Ngāi Tahu Farming (NTF) has taken a creative approach to conservation in its development of Te Whenua Hou, a former 6,757ha plantation forest at Eyrewell, north-west of Christchurch. The company has set an ambitious target to plant 1.2 million trees by 2030 in its transformation of exotic pine forest into 20 working farms.
NTF has already planted over 200,000 trees - a wide range of mostly native trees and shrubs common to Ka Pākiwhakatekateka a Waitaha (the Canterbury Plains) – as part of a large-scale biodiversity project run in partnership with Lincoln University. NTF hopes this project will help re-establish pockets of native forests on the Canterbury Plains, creating a corridor that will bring native manu (birds) back to the takiwā.
Ngāi Tahu Farming’s chief executive Andrew Priest says the company is well on track to meet its planting target, but has slowed development to consolidate its progress to date.
“We’ve gone through such a significant growth period over the last five years that we’re just pausing for a while to consolidate our performance,” Priest says.
At Te Whenua Hou, there are only four properties that have not yet been fully converted from forestry land into operational farms. The company has eight dairy farms, four dairy support units and four irrigated beef units up and running.
“We’ve come a huge distance in such a short time. Our oldest dairy farm is only five years old. Our oldest irrigated beef property is only two years old. That’s a huge transition from where we came from only a few years ago.”
Priest sees the investment the company has put into establishing native bush reserves as “the right thing to do” to protect waterways and encourage biodiversity at Te Whenua Hou. In future, he says pockets of native bush at Te Whenua Hou could provide a corridor for native birds flying between the Southern Alps and Banks Peninsula and is excited to think that it may help re-establish populations of tūī, korimako, and kererū in these areas.
Ngāi Tahu Farming strives to produce farm products sustainably, to uphold the tribe’s role as kaitiaki (guardians) of the environment, create employment opportunities for Ngāi Tahu and uphold the values of the iwi.
“The whakataukī which guides all of our activities is: ‘Toitū te marae o Tāne, toitū te marae o Tangaroa, toitū te iwi – When land and water are sustained, the people will prosper’,” he says.
Ngāi Tahu Farming’s general manager (commercial and market development) Ben Giesen says planting native species on such a large scale on the Canterbury Plains breaks new ground and has been “quite a challenge” in practice.
The lack of rainfall, hard winter frosts, poor soil types, stock management and weed control have presented some real challenges in the first few years of establishment. Those conditions were too tough for some native species so the range of plants was reduced to those that could survive.
Initially, the company sourced plants from local nurseries, but even at reasonably competitive rates, the cost of plants, fencing, establishment and maintenance of new nature reserves blew out fairly quickly.
Te Whenua Hou has since established its own on-farm nursery capable of growing 60,000 plants a year. NTF source the seeds from the Ngāi Tahu owned company ProSeed at Amberley. These steps were designed to strip costs out of the planting project.
Giesen says some of the earlier established reserves are looking great and he is hopeful of getting a lot more trees established in the next couple of years.
“It’s still early days but it is a very satisfying project to be involved in,” he says.
Professor Nick Dickinson, from the Department of Ecology at Lincoln University, says Te Whenua Hou is an exciting, creative approach to conservation of native vegetation on the Canterbury Plains because of the collaboration and commitment of the parties involved.
The project involves manawhenua, Ngāi Tahu Farming, the Department of Conservation, Environment Canterbury and local communities working together with the scientific expertise of a range of specialists in agriculture, ecology, horticulture and landscape from Lincoln University.
Prof Dickinson says intensively farmed Canterbury lowlands are widely regarded as one of the most threatened landscapes in the country, where historically the conservation of native flora and fauna has not been a priority. Farmers, conservationists and scientists are keen to do something about that, he says, and the change in Canterbury landscapes in recent years has been quite dramatic.
He says the significance of the Te Whenua Hou development is that the restoration of 150ha of nature reserves is on a similar scale to what little native vegetation is left on the whole of the Canterbury Plains. Prof Dickinson estimates another 150ha of plantings to enhance the landscape around farm buildings and entrances, bordering irrigation pivots and in shelterbelts between farms - effectively doubling the area planted to date at over 300ha.
“The challenge we’ve got is to justify the benefits of native restoration,” he says.
“Native plants are part of the identity of Canterbury and while it is important for plantings to look good, it is not just about beautifying landscapes.
“It’s actually about those plants and animals contributing something of value to the farm management system and that’s the exciting thing from my point of view.”
Farmers understand the need to keep stock out of streams and to plant riparian strips to clean up and protect waterways, but clean water is much more complex than that.
“Research shows some native species, such as kānuka and mānuka, have very good root filtration systems and if you can run some farm waste through those systems they are very effective at stopping nitrates going into groundwater and stopping greenhouse gases escaping into the atmosphere.”
Prof Dickinson says four years is not long in terms of native plant restoration so it is still early days for the Te Whenua Hou project.
“We haven’t transformed those sites into glorious wilderness – we’ve started the process,” he explains. “It’s not instant. We’re four years into the project. I would say in another four or five years it will look spectacular as long as we don’t walk away.
“Certainly the current management of Ngāi Tahu Farming understand that and always have local community groups and iwi watching.”
“The issue in future is how to introduce real biodiversity into these sites,” he says.
Andrew Priest hopes that the early success of the native plant restoration at Te Whenua Hou has given the iwi confidence in its ability to farm responsibly and sustainably. Some of the strategies and efficiencies developed at Te Whenua Hou may be applied at Ngāi Tahu Farming’s other major forestry development, the conversion of the former 9400ha Balmoral Forest in North Canterbury into pastoral lands. To date the iwi has converted 1500ha of land to pivot irrigation, mostly for beef finishing, and has another 1200ha of dry-land pastures.
“As we scale up at Balmoral there will be an equivalent planting and biodiversity plan, probably on a similar scale as that for Te Whenua Hou,” Priest says.