar, which can be confusing. I think it deserves its own name. Coming off Lyford Crescent, Lyford Reserve makes sense. We just need to get the council up to speed with that now,” she smiles.

Another job on Tabitha’s ‘to do’ list is to breathe new life into the local community centre’s surrounds. Her passionate for the community she lives in, and its natural environment, is glaringly apparent from her membership of the local community association and far beyond.

“We’re trying to improve the gardens around Sunnynook Community Centre. We’re talking to the community to see what they want and need. The area around it currently looks neglected but the centre itself is one of the most well-used community centres in Auckland, so it deserves to look loved!

“There is also an old broken playground next to it, which we want to turn into a place where people come together; to play, to meet, to hold events. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference to the community; to people’s lives.”

Jobs on Lyford Reserve are also ongoing. “There’s always more work to be done!” Volunteers to clear gorse, weeds and some of the bigger, more gnarly bushes would be particularly welcomed, Tabitha says. She also recently set 20 rat bait boxes and five possum traps throughout the area. Working with Pest Free Auckland has been one of Tabitha’s many contracted roles, all of which have focused on contributing positively to the natural landscape of the North Shore she loves.

Like the nature within it, the Lyford Reserve project will continue to evolve. “Eventually we’ll replace the pine trees, but there’s no way we could get rid of them all at present. They’re home to ruru / morepork and other birds and provide a shelter for so much wildlife. But eventually, the 50-year plan if you like, is to replace the pines with natives such as totora, titoki… so many I can’t list!” The energy of her vision is palpable.

“By the time they’ve grown tall, hopefully my kids will be roping their kids into keeping this place special for their kids too…”