Farmer's wetland and river revitalisation project causes ripples amongst rural New Zealand.
Stu Muir says he knows he will have restored the land for future generations when kaka live permanently on his 200-hectare dairy farm at Aka Aka, south of Pukekohe – and by then he will have inspired a lot of other farmers too.
Muir has become a beacon for how farmers can positively affect their environment, partly through the massive task of bringing a 40ha native wetland area on his farm back to its original condition. The ensuing benefits were noticed (and copied) by other farmers after Muir turned a degraded, stagnant and blocked waterway into one supporting wildlife, reminiscent of the healthy, clean waterway used by local iwi to paddle their waka back when Muir's grandfather was a child.
Muir, now also the chair of the Endangered Species Foundation, tells Steinlager's "New Zealand's Finest" – a collection of Kiwis who have earned that description – that even his strenuous environmental efforts are nowhere near finished yet.
"What I'd ultimately like is when I've got kaka living here permanently, like we've got the tui and the kereru – that will be when I know that the restoration process that I've done here will last for generations to come. We're getting there; we've still got a long way to go.
"After growing up in this abundant land, I want all the things we have taken for granted, I want that for my kids' kids' kids, you know? That's why it's so important – because if we don't do it now, it's not going to be there.
"They'll hear us talking about these fantastic stories about being able to go to the beach and get tuatua, paua, kina, eels or whitebait and we would have ruined it, you know? Sorry, kids, grandad crashed the planet, that kind of thing."
Muir's environmental leanings stem from long-held family philosophy (he is a fifth-generation farmer on this land) and a firm respect for, and relationship with, the land and the iwi. That goes hand-in-glove with a firm belief that conservation and profitable farming are complementary, not competitive.
"So, for me, it was just a natural continuation…It was really when the Tainui and the Waikato River Authority funded us to help the health and wellbeing of the Waikato river – that's when it became next level; something I thought would take my entire lifetime was all of a sudden achievable."
The Papa and Mangati streams which flow into the river – part of the Tainui's pre-1860s trade routes – had become blocked by willows "and there was no current going through there. Then pampas and glyceria and every other invasive, nasty thing that you could imagine was growing there, thriving there, and they just blocked it, it was stagnant; it was embarrassing. It was dead. You wouldn't have known that it was once a river with so much trade and enterprise pre-1860."
Stu and Kim Muir have now retired 40ha of swamp from farming use, restoring it to a native wetland and creating ponds. With the Tainui-WRA grant, they have sown 40,000 plants in the wetlands and 8500 plants at a fenced-off sand dune lake on another family property.
They have also introduced pest control over a 400ha area: "Once you get the current through, it's alive – then the fish can come through. By re-planting native vegetation, kereru, tui, ducks and everything else comes back. You need major pest control because there's no point just clearing the weeds and that; if you don't get rid of the possums and the rats and the ferrets, nothing will thrive.
"Now, it's beautiful, trees are coming up, we've got tui and kereru and the occasional kaka, moreporks galore. Yeah, to see that transformation from death to life, you know, ka mate, ka ora. It's dark, it was death and then it's life, you know, you got the option, which one do you take, and you just go hard for the life."
Now the home farm is also home to kotuku while bittern and fernbird are increasing at the swamp, with the waters home to whitebait, freshwater mussels, crayfish, eels and mullet.
"Physically, it was hard," says Muir. "You imagine it's summer, it's 30 degrees, in the swamp, in the harakeke it's probably another four or five degrees, and it's just you with a chainsaw and 50 or 60 metres of chain and a mate on a digger so, every day your head's just pounding, no matter how much you drink."
The result is not just having a pristine waterway restored. It is also about neighbours and others further afield hearing about the success of the Muir project – and wanting to do similarly.
"You get that little ripple effect – people could see what was happening with not so many rats and possums down the river. So we approached a few people and now the communities involved have their own pest eradication scheme."
Muir has also been spreading the word to farmers: "They're a bit overawed initially and then when they see, hey, it's not that hard, let's get into it, then they start up their projects – and then you find out about these amazing projects; there's heaps of things happening all around the country, really inspiring things."
If communities can be empowered to do even a little bit, he says, just small changes in our daily lives, it will make a huge difference 10 years on: "It is so important to act now. We've got more than 7500 endangered species in Aotearoa New Zealand today, and that's increasing.
"Birds, frogs, lizards, insects, everything is combined in this environment – and take out one part here, it will have a devastating effect over there. But just planting a rewarewa or some sort of pollinating tree, you'll get birds, you'll get insects, you'll get lizards, you'll get all of that biodiversity back.
"Anyone can do that, landlords, tenants, landowners, small block holders, parks, schools, all the community. If we just individually and collectively make a small difference, it will make a big difference in the long run."
For more insight on Stu Muir's personal story and the restoring nature's treasures, activate the video embedded in this story.