Thursday, November 30, 2023

Finding a river’s future in its past

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A North Canterbury dairy farmer puts his energies into restoring a stretch of river to what it looked like before humans set foot there.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

John Faulkner is passionate about farming and equally passionate about the natural environment.

Culturally and socially aware of both his responsibilities as a farmer and the community’s obligation to future generations, he has a vision for his Lockerbie Farm, and big plans for a restoration project that includes taking part of the land back to the state it would have been in when first encountered by Māori settlers.

“I think as you go through life, look at farming, you see the pros and cons and see some of the farming systems are not as friendly to the environment as they could be, and you figure out there are things you can do better,” Faulkner says. “There is a pathway out of the problems we are faced with.

“I have a young daughter and I want to leave something positive for her.”

He has a vision to restore endangered native bird and fish habitats, and restore the water of the Waiau Uwha River, one of the South Island’s most significant braided waterways.

The river is a key habitat for native fish and birds with at least two bird species, the dotterel and wrybill, critically endangered.

The project vision includes extensive riparian planting and a weed- and predator-eradication programme along an 18km stretch of the river leading to the Waiau township.

Faulkner acknowledges it is an ambitious project, but says imposing regulations alone is not going to achieve what is needed.

“We have a big job on our hands and it may not be completed in my lifetime but unless we as landowners get involved nothing will happen.”

An experienced managing director with a demonstrated history of working in the farming industry, Faulkner is involved with the Hurunui District Landcare Group (HDLG) and is a former chair of the Hurunui Waiau zone committee.

The zone committee achieved a lot, he says, but it was exhausting and is now in hiatus.

Faulkner is currently collaborating with neighbouring farmers and supporting moves for a wider catchment group to involve up to 40 farmers in the restoration and enhancement biodiversity project of the Waiau Uwha River. The waterway stretches from the Spenser Mountains in the Lewis Pass area to the east coast of Canterbury about 50km south of Kaikoura.

The flood plain is home to rare and threatened birds including the black stilt, wrybill, white-fronted tern, black-billed gull and banded dotterel, as well as endangered invertebrates.

The river is threatened by human activities and weed and pest invasion. Despite a regional council regulatory planning process built around the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS), actions undertaken to protect and enhance the braided river have met with limited success.

Efforts at a local and regional level to advance environmental restoration projects have been slow, with parties unable to agree on a process that delivers significant on-ground action while minimising landowner angst about new regulations.

Faulkner says ground-up actions can deliver the mutually acceptable outcomes sought by landowners and environmental stakeholders.

Finding projects that can be supported by regional and district authorities, central government, local body, industry and environmental agencies enables communities to work actively towards solutions, Faulkner says. The Waiau Uwha restoration such a project.

He is leading the charge and – while throwing his support into the wider catchment group project – has also been undertaking a major restoration project on his own land.

Part one is his Lockerbie Farms project, which has received $50,000 from the HDLG through the Government’s One Billion Trees Fund to cover restoration of a previously wasted river boundary, designated Te Wahi o Te Hononga – the Place of Connection.

“We have a big job on our hands and it may not be completed in my lifetime, but unless we as landowners get involved nothing will happen.”

John Faulkner
Lockerbie Farms

Work has also begun on the Kingfisher Corner and Totara Walk, with a privately facilitated drylands river terrace experiment being monitored on site.

Planting started in August 2020 and to date 7000 plantings taking in 70 different species – all endemic within a 5km radius and including traditional Māori medicinal plants – have been planted.

Each planting area is unique in character, with its biodiversity benefits, challenges and conservation opportunities reflected in the name of each specialised area.

As the sites at Lockerbie are developed, particularly Te Wahi, the Totara Walk and the drylands experiment, public interest and awareness is heightened.

“This is a great opportunity to build a public profile attracting sponsors, extending knowledge in the community, contributing to survivability successes on other district projects and creating great walk experiences for visitors,” says Faulkner.

To encourage biodiversity there is an opportunity to encourage more diverse flora and fauna, including more owls, breeding more rare birds and specialised plants and encouraging the local bee industry as well as insects and skinks.

Educational tours of the sites have been enjoyed by a variety of groups and businesses including Fonterra, Environment Canterbury, Farmlands, local landowners and overseas visitors.

