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Bird lovers' paradise in the making

Lockdown is no holiday for Claudia Babirat and Peter Preston, who are working hard to make dreams of native regeneration a reality on their lifestyle block south of Dunedin.

The couple have been busier than ever under the Government's Level Four lockdown restrictions, settling into the home they finished building just one week before lockdown and laying plans to create a habitat where native flora and fauna will thrive. The site overlooks part of the 17km long beach connecting Brighton and Taieri Mouth, and Claudia and Pete have big goals for what is currently 2.4ha of retired farmland.

“A lot of our new ‘neighbourhood’ is farmland with tongues of regenerating bush in the gullies, backed by a mixture of pine plantation and more regenerating bush,” Claudia explains. “Our block has two gullies and a little wetland area. The north-facing gully has some mature regenerating kānuka, which is our favourite tree - we want to add to these. 

We’ve already planted out some harakeke and a mixture of eco-sourced trees that we’ve bought at various plant sales over the last two years, and are really excited to add 500 more trees this planting season thanks to Trees That Count.”

Peter is currently focused on shifting fencelines to allow new plantings to follow the lay of the land, while Claudia is scrub-cutting and trapping to ensure the sites are properly prepared for the coming planting season. The couple are well equipped for the work, both raised in rural areas and with a keen awareness of the importance of being environmental kaitiaki.

“Peter and I both grew up where people know they depend on the land. The healthier it is, the more rewarding it is — in the sense of nourishing us and wildlife, but also in the sense of simple aesthetic pleasure.”

Increasing biodiversity is a key element of Claudia and Peter’s plans for the land. “There are plenty of pīwakawaka, korimako, kahu and grass skinks around, and we would love to provide them with even more habitat. But I’d also like to attract birds that I haven’t seen here yet: especially kererū and tūī.”

“We also want to plant plenty of kānuka for the bees (both my honey bees and native bees). Kānuka is the dominant pioneer species present in our area and we want to stay in keeping with what is currently here, including other coastal forest species.”  

Other native trees Claudia has plans to plant with Trees That Count funding include kōwhai and kahikatea. She has been working closely with John Barkla, a community ranger at the Department of Conservation, who developed Project Gold - a community programme encouraging eco-sourced kōwhai planting throughout Otago. “I’m also excited about planting a few kahikatea in the little wetland area,” she enthuses. “There are a few remnant kahikatea in Woodhaugh Gardens in Dunedin’s Town Belt, and they’re absolutely spectacular.”

The couple describe their eventual goal as living in a “bird-lover’s paradise” — among other things. “To give back to the land, to reinvigorate retired farmland, to keep encouraging all the amazing invertebrates we have here from huhu beetles to cicadas, to support our copious grass skinks by balancing treed areas with low scrub and open areas, and maybe one day to also host native geckos and giant stick insects. Eventually, we want to live on a property that is full of kai - for the wildlife and also for us.”

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done on the land, but Claudia and Peter are undeterred by the hard toil ahead. “This is simply who we are. We both love spending time in our country’s amazing natural areas — by lakes, rivers, in the native bush and the mountains, hiking, hunting, fishing — but feel that we shouldn’t need to be driving elsewhere to enjoy nature. We want to retro-fit nature back into the land around us so we can enjoy it right here from our deck.”