A Wetland from a Puddle

While many rural landowners have been draining their swamps, one conservationist has put the plug back in to create a watery home for birdlife. By Jolene Williams.

Graham Booth is somewhat of a pioneer when it comes to creating private wetlands. When the former builder embarked on his retirement project to turn 12 hectares of marginal pasture and pine blocks into a swampy haven, there was very little information available about how to go about it.

Fast-forward a decade and people can go straight to their regional councils, receive financial assistance from the Department of Conservation and draw on expertise of organisations like the National Wetland Trust. Graham’s since made use of the resources, funding and advice.

“But it wasn’t like that 11 years ago. This last decade local bodies have really embraced the idea of wetlands.” In those early years, he got some good advice from a couple of wetland enthusiasts. 

But Graham was largely guided by his own initiative and through trial and error for his project north of Ötaki, on the Kapiti Coast. “I knew this had been a wetland in the past and I knew it wasn’t working as pasture. [The previous owner] was siphoning out the water to keep the bottom part of his pasture dry, so if there was an extra amount of rain in the system, it couldn’t cope. [I knew] it had the potential to be a big body of water.”

You’ve got to ask, though, having reached retirement age, why bother? “I just thought it might be a good idea. But if my wife was here, I know what she’d say. She would’ve said I don’t buy anything that isn’t a challenge and has no potential.”

Graham’s first step was to observe the land. It’s sage advice for would-be wetland owners. “Don’t hurry in there,” he says. “Observe the place and see how it ticks over” before devising a plan. And once you have a plan, be prepared to experiment and modify your original ideas.

Resource consents from the council were sought, then earthworks contractors were hired to create 12 small islands for potential habitats in the shallow lake. Graham stresses the importance of creating sloping sides. “They’ve got to be gently sloping sides so birds can access them easily. You also need an edge for waders like the New Zealand shoveller and pied stilts to feed.”

Graham put an end to siphoning out water and waited for the water level to build up. All three hectares of pine trees were cleared, and a wide range of natives have either grown naturally or been planted in their place. There are sedges, rushes, flaxes, toetoe, cabbage trees, coprosmas, pittosporums and many others. Lush bush cloaks surrounding hills and the sevenyear-old flaxes reach about five metres high.

Graham is thinking long term, and has planted a few kahikatea and  pukatea trees that will form a canopy in 100 years or so. Planting has been the primary task. It’s taken eight years of solid work to plant several thousand plants. It’s the most time-consuming and expensive part, Graham says, but also the most important to get right.

It’s essential to choose the plants suited to the micro-environment. Plant species that grow well in your area, he suggests. And choose the site carefully. Flaxes and kahikatea, for example, thrive near water but not in it.

The size of seedlings is also important. Younger seedlings are cheaper, but need more attention. So you’ve got to balance any cost savings with how many you’ll lose through weeds, pests and exposure. That’s why Graham grows flax seedlings in his nursery for two years before planting them. Empty milk bottles and a stake provide extra support for vulnerable plants, as well as protection from grazing wildlife, especially pükeko.

If you build a habitat, the birds will come. Game birds, especially, flock to Graham’s wetland when hunting season is in full swing. He wants to attract ones that spread tree seeds as they’ll introduce other local plant species from beyond the wetland and increase the biodiversity. “Once you’ve got a wetland up, all those birds we have came of their own accord. All we’ve done is created a habitat. There are plants emerging now without my planting them.”

It’s attracted a wide range of birds. Swans, ducks, pükeko, kererü, tüï, fantails, New Zealand shovellers, grey teals, pied stilts and Canadian geese are all regular visitors. It’s a good day if dotterels, royal spoonbills, white-faced herons or shags are spotted, and under the water threatened longfin eels have found a home. Of special note is a group of 25 to 30 threatened dabchicks that have settled in the wetland, and some are breeding there.

Graham has to battle all the usual weed suspects: barberry, blackberry, gorse and old man’s beard. “But you can’t go releasing them all [from weeds and grasses]. You’d never get anything else done. You tend to overplant because you know you’re going to lose some.”

Predators are less of a problem. But Graham endeavours to keep ferrets, stoats and rats in check. Word has spread and Graham’s retirement project has attracted wider interest. He’s often asked for advice by other landowners keen to create their own wetlands.

Outside groups, including Forest & Bird’s Horowhenua branch and local bird watching groups, have discovered the natural richness of his backyard. All the wetland will be placed under a QEII covenant to safeguard its future. But now Graham is enjoying the spoils of 12 years’ hard work.

“For me there’s quite a spiritual element about it,” he says. “I probably don’t sit back and enjoy it enough, but even just working down there can be a very satisfying thing. Other times I look at it and think I own all this, but I don’t really. I feel like I’m a custodian. I’ve taken responsibility for it. It’s a pretty amazing place. It blows me away sometimes."