24 May 2024

"Nature's itching to put the bush back"

From Country Life, 7:43 pm on 24 May 2024
Hinewai Reserve

Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

In addition to the birdsong of pīpipi as they fly through the bush, those visiting Hinewai Reserve in Banks Peninsula will soon also be able to hear the sounds of the sea, with the private reserve having recently expanded down to the coast.

Hugh Wilson, a renowned botanist and conservationist, had long held a dream of managing a bit of land where he could just "let nature re-assert herself". The 79-year-old has certainly found that in Hinewai, which he has called home for close to 40 years.

Wilson is affectionately referred to by neighbours as an "ecological imperialist", he says with a smile. Under his management as an on-site kaitiaki, the reserve has grown steadily from a 109-hectare block of bush in 1987 to over 1600-ha of regenerated native bush, largely in thanks to income gained through carbon sequestration.

"A lot of our land purchase fund comes from carbon credit income."

The recently purchased 80-ha block by the sea is one example, with work now underway developing a new track on the land.

Hinewai Reserve

Hugh loves nothing better than being in nature Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

However, Wilson and the Maurice White Native Forest Trust which manages the reserve are conscious of the tension that exists in allowing business to continue emitting behaviour through offsetting via carbon sequestration.

"We ethically vet every business our carbon credits are sold to. We only sell to businesses who are committed to carbon zero."

One-hectare of regenerated forest sequesters about 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, he explains.

Carbon credits have paid between $15 per tonne at their lowest and up to $70 when prices are high.

"It is a significant income for sure," Wilson says.

Canterbury farmers, too, are increasingly willing to retire steep gulleys and fence them off  to gain carbon credits and also increase biodiversity. Most were skeptical of Wilson's project when he started, he said.

Hinewai Reserve

Gorse covered farmland is giving way to native forest Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Enemy of farmers, friend to few, gorse once infested the land which makes up Hinewai Reserve.

It's a scrub weed with vibrant yellow flowers and prickly leaves.

"The only effective way of getting rid of it was to let the native bush come through and shade it out and kill it," Wilson explains. Admittedly, he got a lot of flack over his plan to leave the gorse to give way to native forest.

"It's an appalling weed for farmers. They've spent all their lives trying to fight it on this marginal hill country and sometimes with success but sometimes it's just depressingly impossible. So I can completely understand both the hatred of gorse and the skepticism that it gives way to native forests."

There are no skeptics now though, and more natives than gorse.

Hinewai Reserve

Hugh hand-writes and illustrates Pīpipi, a newsletter about the reserve Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Hinewai's daring endeavour was recently captured in a documentary by Happen Films, called Fools and Dreamers.

It's increased the project's profile both here and abroad, and has also led to offers from volunteers. However, it's just a small but mighty team of four behind Hinewai, including Wilson who handwrites a twice-yearly newsletter named for the pīpipi thriving in the reserve.

People can freely come and visit the reserve. An old woolshed was converted to an information centre with accommodation that can sleep up to 12 people, though the lodge is closed over the winter months from the end of May before re-opening in October.

Hinewai Reserve

The entrance to the visitor centre at Hinewai Reserve Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

The "millions and millions of regenerating native trees" which surround the woolshed, have all grown from natural regeneration. Wilson was confident the project could be realised because nature is "just itching to put the bush back" and get on with it.

There's no shortage of seed, nor any shortage of "dispersal mechanisms" in the form of the many native birds either.

"Even with grazing here the farmers have to keep fighting the kānuka colonising their pastures. We've just taken away the things that slow that down, like farm animals, possums, goats, we've got a bit of an incipient wild deer problem now."

"We try and remove all the deleterious things which are stopping nature just getting on with putting the bush back. All the serious work is done by nature here."

Hinewai Reserve

Even though there's been some rain the creeks at Hinewai are still running low Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

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