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Farmers give land away

Land & Water

The number of landowners who have put in place covenants on parts of their land for the good of nature is set to pass 4000 for the first time.

It is a great untold story of New Zealand landowners, mostly farmers, taking a selfless stand for good, said Mike Jebson. chief executive of the Queen Elizabeth II Trust. It works with private landowners, who make a contribution to conservation, including those making covenants to perpetually protect parts of their land.

Jebson spoke to the Sunday Star-Times after Labour sought to make political capital out conservation money being spent to eradicate pests from Great Mercury Island, owned by Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite.

The Government, which says endangered species don't care who owns the land they live on, funds the QEII Trust. At the end of June last year, the trust had 3803 registered covenants and the number was rising fast.

"We are just shy of 4000 registered covenants. That milestone will be coming up in the next 12 months. It's a huge achievement," said Jebson, who is due to announce new large covenants in coming weeks.

The area covered by the covenants is the size of three national parks, the Aoraki/Mt Cook, Egmont/Taranaki and Abel Tasman national parks, he said.

"It should be part of the New Zealand story because a lot of our covenants are on working farms," Jebson said.

A lot was heard about farmers and dirty dairying but almost nothing of their conservation efforts, he said.

"This is an untold story of New Zealand farmers and other landowners, which is helping to give real substance to New Zealand's clean, green international image," Jebson said in the trust's last annual report.

The trust was the brainchild of a farmer, Englishman Gordon Stephenson who so loved the Waikato land he farmed that he wanted to protect parts of it in perpetuity and with a group of like-minded farmers took his idea to government.

The private conservation estate plays a crucial role, Jebson said.

Because much of the state-owned conservation estate -roughly 30 per cent of the land in New Zealand - was created with high country land that was uneconomic to farm, much of the biodiversity of this country was not afforded the state's protection. The other 70 per cent was developed for agriculture and that's where we have had the biggest hit on our biodiversity, he said. There was little left of low-lying habitats where many plants and animals live.

"While the area we are protecting doesn't sound very large, we are talking about some of the most significant areas of that native biodiversity we have left," Jebson said.

He gives the example of one recent covenant in the Wairarapa where 60 per cent of what is thought to be New Zealand's second rarest tree are found.

It's not just biodiversity landowners covenant. Features of the landscape and Maori rock carvings are also covered.

The boom in covenanting is putting some pressure on the trust, however, which has had its funding frozen for the last five years. Covenanted land is inspected every second year, and technology to make monitoring more efficient has been invested in, with $400,000 spent on a system that Jebson says is drawing envy from peers in Australia.

"It's a constant challenge because with every covenant we take on a perpetual responsibility for monitoring that land," he said.

The trust is now seeking corporate sponsorship to raise the extra funds it needs.

"I'm in discussions with a couple of parties," he said.

And although the QEII Trust is well-known in rural New Zealand, urbanites hardly know of it. Jebson said that needs to change as there are opportunities to covenant in cities.

Covenanting is a big step as they can't be removed and are binding on future landowners. They can involve costs such as maintaining fencing and keeping weeds down.

But Jebson rejected fears that such a move affected the land's saleability. Anecdotal evidence was that covenants actually resulted in potential buyers seeing these properties as more special.

A similar organisation in Australia used to buy properties, covenant parts, and onsell them once the protection was in place. "In 75 per cent of cases, the market value of those properties went up," Jebson said.

Sunday Star-Times

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