Monday, February 26, 2024

Hawke’s Bay wetland becomes a generational treasure

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Don’t wait to develop a wetland – that’s the advice from one Central Hawke’s Bay farmer.
Gerald Wilson’s son Thomas and granddaughter Elsie enjoy the peace of the wetlands.
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Gerald Wilson has no doubt about which projects have given him the greatest pleasure in his farming career – it’s been creating the 20 hectares of wetlands on his Central Hawke’s Bay properties and watching them develop and mature. 

“It all started in the 1990s, purely selfishly to provide a better habitat for wildfowl for duck shooting,” says Gerald, who farms a mixed operation of dairy, beef, trading lambs, deer and cropping at Kanui Station near Tikokino and a satellite farm at Waipukurau. 

“But it became a passion, and now, in my middle years, my absolute pleasure is enjoying the wetlands and everything that goes with them. I farm with my son Thomas, he is very involved and shares that passion, too.”  

Gerald says his advice to other farmers is: “If you can see a way forward to create a wetland, then put what money you can towards it, work to get good advice and a grant if you can. We had support from Fish & Game and the New Zealand Game Bird Habitat Trust. You will get something that becomes generationally satisfying.” 

Gerald’s father bought Kanui Station as regenerating land in 1953, cleared it of mānuka, and established a sheep and beef farm. Then, during the 1960s, he began planting native bush, which was fenced and retired. Over the past five years, Gerald and Thomas have planted and retired 20 more hectares. In total, about 120ha of their land is in pine, native bush and wetland.

Gerald grew up closely involved with the duck hunting community, so when it came to creating their first wetland in the late 1990s, it was with a view to encouraging more wildfowl.

What began as a way to get in some good shooting grew into a passion for Gerald Wilson – thought there’s still shooting to be had, as his son-in-law Zak Darby and son Thomas can attest.

“I had a bit of money I wanted to put into something other than straight farming, and I decided to build a better duck dam and habitat. Then suddenly, the word ‘wetlands’ was being talked about, so I built my first wetland of about 1ha. 

“When you have a passion for something, you start exploring to find out about it, have discussions and observe. 

“I already had some knowledge from duck shooting but we had to learn about things like the right margins and angles and depths of water to make it attractive as a wetland to encourage wading birds and dabbling birds. 

“You also need to understand what the different bird species require in terms of shade and shelter and quality of the water. Fortunately, we have good quality water from underground springs.

“We choose sites where we know there will be reliable water, that has always been the first priority, and to get a bit of scale, you need reasonably flat land, so you can put in a wall or structure to hold the water and that isn’t going to be knocked over by wind or water flow.

“We aren’t in main streams; it’s just the damper areas of the property, with running water from the springs to keep them full.”

Planting has been a mixture of native trees and plants and non-invasive exotics. It includes flax, carex, sedges, weeping willow and reeds that will grow alongside or in water to provide natural cover and shade for birds to nest. 

Gerald, who has self-funded the farm’s smaller wetlands, was hooked. So in 2004, he embarked on a much larger project, the main 10ha wetland at Kanui, with support from Fish & Game. 

Fish & Game’s National Council oversees the New Zealand Game Bird Habitat Trust programme. Five dollars from every licence goes to the Game Bird Habitat Trust, which provides funding to help create and enhance habitats for the benefit of game birds and other wildlife. Around 30ha of land per year is restored or protected this way. 

“That was a serious project,” Gerald says. “We had professional help, particularly from John Cheyne, who was with Fish & Game then and has worked extensively on wetland projects. 

“It has 10.2ha of water and quite a significant wall, which is 800m long, which gives us a huge margin of about 1.2km. 

“There are gentle dabbling margins all round. It is mainly 1m to 1.5m deep and 3m to 4m in the deepest spots. It’s underground and spring water, and the quality is excellent. It is constantly full, creating an environment for many species – including some pretty special birds outside of the waterfowl species.

Gerald Wilson says his advice to farmers considering creating a wetland would be to do it – and soon enough that ‘you have the years and opportunity to watch it grow’.

“John Cheyne has counted over 30 species. We have all the wildfowl – grey ducks, mallards, brown teal, shovellers and paradise ducks. The paradise ducks come for their moulting season when they can’t fly – we have thousands here on occasion.

“Then there are the royal spoonbills, pied stilts, herons and cranes and 70 or so dabchicks at a time. We regularly have bittern. There was a lot of work being done with them at Lake Hatuma. They put transmitters on some, and whenever they were missing from there, they were at our place.”

However, for Gerald, the pinnacle of the wetland’s success is its use by a native kōtuku white heron, with the same bird having returned to them annually for the past four years. 

“There are only 200 in the country. They all congregate at the Waitangiroto estuary during the breeding season, near Ōkārito Lagoon, about 25km north of Franz Josef,  from around September to March. But after that, they disperse around the country and are mostly solitary. We call him Tuki because we are between the Tukituki and the Tukipo rivers. 

“We get very excited when he turns up; he is our treasure. When I go to the wetland, I call him and he will come over and hang about close to me. We have a bit of a lodge there, and he will often perch on the roof or the front deck and shelter there from the wind at night. 

While the greatest benefit of the wetlands has been the environment they have created for wildlife and the pleasure they have brought to those using the farm, a further advantage is the ability to draw some water from the largest area.

“We irrigate the farm and, with the big wetland, we are consented to draw some water from it,” says Gerald. “But it is very important to follow the rules because it is a Game Bird Habitat Trust site and will remain a wetland in perpetuity. 

“It’s a responsibility we take very seriously and are careful that we only take the water down a very small amount so that the integrity of the wetland doesn’t change. 

“It’s a mature wetland now, and it’s just getting better and better with time. The trust and Fish & Game came to see it recently, and they were blown away by it, and I’m blown away by it too. 

“So, my other advice to farmers considering creating a wetland would be to do it and do it at a time that will ensure you have the years and opportunity to watch it grow and develop, and you can really enjoy it.”

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