Two endangered river-nesting bird species could benefit from a project being led by dairy farmer John Faulkner to restore the waters of the Waiau Uwha River, one of the South Island's most important braided waterways.
Faulkner, who milks 560 cows near the river on his Lockerbie Farms property in north Canterbury, is calling for an extensive riparian planting and weed and predator eradication programme along an 18km stretch of the river leading to the Waiau township.
"All parts of the river are badly infested with weeds," he says. "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; I am certain (imposing) regulations alone will not achieve what's needed."
Faulkner is working with two other farmers who operate nearby and is supporting moves for a wider catchment group to involve up to 40 other farmers in the project.
The river is one of seven braided alpine rivers in Canterbury and is a key habitat for native fish and birds. At least two bird species – dotterel and wrybill – are critically endangered.
According to Department of Conservation (DOC) statistics, just 2500 dotterel remain. Once widespread, they nest in open sites in low-lying sand or gravel banks and are extremely vulnerable in storms and from the impact of residential developments.
DOC says the wrybill population is thought to be around 5000 but it too is at risk of extinction in the medium term.
"The birds need clear stony floodplains for nesting and so we have been clearing weeds like blackberry and gorse and willow trees which have been choking the water," Faulkner says. "We also get the odd predator including possums and deer."
While Faulkner is throwing his support behind the establishment of an Upper Waiau catchment group to cover the wider district, since 2016 he has been undertaking a major restoration project on his own farm. The work is taking place over 2.5ha on "previously wasted river boundary land" and so far 2000 plants and trees (including totara) have been put in.
Recently awarded $50,000 from the government's One Billion Trees Fund, he is looking at stepping up the programme over the next 18 months with hopes of planting up to 5500 from a list of 43 native plant species compiled for him by Canterbury-based native plant specialist Sue McGaw.
"These will be planted in biodiversity nodes – groupings of plants often found together in nature," he says.
At the same time Faulkner is developing a site on his farm based on the nohoanga concept and influenced by maihinga kai (food resources) values. A nohoanga is a campsite used by iwi as a base for fishing and food harvesting and Faulkner is aiming to create an area based on this tradition as an access to maihinga kai.
Faulkner says the restoration work has the potential to reframe the conversation between landowners, regulators and the public on the best way to protect and manage New Zealand's waterways.
"The conversation I am entering into right now is 'do we protect the river or not, do we let it do its own thing," he says. "But 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 recreation opportunities for locals and iwi.
"Creating a biodiversity corridor of native flora along the north and south banks of the river will help native birds and other fauna to flourish by providing year-round food while removing pests and weeds will help critically endangered birds and other species to safely breed.
"I decided the only way to proceed was if landowners got involved," he says. "We've just got to get on and do it. The only way it will happen is if all stakeholders work together, although so far we are only scratching the surface of what we've got to do."