Not for sale

Whitebait are back in numbers and at-risk coastal birds are returning at the bottom of South Island.

A deluge of rain which flooded rivers in Southland last spring gave dairy farmer Luke Templeton a strong clue environmental efforts at his property are working.

"It was during the whitebait season and a heavy rain event can cause problems with sediment and other run-off (flowing into waterways)," he says. "But the whitebaiters using our stream told us they were getting up to 20 times the normal catch.

"We think it was because there was less sediment and the whitebait wanted to be there, so the water quality must be good from that perspective."

Templeton, who milks a herd of 650 cows on his 260ha property near the small coastal town of Riverton, is seeing environmental gains in other ways too as extensive riparian planting and fencing projects begin to bear fruit. There are noticeable increases in bird and fish populations and regenerating stands of native bush on his property being obvious signs of these.

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He says Foveaux shags - a bird said to be vulnerable to extinction and whose overall numbers are thought to be just 2500 - is an example: "They fly out to sea for food and, 10 years ago, there were very few of them here but today we can count up to around 60.
"What we are doing here is as much about creating habitat for wildlife as it is reducing run-off," he says. "We believe it is easier to go with nature than against it."

The fifth generation of his family to farm in the area - his great-great grandfather bought 2000 acres there in 1911 - Templeton gave up an engineering career in Rotorua almost five years ago to take over the farm from his parents.

His property runs along the coast at Oreti Beach on Foveaux Strait - the stretch of water separating the South Island from Stewart Island – and its location means he has a lot of contact with the public.

Photo / Supplied.
Photo / Supplied.

"We are close to Riverton, people use our stream for whitebaiting and a lagoon for eeling," he says. "The beach front is public space too and I have a lot of interaction with people – a strong motivation for me. I need to do, and be seen to do, the right thing."

In any case, Templeton is keen to continue the environmental work begun by his parents. As part of efforts to prevent as much sediment and nitrate run-off as possible, they fenced off the entire 17km of waterways on the property and started a planting programme when the farm was converted to dairy in 2002.

The extended Templeton family still have a strong presence on the land. His brother runs a similar-sized neighbouring dairy block while his parents keep their hand in running a 70ha operation nearby – Templeton estimates the family runs around 560ha combined.

One of the most significant environmental areas on his farm is a 2ha lagoon which is fed by three other ponds on the property and in turn runs into the stream which flows to the sea.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

"It (the lagoon) is also important to us as a family," says Templeton. "My great-great grandfather established a flax mill here - in his time 1000 acres of the land was in flax - and the lagoon fed water to the mill."

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Last year Templeton created a strip around the lagoon, planting about 500 native species including carex grasses, cabbage trees and pittosporums. The project cost around $10,000 including a grant from Fonterra who provided $2000 worth of plants.

He has also planted and fenced near the other ponds although substantial stands of existing native trees are regenerating around them and attracting increasing numbers of birds including fantails, Paradise ducks and oyster catchers (a coastal wading bird).

"The area is low-lying, so it's not worth developing," he says. "Our whole farm is very flat and sand-based. We don't get a lot of overland run-off, most of it seeps down into the ground so we've always had pretty good water."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Despite this Templeton says both he and his brother have a desire to leave the land better than they found it: "We have increased cow numbers and are, as a result, asking more of the environment, so we need to put back into it."

As well as formal testing for water quality, Templeton says he likes to take a more holistic approach by basing measurements on the return of the area's wildlife.

Templeton's fiancée Jen Armstrong is with him at the farm. Hailing from a small community in the west of Scotland, the couple had planned to be married there later this year but had to put it on hold because of the Covid-19 crisis.