Many hands are making light work of improving water quality in the Manawatū-Wanganui region, with landowners and local communities chipping in to re-forest hill country as climate change's impact is felt.
Despite delays caused by the Covid-19 lockdown, this winter community groups around the district are coming together at weekly native planting sessions – one of a number of initiatives designed to arrest erosion and help save the region's rivers.
One of the Horizons Regional Council's recent stream-planting projects was on Mike and Lindsay Will's 480-hectare sheep and beef farm in the Kiwitea catchment, northeast of Feilding.
A steep and erodible gully system at the headwaters of a stream that flows into the Kiwitea Stream and then the Ōroua River has been retired as farmland, fenced to exclude stock and re-planted in native trees.
It is one of many such projects – as a region, Horizons has the greatest area of highly erodible land in the country, with over 220,000ha of high-priority land.
"As a result of the 2004 storm events [which caused major flooding in the Manawatū], the community came together and said we need to get ahead of this and keep the soil on the hills," Horizons' group manager natural resources and partnerships Dr Jon Roygard says.
"Since then we've put nearly 20m trees in the ground and the Landcare Research model tells us there has been a 27 per cent improvement in sediment in the rivers overall.
"Unfortunately, some reduction in that figure is likely because of climate change and more frequent high-rainfall events, which will continue to impact on hill-country erosion. What we're trying to do is get ahead of these storm events and build resilience as fast as we can."
As landowners, the Wills received a 30 per cent subsidy from Horizons for fencing, as well as another 50 per cent grant to plant the riparian area directly alongside the stream.
Horizons Regional Council freshwater and partnerships manager Logan Brown says this planting, and other projects like it, help to reduce sediment, nutrients and e. coli bacteria from stock faeces entering waterways – by capturing farm run-off as it works its way down gullies.
"The plants also contribute to improvements in aquatic habitat as well as benefit terrestrial biodiversity by providing food and shading," he says.
Around 5500 young native plants went into the Wills' farm over three days, funded by a Manawatū River Leaders' Accord community grant supporting projects aiming to improve water quality in the wider Manawatū catchment. Among many helping hands on the planting days were staff from civil works contractors Higgins, students and staff from Waituna West School and other local community members.
Landowner Mike Will says the gully was "a pretty special place, as it has some regenerated bush including rewarewa, rimu and tōtara, so protecting it was important. The area also feeds a dam for stock drinking water so not only will cleaner water get to the Kiwitea Stream, but also to our stock".
The gully was identified as suitable for retirement when a Horizons Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI) Whole Farm Plan was drawn up for the property. The council has now developed around 700 of these plans for farms around the region.
Roygard says, when creating a Whole Farm Plan, council consultants look at the land use and farming practices, then work with farmers to identify ways to start implementing change to reduce erosion and improve water quality.
"We've been doing these for 12 years, covering around 550,000ha, which is about a quarter of the region and around half the land in sheep and beef farming," he says.
Based on these plans, Horizons last year completed around 500 jobs across the region reducing erosion and improving water quality – from planting native species and poplar poles in unstable slopes to stream fencing, retirement of farmland and conversion to forestry.
Roygard says landowners play a big part in the solution and taking a non-regulatory approach has been highly successful: "We don't only work with Whole Farm Plans — we are also working with farmers who want to go some of the way. It gives us the ability to start a relationship with farmers and continue to work with them."
The council runs several programmes helping landowners engage in riparian fencing and planting – the main one combating hill country erosion and nutrient enrichment of waterways. Areas suitable for fencing and retirement are identified and grants provided to cover costs. Another project works with lowland farmers and communities on fencing and planting of waterways.
With over half the region's land classified as hill country, the council's SLUI takes a "mountains to the sea" approach to keep soil on the hills and out of waterways, enhancing water quality and increasing farm productivity.
Watch Higgins planting day below: