Hugh Wilson has always been an interesting neighbour to have, never having a car and only riding a bike on the steep roads, owning no TV or computer and writing hand written notes and newsletters that are hand delivered to our mailbox!
Hugh Wilson is a botanist, linguist, conservationist, visionary and absolute legend. He has also had a profound impact upon the land management and natural character of the wider Banks Peninsula area.
Hinewai Reserve was established in 1987, by Hugh Wilson and the Maurice White Native Forest Trust. Maurice was an accountant in Christchurch who was passionate about native birds and had been setting aside his own private funds for a native forest reserve for the protection of native birds.
Regenerating Farmland back to Forest
109ha of weed infested farmland and some of the last remaining beech forest was purchased and Hugh became the manager of this new reserve. The farmland was covered in gorse and the farmer had tried everything to clear the gorse, spraying, bulldozing, slashing and burning, but this only enhanced the conditions for gorse to grow. (Watch From Farmland to Forest HERE)
Hugh did a remarkable thing at the time, he let gorse grow! And the neighbours, my Dad included, thought he was absolutely crazy. As a child I remember the local farmers saying this guy is crazy, he is going to ruin our farms, this gorse will spread all over the place and bankrupt us! There was real and strong opposition. (Watch the documentary Fools & Dreamers HERE)
And then in 1988 Banks Peninsula experienced one of the worst droughts ever recorded, it was a long hot summer and farmers were really struggling, cattle were starving and Hugh let my father graze his cattle on Hinewai Reserve!
Back then there was enough grass remaining that it benefited native forest to reduce some of the grass, but my Dad was so impressed with Hugh’s generosity and practical nature that he was a fan for life.
My first real memory of Hugh and Hinewai is actually driving down one of the tracks in an old Land Rover to pick up some water tanks and troughs that were no longer needed. That track that we drove down is so narrow today that it’s only wide enough to walk one at a time. The kanuka trees on either side are high overhead and it’s almost impossible to imagine a vehicle ever having gone down there.
When I was ten I went on the ‘neighbours open day’ where Hinewai had invited the neighbouring families to come and understand what Hinewai was all about, I don’t remember anything but the bright yellow gorse – it was completely overwhelming – everything was yellow. Today that same track has only a few remaining old gorse bushes and all of the rest is native forest.
Native Birds of New Zealand Flourish Under Hugh’s Management
Not long afterwards I went to Hinewai for a walk and saw a little black and white bird squeaking in the beech forest. I had never seen such a bird on our farm right next door, so I went home and looked in the bird book to discover it was a tomtit.
I would take special note of the tomtits every time I visited Hinewai and over the years I noticed them expand out from the very centre of the reserve, eventually they were at the carpark and then a few years later, over the road. Then five years later I had the first encounter in our valley, and then heard them from our house! Now we hear them regularly and see them occasionally at home. This is all thanks to the native forest regeneration from Hinewai outwards.
Gorse the Ultimate Farm Weed, but Forest Friend
We’ve always had gorse on our farm, my father and his father before him have sprayed gorse all their life, and it’s a hard and unpleasant job. Farmers now use helicopters, and these can do an easy job, but they are indiscriminate in what they spray.
One day Dad had the helicopter spray gorse in a steep bluff, and then he received a letter from Hugh ‘telling him off’ for killing native plants. So Dad and Hugh went for a visit to the site and Dad came home talking of native orchids and other plants he had never before seen. They came up with a deal to subdivide the 5ha of gorse and bush which became Haley Bray and a permanent part of Hinewai. Dad didn’t have to spray the gorse anymore and Hugh was able to protect the forest from summit to valley floor.
Hinewai has expanded over the years, from that 109ha to managing 1570ha and growing. Now it runs from summit to sea (ki uta ki tai) and over two bays of Banks Peninsula. It is the largest private reserve in New Zealand and has many kilometers of free and open to the public walking tracks that link all the way to Akaroa.
What was once gorse or pasture has closed in to be largely native forest and is earning more in carbon credits than it ever did as farmland. And the neighbours are now using Hinewai’s technique to manage their gorse, fencing off the steep and difficult land and allowing it to regenerative to native forest, effectively removing the gorse in doing nothing! And in areas of nice pasture the gorse is still sprayed, allowing for well managed better quality farmland. It is possible now to regenerative native forest and have an income from that.
Hugh’s vision is for the protection of native plant ecosystems from summit to sea, on Banks Peninsula that is from 800m sub-alpine snow-tussock to coastal plants like Nikau just in a few kilometers. It protects the full range of habitats for native wildlife and protects some rare and threatened species that are not found elsewhere in Canterbury, some are even endemic and found no where else in the world.
Hugh Wilson the Legend
Hugh’s vision has come to life, and it’s lovely now to remind him of that when he is frustrated with a current short term problem; over my lifetime I have seen his vision become reality like a painting in slow motion. He is the one that has taught me that it is true, what you set your mind to you can achieve. To me it is this characteristic that makes him legendary.
Hugh has such a long list of talents and achievements, he can say hello in almost every language on the planet, he speaks te reo Maori almost fluently, he has published many books on botany and has written the botany bible of Banks Peninsula, his knowledge is tremendous, and he has a 35+ year record of the weather. But the thing that people love about Hugh is that he is personable and friendly, he stops to chat, and he loves to talk! He is a human, and that is what makes him a hero.
For more: Watch a local school students perspective in this National Outlook for Someday Winning Video HERE or read my public conversation with Hugh on Kanuka in the Akaroa Mail HERE