10 Dec 2021

Bird highway takes flight

From Country Life, 9:35 pm on 10 December 2021
Aaron Donges with new native seedlings on an old pine forest block

Aorangi Restoration Trust's Aaron Donges is looking after the Tonganui Corridor project Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

There's a new highway taking shape at the southernmost tip of the North Island but not for sheep trucks or milk tankers.

Farmers like Stu Weatherstone, who operates one of Wairarapa's largest dairy farms, are getting in behind the scheme to create a bird corridor across the valley.

The four year Tonganui Corridor project linking the Aorangi range in the east and the Remutaka mountains in the west involves planting and protecting tens of thousands of trees on strips and pockets of farmland in the South Wairarapa valley.

It's hoped the corridor will eventually link the ranges and allow birds, insect life and other native species to flourish across the basin.

Lower Wairarapa Valley with Remutaka range in the foreground and Aorangis beyond

Lower Wairarapa Valley with Remutaka range in the foreground and Aorangis beyond Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Stu Weatherstone, whose great great grandfather started milking cows in the area in the 1930s, said it did not take much persuading to become involved and fence off 20 to 30 hectares of his 1800 hectare farm for the corridor.

He felt there was a need to do more to change perceptions about dairying.

"The more we can do to convince people we're doing the right thing ... that's a good thing."

Dairy farmer Stu Weatherstone

Dairy farmer Stu Weatherstone Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

His farm sidles up to the foothills of the Aorangis and instead of replanting pine forest around the stream which flows through his property he is planting totara, cabbage trees, kanuka and manuka.

It's more expensive than pine and costing him $30,000 to $50,000 on top of funding from the project.

Further down the valley at the Kohunui Marae, Ricky Te Tau is tending tree seedlings at the marae's new native tree nursery, set up with the help of the Aorangi Restoration Trust which is driving the Tonganui Corridor project.

The seedlings are grown from seed collected locally, able to withstand the area's harsh winds as well as lure the birds.

"We're hoping to put a smorgasbord out there, and they can choose what they like," Ricky said.

Ricky Te Tau tends to seedlings at the Kohunui Nursery

Ricky Te Tau tends to seedlings at the Kohunui Nursery Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Teresa Aporo, Kohunui Marae trustee

Teresa Aporo, Kohunui Marae trustee Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

From whole valleys to just one hectare slots, there are now about two dozen parcels of land starting to form a chain through the lower valley and 15 more are on the cards for next year, according to the Trust's operations manager Aaron Donges.

Raihania Tipoki said it is now a common sight to see kereru flying between stands of natives on his farm after years of planting. He has also joined the project, despite being somewhat cynical at first.

For him giving back to the whenua is key.

"We've been promoting planting natives for a very long time," he said.

"Knowing that other farmers are doing this for the right reasons, not just to look good or raise the value of their land."

Raihania Tipoki

Raihania Tipoki Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Palliser Ridge, a large sheep and beef farm hugging the coast, is also on board.

One of its owners, farmer Kurt Portas said they had been planting native trees for nearly 20 years and about 150 hectares is in bush or retired. An extra two kilometre strip has gone into the corridor.

"We're doing our bit, the neighbour's doing his bit and all the other neighbours are doing the same thing."

It is part of the overall vision for the farm and involves all the staff including the shepherds and stock managers.

They'll chase out animals who've strayed into the precious plantings, Kurt said.

Kurt Portas of Palliser Ridge in new native plantings

Kurt Portas of Palliser Ridge in new native plantings Photo: Supplied

It's all music to the ears of conservationist and Martinborough winemaker, Clive Paton, whose own "bush block" was an inspiration for the project.

He has noticed an increase in birdsong in the 20 years he's been planting at the foot of the Aorangis.

Changing people's view of the land was one of the main aims of the project, he said, "rather than just having deserts of grass."

He said thinking had changed particularly in the last five years.

"I'm not looked on as being an oddball anymore."

Clive Paton

Clive Paton Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Bird art in the Aorangi ranges

Bird art in the Aorangi ranges Photo: RNZ/Sally Round