Island farm's renaissance

OVERVIEW: Pepin Island Farm manager Andrew Newton with the Pepin Island spits in the Delaware Estuary in the background, where original flora is regenerating at the Pepin Island Farm.
OVERVIEW: Pepin Island Farm manager Andrew Newton with the Pepin Island spits in the Delaware Estuary in the background, where original flora is regenerating at the Pepin Island Farm.

Viola von Hohenzollern and Andrew Newton proved to be such good custodians of Pepin Island that they recently won a top Nelson Tasman Environmental Award. Peter Watson reports.

It's an easy political target: wealthy foreigner buys up landmark property with stunning sea views, doesn't do what was promised and restricts access to good Kiwi folk.

But behind the headline, the reality is somewhat different.

Nick Woods knows Pepin Island better than almost anyone else. He's lived across from it for 30 years and runs Cable Bay Kayaks, which every year takes hundreds of people on trips around the island. It is widely regarded as one the must-do things in Nelson.

In the 15 years since Dr Viola von Hohenzollern – then known by her married name Hallman – paid $2 million for the sheep station, he has seen it transformed.

Before the sale, which saw Andrew Newton take over as farm manager, it was overgrazed, erosion-prone and goat-infested, with an ugly entrance strewn with rundown farm buildings, he said. It had got to the stage where it was dangerous to land on some of the island's steep beaches because of the risk of rockfalls caused by goats grazing the cliffs above.

"There were cascades of rocks coming down that you still see today on the other side of Cable Bay."

Now it was a real pleasure to take people round the island where so much conservation work, particularly planting and fencing, had been done to enhance the experience, Mr Woods said.

"It is visually much more interesting than it used to be.

"The award is well deserved. I can't think of anywhere else where that amount of effort has gone in over that period of time."

What made it more impressive was that Mr Newton had, at the same time, turned the farm around so it was now carrying more stock and paying its way. "He's done a damn fine job."

While the land – as it always had been under previous owners – remained private down to the high tide mark with no right of access, Mr Woods said he had encountered no problems over the years.

Farmers were understandably reluctant to open the gates and let people through "because it could come back to bite them if someone falls over a cliff", but Mr Newton had proved flexible and reasonable.

Many kayakers and recreational boaties and divers regularly visited the beaches. He had seen schools camped out on other parts of the island, while Search and Rescue had used the farm's tracks and vehicles in recovery operations, Mr Woods said.

Mr Woods, who, along with Julie McClintock of the local branch of Forest and Bird, nominated the Pepin farm for the award, said he used to get people ringing him to complain about foreigners taking over the coast, but Dr von Hohenzollern had told him she was at the stage in her life where she wanted to give something back and leave the property in better shape than she found it.

"And I think it's been shown she has been pretty true to her word."

In many ways it was fortunate she had bought the property, which was probably now worth more than $4 million, because with her wealth she wasn't worried about making money from it and could afford to sit on it, Mr Woods said.

"If it had been bought by a Kiwi or someone else, they would have probably wanted a return on their investment and that could have meant either subdivision or something like a casino on the beach."

Ms McClintock agreed, saying what was important was not so much who owned the island but what they did with it. It had "improved enormously" under Dr von Hohenzollern's ownership, which was in stark contrast to the cliffs below the Cable Bay walkway where there was no protection from goats.

"I walk around Pepin and do the trap lines and it's an amazing place."

Remnants of native bush, including a relatively uncommon patch of kohekohe, was now flourishing after benefiting from a big predator control programme and being fenced off, while a rare orchid which grew on rocks had been saved, she said. Mr Newton had also done "marvels" on the island's two spits, home to a range of nesting birds, which had been cleared of pests and replanted in natives.

While Nelson MP Nick Smith might complain about the lack of an esplanade reserve or Queen's chain around the island for the public to use, she had never met anyone who had been stopped from going on to the island.

On the contrary, "every walking group you can think of" was allowed access in May and June.

But Dr Smith, who first raised the issue in 2003 while in opposition, said he stood by his comment then that there should be an esplanade reserve around Pepin Island for the public to use, regardless of who the owner was.

"Pepin is a very popular kayaking route and the complaints I have had is people who have landed on one of its little beaches have been told they are in breach and need to move on, and in my view, people who are kayaking or recreationally boating should have the freedom to pull into one of those little beaches or bays and be able to enjoy a picnic without fear of their access being questioned."

Dr Smith, now Minister for the Environment, said he had "got grumpy" with Dr von Hohenzollern in 2003 over her failure to proceed with a luxury farmstay venture she proposed to build when applying to buy the island, and the inability of the Overseas Investment Commission to do anything to enforce that commitment. Had she applied for consent for the venture, she would have been required to give up land for an esplanade reserve.

"In my view it made a bit of a joke of the overseas investment regime, in that it provided an incentive for a potential overseas owner to promise the world and deliver very little because there was no way the commission could enforce it. All of these overseas deals involved pretty slick lawyers and they were well aware the commission did not have the powers, nor show any interest in enforcing the commitments associated with such investments."

That had changed after he introduced a private member's bill which led to the then Labour government bringing in tougher rules for overseas investors buying land with heritage, historic or environmental significance, and which meant they could be forced to divest if they didn't meet the conditions to which they had agreed.

Dr Smith said he congratulated Dr von Hohenzollern and Mr Newton on their award, saying it was a real credit to them. "It reinforces the fact that just because they are an overseas owner doesn't mean they are a bad custodian of the land. Just look at the Crafars, a New Zealand family, who have a very poor record environmentally.

"But I do remain of the view that we should be trying to secure the esplanade area around Pepin Island as public reserve."

Mr Newton said the island was a working farm on an unforgiving landscape largely surrounded by cliffs and bluffs and less than 10 per cent – most of that the ecologically important spits – would be accessible if an esplanade was created.

As it was, for two months of the year the public were allowed to walk round it provided they were part of a walking group. Up to 600 usually took the chance, and he was happy for that to continue despite some "expensive disasters" through gates being left open.

However, Dr von Hohenzollern – a former German businesswoman of the year who ran steel giant Theis – was a private woman who came to Pepin for about two months a year to get away from it all and didn't expect people "to wander by her door". It was her haven and she wanted to see its environmental values protected, he said, although there was the possibility it could be opened to some low-impact eco-tourism in the future.

In the meantime, Dr von Hohenzollern deserved recognition for rescuing the property because, when she bought it in 1996, "it was at the point where it could easily have had a half-a-million-dollar road put round it" and been subdivided into expensive sections by rival buyers, Mr Newton said.