‘I have a young daughter and I want to leave something positive for her,’ says John Faulkner, and to that end he is collaborating with neighbouring farmers in a major restoration and biodiversity project on the Waiau Uwha River.

Faulkner says he has always had an interest in biodiversity and the environment as a farmer, but he did not understand all the specifics needed to build this vision.

“I have talked with a lot of experts and scientists in a lot of fields and learnt a lot,” he says. And without Canterbury-based native plant and restoration project specialist Sue McGaw, Faulkner says, he would be struggling.

“Sue knows every plant, her knowledge and passion is invaluable, her involvement has been a turning point.”

Part of the development on the farm’s river boundary is a site based on the concept of a nohoanga, a campsite used by iwi as a base for fishing and food harvesting influenced by maihinga kai (food resources) values.

“The aim is to create an area on this tradition as an access to maihinga kai. Plantings have included fruit trees, clean water is available and toilet and shower facilities at the camp area could be a plan for the future.”

He is hopeful his on-farm project will be the catalyst for other landowners to become a part of the greater Waiau Uwha River riparian restoration project with HDLG managing the funding.

“It is very doable to have pockets of plantings on farms that are within a short distance of each other to create bird hops that will see bellbirds” – and he promptly spots one – “and other native birds coming back into these areas again.”

“I think as you go through life, look at farming, you see some of the farming systems are not as friendly to the environment as they could be and you figure out there are things you can do better.”

John Faulkner
Lockerbie Farms

Faulkner has had conversations with many as to whether to protect the river or not.

“Do we let it do its own thing – no. A thriving and healthy Waiau Uwha will ensure that future generations growing up along its banks will continue to prosper, provide increased maihinga kai and many recreational opportunities,” he says.

A biodiversity corridor of native flora will also help native birds to flourish by providing year-round food, and removing pests and weeds will help critically endangered birds and other species to safely breed.

Tourism is part of Faulkner’s vision.

“There is potential for tourism with fishing and kayaking and exploration of the native pockets created for picnicking and camping, but at this stage it’s a hard sell.

“The only way all this will happen is if all stakeholders work together and the only way to proceed is for landowners to get involved.

“I just want to get on with it and I think there are many others – farmers and conservation groups – that want to do stuff and make it happen too.

“Landowners are doing the heavy lifting, we’re doing it in the economy, biodiversity space, for greenhouse gas emissions.

“But we have to be given the capacity and space to do it, and we will make most progress with people in the community getting on with it together.”

John Faulkner’s Lockerbie Farms project has received $50,000 through the government’s One Billion Trees Fund to cover restoration of a wasted river boundary, designated Te Wahi o Te Hononga – the Place of Connection.

The Waiau Uwha restoration project sits at the northern side of the Amuri Basin, 35km from Hanmer Springs, with its geographic isolation lending it to the establishment of marketing opportunities for the agricultural products produced in the area.

The project presents an opportunity for Amuri Basin agricultural products to use modern technology to identify track, trace, and market high-value culturally and environmentally sustainable produce.

If commercial benefits are seen to flow from the project this will support landowner uptake, Faulkner says.

The education component can teach the Ngai Tahu history and the associated cultural values in the harvesting and collection of kai.

Community education and engagement with the project will teach the importance of braided rivers and associated biodiversity values.

In conjunction with his 47ha support block at Mouse Point north of Culverden, Faulkner is also managing his 162ha dairy farm, milking 560 Holstein-Friesian cows in tandem with his overall vision to restore and enhance the land and biodiversity.

Over the past five years an irrigation upgrade has included four new pivots, one linear irrigator and 195 pole sprinklers to replace rotorainers.

This has improved pasture growth and quality, helping to also keep water within the root zone and reducing leaching losses, while a new effluent system with a 640,000L tank can now apply effluent to 120ha, from just 36ha previously.

Nitrogen rates have been dialled back with the irrigation upgrade meaning the farm is close to maximising the uptake and benefit of the nitrogen.

An upgrade to the dairy shed last year enabled more efficient milking on a split herd basis and helped towards an environmental project A grade audit with the Amuri Irrigation Company.

Winter grazing and animal welfare are the current challenges, with a 500-cow composting barn being considered.

“I am convinced of all the positive points for the environment, mauri of the water, animal and staff and wellbeing, but does it [a composting barn] stack up as a business investment? I am investigating with consultants,” Faulkner says.

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