Article written by Grant Shimmin for the Timaru Herald.
Conservation is a word that is very much part of the New Zealand vocabulary and psyche. Our natural environment is precious to most of us and is a tourist attraction that sits comfortably alongside the best on the planet. But there aren't many people who feel strongly enough to walk away from their old lives to dedicate themselves to ensuring at least something of that environment remains for future generations. That is conservation at the coalface, in the raw, and it is what Brian and Ellen Plaisier have committed themselves to for the last 15 years.
When they first saw the peninsula that is now the Tui Nature Reserve, it was something of a wasteland. Sheep and wild pigs roamed freely, Brian explains, and what remained of the native forest was "under stress".
This was not really surprising, since the practice of early generations of farming settlers was to get rid of the forest.
The vision that became a long-term project, which is starting to reach some significant milestones, was to restore the native forest, not just the flora, but the fauna too, from weta to bird species that had long since taken flight.
But first Brian had to persuade the owner at the time to sell a piece of land that wasn't actually on the market. That he was successful speaks volumes about the passion their find had unleashed in the pair, although it was clear that their vision was something others didn't really understand.
On a walk through the recovering forest, in which a second layer of vegetation is now thriving and a myriad bird calls fill the air, Brian took us to a towering rimu tree estimated to be about 900 years old.
When he was walking through the site with the previous owner during the purchase process, the owner took him to the same tree and told him: "This will be your house, Brian". Not sure that he understood exactly what was being said, he sought clarification. Indeed, it was being suggested that he cut down the tree to provide the timber to build a home.
It's a story he still tells with some amusement in his voice – taking on a project like this definitely requires a sense of humour – although it has a serious sequel. That lack of understanding of what they wanted to do with the land got him thinking that, if it should be sold in the future, there was no guarantee their vision would be followed. As a result, the entire site, apart from the buildings, is now protected.
That rimu still stands tall and proud, its topmost branches towering above the canopy of the forest on the slope overlooking the Sounds. If anything, its continued presence is a symbol of what has already been achieved on the property.
There are now 93 species of tree on the land, Brian explains, along with nine different varieties of fern. But what really speaks of the regeneration of the site is the developing "second layer" of vegetation that was absent when they first laid eyes on the place, a result of the destruction caused by wild pigs and other pests.
Then there are the birds. Set out on a walk in the forest here and before long you will have feathered travelling companions in the shape of friendly, frisky fantails.
Tuis and bellbirds abound, silvereyes flit from bush to bush, New Zealand pigeons are often seen in the trees near the Plaisiers' home and the distinctive call of a morepork sometimes penetrates the stillness of dawn.
But one of the most visible examples of their success in restoring nature's delicate balance here is the ubiquitous weka.
When we first arrived and were carrying our gear from his boat – we had to bring all our food for an 11-day stay, so there was plenty to carry – Brian warned us not to leave anything unattended, "because the wekas will steal it".
Sure enough, as he transported my wife and daughters up the peninsula's rough dirt roads to the guest cottage and I waited with the remaining luggage, it took less than a minute for one of these largely flightless birds to appear, wandering up to boxes and suitcases and attempting to discern their contents, sometimes by poking its beak in a gap and sometimes by giving the object in question a sharp rap with that beak.
Fifteen years ago, there were just a few of these curious birds on the property. Now their numbers have swollen to about 150 and it is impossible to walk very far without encountering one.
That achievement has much to do with the side of conservation that is not so sexy, but is essential – pest control.
In the case of the reserve, it means trapping rats, stoats and possums. Poisoning them would be easier, but also potentially harmful to other wildlife, so traps are used. Monitoring tunnels are employed to keep track of the presence of these pests.
That is important, because a significant development is at hand – the reintroduction to the peninsula of the rare New Zealand robin by the Department of Conservation. That is tentatively planned for the spring, Brian explains, but conditions need to be met before the 12 pairs can be released.
Stoat and rat numbers will have to stay down. There will also need to be a reliable water supply for the robins on a piece of land located in an area prone to drought. To that end, a system of three ponds is being built in the forest, with local companies sponsoring the materials.
But by far the biggest pending development is a one-kilometre fence, crossing the peninsula from shore to shore, which will keep out pigs and deer. Brian would love to put up a fully fledged predator fence, but for an operation that runs on the smell of an oily rag, the $300,000 cost is prohibitive. The pig and deer fence will cost one-tenth of that.
Appropriately, a new generation of robins is likely to be accompanied to the reserve by the new generation of Plaisiers, daughter Leona, 15, and son Liam, 13.
Brian says that the birds need a familiar presence to encourage them to stay, so the teens, who are as committed as their parents to this regeneration project, will likely spend some days with the birds in their current habitat before returning to the Sounds with them.
Leona and Liam already play many key roles on the reserve. Each of them has a young dog currently being trained to catch rodents, although that is a fairly painstaking process too. Before they are let off their leashes, their young handlers have to be sure they won't attack the wekas. Once fully certified, however, they will be invaluable in keeping pest numbers down.
Getting the project to the point it is now at would surely not have happened without the passionate belief of the family in its importance, particularly as it involves plenty of hard, physical work, such as keeping the dirt road from the wharf on Waitata Bay to the houses on the ridge above in reasonable order, without any immediate payoff.
Sometimes that work can be entrusted to those who travel to the reserve as part of a volunteer programme, but only when there are volunteers in residence.
It is a passion that looks certain to be passed on to the youngest member of the family, Esmae, 19 months, who will grow up without ever really knowing just how "stressed" the land was when her parents first saw it. As Brian explains, when they arrived, they had no camera, so there are no photographs of the site when the project started, just some old video footage, somewhere.