Increasing biodiversity a labour of love

Photos: Shawn McAvinue
Photos: Shawn McAvinue
The scale of a native plant nursery has gone from "zero to ridiculous" on a South Otago dairy farm. Reporter Shawn McAvinue talks to Oakwood Hills owner Sandra Campbell about improving the biodiversity on her farm and discovering a possible opportunity in the Emissions Trading Scheme. 

South Otago dairy farmer Sandra Campbell is a self-proclaimed "crazy tree lady" as the size of her native plant nursery continues to grow.

"It’s gone from zero to ridiculous."

She and her husband Chris, nicknamed Tubby, milk about 450 cows on their 280ha farm in Clifton, about 20km west of Balclutha.

The couple have owned the farm Oakwood Hills since buying out their equity partners in March last year.

When they moved on to the farm, the biodiversity on it was limited to ryegrass, white clover, fodder beet and pine trees.

"That was it."

Every paddock on the farm features a gully.

The gullies cover about 30ha of the farm.

About seven years ago, they began fencing the steep gullies and planting native riparian margins to better manage stock, protect waterways and provide wildlife habitat.

"Who doesn’t want more birds?"

The aim was to grow something beautiful, provide shade for stock but ensure it was low enough to minimise the amount of pasture in shade.

About 4ha of gullies had been planted.

Because the gullies on the farm connected, the planting could one day be eligible to be part of the Emissions Trading Scheme.

"I’d like to think long-term they will end up in the ETS and we can make some income off those areas."

The reason for starting to plant natives was never to make money, it was to increase biodiversity.

Leaving the gullies to continue growing "rank" grass and weeds rather than being a place to produce something "awesome" and improve the farm would be a lost opportunity, she said.

As an Otago South River Care board member and Waiwera-Kaihiku Catchment Group member she has learnt ways to improve freshwater.

The first native plants were bought in 2018 and it became clear how "fickle" they were and everything wanted to kill them.

"It was either frost, stock, pests, drought or spraying."

The species which survived were Carex secta (a grass), ribbonwood and tree daisies.

Oakwood Hills owner Sandra Campbell inspects a ribbonwood in her nursery in South Otago.
Oakwood Hills owner Sandra Campbell inspects a ribbonwood in her nursery in South Otago.
"I’ve killed a lot of stuff. You live and you learn and you don’t plant them again."

Buying plants was expensive.

"You can get rid of a few thousand bucks buying them each winter."

To get more plants in the ground, she decided to collect native seed locally.

"It’s a free resource — it makes life easier and it’s everywhere."

In 2020, she built a nursery on farm to grow her own plants, despite having none of the skills required.

"I’m pretty rip, s... and bust."

She learnt on the fly, including the importance of protecting plants from the wind to stop them dying.

The nursery size had grown significantly.

"Once you see something strike and grow —it’s a little bit addictive."

Increasing the biodiversity on a farm yourself was hard work and needed to be a "labour of love" to stay motivated.

However, they had paid contractors to put plants in the ground because she had found she enjoyed being in the nursery more than in a gully.

Dunedin company Seed NZ Natives direct drilled some native seeds to create a demonstration site on the farm for a field day.

Support from Otago South River Care included running a drone trial in a 1ha of gully on the farm.

The trial aims to use innovation to make it easier to increase biodiversity in places hard to access on the farm.

The drone sprayed herbicide, then returned to scatter native seed in August last year and had since been back for some maintenance spray work.

It was too early to draw conclusions from the trial, but the seed had struck and appeared those plants could be more drought resistant.

"I think it has some merit".

Her children Charleigh (11) and Ryan (8) supported the project by helping in the nursery and planting out.

One thing she had learned on her journey was the harder you worked, the better the outcomes. In less than three years, the nursery had developed to being able to produce up to 4000 plants annually to progress the project.


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