Farmers do best for lagoon

Peter Bonifacio and Rosemary Bird check out some of the native regeneration behind a fence wired to keep stock out. Photos: Chris Tobin
Peter Bonifacio and Rosemary Bird check out some of the native regeneration behind a fence wired to keep stock out. Photos: Chris Tobin
Reducing their impact on the environment, is the aim of  Milford dairy farmers Peter and Christine Bonifacio. Reporter Chris Tobin takes a closer look.

Striking a balance between farming and doing the best for the environment is something the Bonifacio family at Milford, on the coast near Temuka, take seriously.

Peter and Christine Bonifacio run 380 cows on 127ha of land around the 20ha Milford lagoon and lease a further 17ha from the Arowhenua Fisheries Trust.

They used to have 400 cows but Mr Bonifacio says they cut back to reduce the impact on the environment.

Their son Philip, who is 2IC, and his partner, Rosemary Bird, also work on the farm, which borders the Milford huts settlement and popular coastal fishing spot.

The main lagoon sits between their farm and the shingle beach; channels and creeks run through the property bordered by natives, such as flax/harakeke, wire rush and saltmarsh ribbonwood.

Looking south to Milford huts. The banks of the waterway are a popular spawning area for whitebait.
Looking south to Milford huts. The banks of the waterway are a popular spawning area for whitebait.
The lagoon and waterways were popular with early Maori for eeling and catching other species and still have great significance as a whitebait spawning site.

Besides diverse aquatic habitats the area is also a home for migratory, wading and coastal birds, such as the white-winged black tern/tara and black-fronted tern/tarapirohe. There are also ducks, geese and swans.

Mr Bonifacio says too often the media have been quick to condemn pollution of waterways due to intensive dairying without taking into account the work being done by most farmers to mitigate the impact.

''Fish & Game don't realise we're actually doing a lot - there's just the bad publicity.

''Some property owners aren't doing a great job, but the majority are.

''Farmers are now aware of the issues and they're trying to correct them.''

The Bonifacios moved to the property more than 20 years ago.

Rosemary Bird is waging war on predators, mainly ferrets and stoats, with 45 traps around the lagoon.
Rosemary Bird is waging war on predators, mainly ferrets and stoats, with 45 traps around the lagoon.
''We'd been sharemilking in Taranaki and Manawatu. We're also both South Islanders, with family at Leeston.

When they arrived dairying was operating towards Clandeboye,

but down around Milford, it was mainly crop farming.

''The coast is encroaching all the time,'' says Mr Bonifacio.

''They say for the last 100 years it's been losing about a metre a year.''

After European settlement, the lagoon became a popular recreation area. Trains would bring people to Temuka from Timaru and they would travel to the lagoon for sports and picnics.

The land was affected significantly by two floods, one in 1986 and another in 1996. But the soils are extremely fertile.

''When we came here the property only had a limited number of water troughs and there wasn't a reticulated water supply.

''We fenced the creeks and river marginal areas and put in a water reticulated system.''

The Bonifacios found fencing worked well and regeneration of natural plants, including flaxes and cabbage trees, occurred in parts of the farm without additional planting being necessary.

''We've always been aware of the environment [and] wanting to improve it. We've always appreciated this.''

They received further impetus when Philip and Rosemary came from Wellington in 2017 to live at the farm.

''Both wanted to get into regeneration, especially Rose. We needed extra manpower because it takes a lot of time.''

In May 2018 they applied for funding from Environment Canterbury (ECan) and also met the Department of Conservation to get advice on predator control, including density and placement of traps.

In a joint project with ECan and the Orari-Temuka-Opihi-Pareora (OTOP) water zone committee, they received $22,000.

The money has been used on more native planting and predator control, mainly against ferrets and stoats. Willows on the property are being taken out and Mrs Bonifacio hopes to replace them with stands of kahikatea.

Forty-five traps with rabbit bait have been set around the lagoon.

''It's an amazing environment and I've got all sorts of big ideas,'' Ms Bird said.

''And if we can bring the bittern back, that would be great.''

Shortly after arriving in the area, Mr Bonifacio sighted a rare Australasian bittern/matuku, an endangered wetland bird, but has not seen one since.

By striking a balance between farming and regeneration of the important habitat on their farm environs, the Bonifacios and Ms Bird hope one day sightings of the bittern, if they are still present in the lagoon, will become a common occurrence.

''Our aim is to protect and restore the native biodiversity of the lagoon and waterways,'' Ms Bird said.

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