Farmers giving back to the land

Farmers often get bad press for tarnishing our clean, green image but Kim Dungey meets some doing their bit to protect New Zealand's plant and animal life.

Bob Morris scrambles around the bush-clad hill face as if his two hip replacement operations never happened.

The enthusiasm he and wife Sharron have for their latest venture is all over their faces and the inspiration all around them. Below the trees, the steep pasture tumbles down to picturesque Hooper's Inlet with its abundance of bird life.

"For 30 years we've been cutting down bush and clearing land, trying to produce grass for sheep," he says. "But we always had the idea that there would come a time when we would put something back."

That point came a few years ago when they saw an advertisement that said the Dunedin City Council would help fund biodiversity projects on private land.

The Morrises had long thought the native bush on their 230ha sheep property was worth preserving, but since they were busy ploughing money back into farming it would probably have to wait until retirement.

Now, with council funds to assist, they have fenced off the 3ha of bush so it is no longer vulnerable to grazing stock, added plants indigenous to the area and are looking forward to the forest regenerating.

The protected block consists of a rare broadleaf-hardwood podocarp remnant that was once common on Otago Peninsula. The area contains mature kanuka and tree ferns, relatively rare matai and totara, and a kahikatea tree thought to be about 100 years old. Perhaps the only dry-land example of its age on the peninsula, the white pine could serve as an important seed source.

Along with others across the peninsula, the site is a valuable habitat for wildlife. Tui, bellbirds (korimako), mohua (yellowheads), fantails (piwakawaka) and riflemen (tititi pounamu) have all been seen, along with skinks and green jewelled gecko.

As Bob Morris checks on his plants, he explains that the bush is next to the Nyhon Rd walking track and highly visible from several roads used as tourist routes. But few are walking the track today, probably deterred by the blustery wind that is driving clouds across the sky and whipping the long brown grass into waves. This year has been particularly dry. They've had to send lambs elsewhere for fattening and battle just to get plants in the soil.

"The biggest challenge has been working around the weather ... We thought we'd be clever and fence over the summertime but the ground was pretty hard."

That kilometre of fencing has been the most expensive part of a regeneration project that has cost more than $13,000.

A contractor put in the posts but the Morrises and their adult children cleared the fenceline, did the wiring and put in 1400 locally grown two-year-old plants.

In autumn, they will plant 200 to 300 more in the top section, and then it will be a case of keeping the weeds, possums and rabbits at bay.

They can't wait to see what will come away in the undergrowth, now that the stock have been excluded.

When Bob's great-great-grandfather began farming at Sandymount 147 years ago, the landscape was changing.

Settlers were clearing the native bush and converting the land to farming. There was no sign of the tourists who now clamber down the sand dunes to see penguins and sea lions.

As a boy, Bob's late father would pass the now protected bush at Hooper's Inlet while taking draughthorses to the blacksmith at Portobello. After buying the block in the 1960s, he fenced off totara seedlings to shield them from cattle. Bob is sure his father would have supported what he is doing now.

But the reality is that most of the native forest that once covered the peninsula has gone - felled for houses and sheds, sabotaged by pests and weeds.

And the Morrises' farming practices were no different from others', although they did plant trees for shelter and Bob did resist selling the last large stand of kanuka for firewood.

Now he and his wife are encouraging other landowners to make use of the Dunedin Biodiversity Fund - the process is "straightforward" and the planting has not interfered with their farming operation, which remains their priority. A lane in the middle of the bush, which the sheep use as a "shortcut", has simply been fenced off. The $5000 council grant was the "kick-start" they needed.

Further north, Nick and Stephanie Scott have fenced off a 700m length of stream running through their Merton farm and plan to plant the area in native species in autumn.

The couple say the $27,000 project will improve water quality by keeping livestock out of the stream, a tributary of the Waikouaiti River which flows into the Karitane Estuary. It will also prevent further erosion of the banks and enhance the habitat for freshwater life such as brown trout and inanga.

Galaxias maculatus (commonly known as inanga) forms the majority of New Zealand's "whitebait catch" and its dramatic decline is directly linked to the loss of habitat.

The stream has a large catchment area from the hills and is a valuable link for fish and whitebait that are migrating.

There are also benefits for the Scotts, who have lost about a hectare of pasture from their 550ha sheep and beef farm - the plants will shelter livestock and enhance the property aesthetically.

The Otago Regional Council says similar work has been undertaken to the north of the farm and the Scotts' project means the stream is a step closer towards being fenced and planted from source to sea.

The Karitane Estuary Care Group will assist with planting and $5000 from the Dunedin Biodiversity Fund is one of several grants that have helped with the project's costs.

Dunedin City Council senior planner Debbie Hogan says the fund continues to be an important "carrot" to encourage biodiversity protection.

While owners are often keen to learn about the biodiversity values on their properties, some want to know what financial help will be available for protecting an area and are concerned about taking land out of production.

Hogan says there has been lots of biodiversity work on Otago Peninsula and the north coast and little on the Strath Taieri and Taieri Plain, but overall the uptake of the fund has increased as people have become more aware of it.

Back on Otago Peninsula, Sharron Morris says most farmers are conservationists at heart.

"It's in their best interests to be so, but their main concern is farming income so it's got to fit around that ..."

"We're not greenies," Bob Morris emphasises. "But we do like to see trees protected. It just comes from the farming psyche - you always leave the land better than when you took it over."

Fact file
• The Dunedin Biodiversity Fund began in 2007 and is targeted at private landowners.
• It aims to maintain a network of viable habitats and ecosystems in Dunedin by supporting landowners who are committed to protecting, enhancing and managing indigenous biodiversity.
• To date, $216,000 has been given to 67 applicants and 50 projects, including fencing, pest control, planting, weed control, fauna monitoring and plant propagation.
• Funding is allocated in April and September, with $60,000 available per year. This money comes from rates.
• Successful applicants can be reimbursed up to half the cost of their project, to a maximum of $5000.
• The area being funded must be assessed as having biodiversity values but does not necessarily have to be accessible to the public.
• Priority is given to areas that are protected by a covenant or through the district plan as an area of significant conservation value.
• The subcommittee which allocates the funds consists of Dunedin city councillors and a representative of the Department of Conservation Coastal Otago office.
• For more information, go to



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