Where town and country converge

ON THE FENCE: To one side of farmer Will van Cruchten are sheep grazing pastures; on the other is native bush and a recreation reserve.
ON THE FENCE: To one side of farmer Will van Cruchten are sheep grazing pastures; on the other is native bush and a recreation reserve.

It's a beautiful spot on a summer's day - peaceful, shady areas in which to rest and meditate accompanied by a friendly tui's musical commentary, and eye-pleasing views all-round, from steep, bush-clad hills to the rugged slopes of Kapiti Island.

Entwined in the bush and hills are cycle, walking and horse tracks, and just over the fences, ewes and their lambs graze browning pastures. It is the quintessential New Zealand scene, combining natural and farmed landscapes with outdoor activity.

This is Whareroa Farm, a 438 hectare former Landcorp farm near Paekakariki, which was saved from lifestyle development in 2005 by a fierce local campaign that surprised everyone by its sudden overwhelming popularity.

The Government stepped in and in an internal arrangement, the Conservation Department bought the farm off state-owned enterprise Landcorp for $4.6 million.

Now the Whareroa Guardians work alongside DOC to manage the farm. More than half has been taken for a recreation reserve, linking to Akatarawa Forest to the east and Queen Elizabeth Park, via a road and rail underpass, to the west.

Over the past six years, 36,000 trees and shrubs have been planted by 200 volunteers.

Left for farming is 180ha. "That's not viable, we recognise that," says John Lancashire, a Guardians' trustee and former chairman.

But he has another idea. "Why not combine it with Queen Elizabeth Park - they share a common catchment and were farmed together 30-40 years ago. That would make 600ha, a much more viable unit."

This larger farm could then become a model for future farming and its relationship with the environment. "It is a fantastic opportunity to recognise environmental values - cleaning up streams, developing wetlands, increasing the biodiversity - and for the public to see it in action."

More than 300,000 visitors go to QE Park each year and numbers are building at Whareroa. "It would be good news for the farming community," says Lancashire, a former government agricultural science manager who is also chairman of the Friends of QE Park.

"We can't keep farming the way we are now for much longer. If you can work out the procedures and techniques for combining environmental protection, biodiversity and productive and profitable farming, you've got a really nice model."

QE Park is managed by the Greater Wellington regional council. DOC Kapiti community relations manager Matt Barnett is guarded in his comments. The possibility of merging the two farming operations is "an idea we - DOC, the council and the Guardians - are currently exploring".

The subject is raised in a new 10-year plan for Whareroa, put together by DOC and the Guardians.

It estimates an enlarged farm could handle 4500 stock units and a range of stock types "giving more scope to manage stock in relation to feed supply, soil conditions and public use". It gives the example of breeding sheep on Whareroa and finishing the lambs on QE Park.

But the two farmers who each lease Whareroa and QE Park farmlands have their doubts.

Whareroa leaseholder Will van Cruchten is openly sceptical. "It's not feasible. Say you have a keen young fella wanting to take on the lease. He has got to raise $500,000 to pay for 4000 stock units, that's $40,000 a year in interest, then there's the lease, fuel, shearing and a heap of other costs.

"At the end of the year there has got to be something left over for him. If he can't make $100,000 net it's not worth it."

Another option would be for DOC to employ a farm manager. But that would come at a cost that he doubts would be repaid from earnings. "You're talking $80,000 a year in wages, plus a house and other costs - make it $100,000."

He doesn't believe a combined farm could manage 4500 stock units - "there's a lot of gorse on QE Park" - and from his experience on Whareroa's steep hills he regards 2.5 stock units to the hectare as the maximum. This would mean the enlarged farm would cope with just 1500 stock units, and only if the gorse was cleared.

Lancashire says it won't make "a tremendous amount of money", but says it is too valuable an opportunity to demonstrate farming in the future to be passed up.

Barnett can't comment on what funding would be available for a combined farm, saying those details "are yet to be finalised".

QE Park leaseholder Brad Joines, who finishes cattle on 360ha, says the merger idea is new to him. But he says the parkland is not highly productive, describing it as a dry, Marlborough-type climate.

His lease runs out in two years and he can't see any changes being made till then.

The Whareroa lease expires in six months and van Cruchten says he would be interested in tendering for the 10-year lease DOC proposes.

He has enjoyed his three-year experience on the farm. He owns the neighbouring farm, which he has covered in pine trees, and two other blocks in nearby Nikau Valley. His 650 ewes, 65 breeding cows and their lambs and calves are moved between his properties as seasonal conditions dictate.

Visitors are able to walk over some parts of the farmland, but not for the August to October months of lambing.

"It is the first time I've dealt with the public and it has not been as bad as some people led me to believe it would be," he says. "No one has interfered and when I've been mustering and asked people to move out of the way they've always been very amenable."

He leaves his ewes - bought as five-year-old perendale- crosses each year and mated to a black-face or poll dorset sire - to cope with lambing alone.

This year, after good feeding conditions at mating, the lambing percentage was higher than usual at 168 per cent, calculated at docking.

Survival was also better with few dead lambs to be picked up. "I've always made a point of picking them up and it's more important than ever when the public are around. But people have to realise that where you have livestock you have dead stock."

However, he can only make a profit by using the more fertile soils of his Nikau Valley blocks to take stock, at times when the Whareroa hills dry out. He describes Whareroa's 180ha as marginal and says the most realistic, long-term return for the steep hills is to plant them in pines.

The DOC-Guardians' plan mentions forestry as an option in "appropriate" areas.

It also floats the idea of a vineyard and winery on a north- sloping gravel paddock.

Guardians' chairwoman Ann Evans says she wants the farm to stay, because of its, "importance for town people to see where food comes from".

A lot of work remains to be done to the farm. "The hills are dry and sparse, with quite a lot of erosion and thistles. There's more potential to improve the land."

An $83,000 Environment Ministry grant in 2006 started the group of enthusiasts planting stream edges and wetlands and building tracks before DOC took over. Other grants from diverse organisations, including funding from Rugby World Cup profits, to put in 2500 plants each year for three years, have followed.

Guardians' members in groups and as individuals still turn up almost daily to plant, mow paths or just to grub thistles.

The 10-year plan places high priority on stream and wetland fencing and planting, gorse removal and other weed control, possum and rat control and constructing tracks and planting poplar poles on unstable slopes across the farm's varied landscape.

Work goes on outside the farm too. It is bordered by the main trunk railway line and State Highway One.

Lancashire is leading a campaign to establish a railway station, to cater for the 75 per cent of visitors who come from Wellington to Whareroa and QE Park.

"It's an urban playground," he says. "You can get on your bike at the beach and ride through QE Park, cross over into Whareroa, go up to the Akatarawas and over to the Hutt. It's phenomenal."

The Dominion Post