Bayell Sexton firmly rejected all advice to fill in the five lakes scattered across his coastal farm near Foxton in the 1950s. The lakes and wetlands were taking up space that agriculture advisers, local body engineers and his neighbours thought should be in farmland.
"They thought we were nutters," his son, Graham, says. "But Dad was a keen duckshooter and whitebaiter and, besides, they were lovely to look at."
The lakes take up about 30 hectares of the farm that is now home to 1000 cows, and if the Sextons had followed others on the coastal strip and filled in their lakes, they might have been a lot wealthier. "But we would have been a lot poorer environmentally, and that's what counts with us," Sexton says.
"I can't think of a prettier sight than seeing the lakes on a frosty morning as the sun is coming up. The mist is rising off the waters and there's a shag fishing as a couple of blue herons come flying over. There's always something happening - it's a magical place."
Attitudes have changed in the 60 years since the Sextons were jeered for saving the lakes. "Now they're envied. These lakes are gems in the region's crown," New Zealand Landcare Trust regional co-ordinator, Alastair Cole, says.
He is leading a project to preserve a string of four lakes, including three on the Sexton farm, and a stream and wetlands that link them. The project is one of three the trust is helping farmers with, part of efforts to clean up streams that flow into the Manawatu River.
The stream linking the lakes is man-made, dug more than a century ago by bullock and plough, and is now known as Whitebait Creek. True to its name, its mouth at the Foxton estuary is a popular whitebaiting spot. But the tasty tiny delicacy is restricted by a modern culvert from travelling up the creek to spawn in the lakes, and is rapidly fished out each year.
Cole has applied for a grant from the Eastern and Central Community Trust, with extra funding from Horizons Regional Council, Horowhenua District Council and the Department of Conservation, for a $140,000 project to redesign the culvert to let the whitebait through.
In the meantime, he is planting native shrubs and trees on the banks of the stream and lakes. The idea is that these will eventually shade and cool the waters, to improve the habitat for not only the whitebait, but eels and other fish, insects and bird life. If all goes well, native fish such as the giant kokopu will be reintroduced and its juveniles, the fabled "goldbait", will be seen again.
So far, the two-year restoration has focused on the creek's lower reaches and the first lake, Omanu, a Fish & Game sanctuary. Six hundred plants have gone in, the first of 50,000 needed to line the stream and lake.
It is a big job, physically and financially. By the time Sexton's lakes and the wetlands around them are completed, 500,000 natives will have been planted at a cost of $1.5 million. Cole describes his chief role as a funding co- ordinator, drawing on resources in the Horizons Regional Council, Department of Conservation, Ministry for the Environment and Fonterra to help pay for the project.
To fill the vital role of inciting local support, he had to find a "community champion", someone he looks to drive each of his projects.
Bob Hoskins, a retired geologist and driving force behind Foxton's Save Our River Trust, was an obvious choice.
"I bore people to death," he says with a grin. "I'm well-known as an environmental nut."
But finding locals to help him is proving difficult. Nearby Foxton Beach School lends children, but they are there to learn, and he would love to see volunteers from the Scouts or service clubs.
"Where are our communities?" he asks. "New Zealand needs to step up. The farmers are donating the land, but where's the help from the towns?"
In fact, the lion's share of the labour is being done by foreigners. They are young eco-tourists who have paid to travel from the other side of the world to get their hands dirty in New Zealand.
They are brought out by Conservation Volunteers NZ, a charitable trust that works with Fonterra, DOC, Keep New Zealand Beautiful and several regional councils in river catchments and regional parks.
Hoskins is so delighted to see them he can only get the words out in short exclamatory sentences. "They work like dogs! And in the rain! And they're paying to come all this way to do it here!"
To the youngsters, it is not so surprising. "It's fun, an adventure," says Niklas Doephner, 18, from Germany. "You have a special environment that has to be protected."
Marta Gallina, 21, from Milan, Italy, has just finished an environmental science degree and wanted to improve her English. "I'm learning the practical side of the theory I was taught at university."
Vanessa Ulbrich, 19, from a small town in north-east Germany, will look for work on a sheep farm when her time with the volunteers ends in two weeks. "New Zealand has a wonderful landscape. I want to keep it looking good," she says.
They are planting toetoe, koromiko, kanuka, cabbage trees, coastal tree daisies, taupata, karamu, ngaio, and carex into a 50-metre wide strip around Lake Omanu.
"I can picture it with all the bush around it, protecting the biodiversity," Hoskins says. "That's my motive, to know we will provide a self-sustaining environment."
The planting is the easy part, he says. "There's another five years' work here, spraying the grass and weeds, and mulching around the plants so they can survive the summers. Who's going to help me do that?"
Over the fence is a typical dairy ryegrass paddock. A six-span pivot irrigator sits at one end, waiting for summer to arrive. Hoskins says the plantings will filter out farm nutrients before they reach the lake.
"We should be getting maximum production off this land," he says. "Farmers are doing good for New Zealand and this is the way we can help reduce their impact."
Graham Sexton can't wait for the workers to reach his lakes. He has worked hard to protect them from boisterous samba deer and encourages pheasants and rare ducks like the grey teal. Two royal spoonbills have made a recent appearance and dabchicks, fernbirds and bitterns are also in residence.
The return of whitebait would be "magic". "It's a sight my dad would have loved to have seen. He was proud of the lakes."
Cole agrees. "It's a rare and threatened habitat."
"Not as long as I am here," says Sexton.
- © Fairfax NZ News