MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE – The Marlborough Express
The on Tui’t family
For 15 years one family has slogged to return a slice of New Zealand to its native splendour.
Now, the award-winning Tui Nature Reserve is moving ahead faster than ever.
It was 15 years ago that Brian and Ellen Plaisier arrived on an uninhabited but pest-ridden Marlborough Sounds peninsula, set up their tent and got to work.
Plunged into a life that was a far cry from Auckland, from where they had just come, and an even further cry from their native Netherlands, the Plaisiers in their little tent were battered by storms, went hungry when weather prevented their supplies from arriving, and had their bank account stretched to breaking point.
All because Brian and Ellen had stood on top of this 160-hectare peninsula and had seen the devastation caused by animals pests which had taken over. Standing in the same place today, it is hard to imagine Ellen’s description of bare tree tops, dying stumps and grey shrub, with only a few ancient trees surviving the onslaught of possums, stoats, rats and pigs. There was no food for the birds or lizards, and the peninsula was silent.
Now the peninsula’s regenerating forest canopy is a lush green, the forest floor is alive with the rustling of wekas, and the tree tops are full of the sound of tuis, bellbirds, fat native pigeons and fantails.
Brian and Ellen jumped straight into the deep end when they made the life-changing decision to buy the peninsula and return it to its former splendour.
Back then, their knowledge of New Zealand’s ecosystem was about as slim as their finances.
But they quickly built up their knowledge with help from the Department of Conservation, possum trappers and books.
A decision not to use poison for pest control except for wasps meant the work was slow and arduous. Hours were spent setting, checking, emptying and resetting traps. Brian estimates they trapped and killed about 3000 possums, more than 1000 bush rats and hundreds of pigs, as well as stoats which were blatantly stealing birds’ eggs.
More hours were spent clearing the peninsula of weeds smothering what remained of the native bush. It took five years for the native bush to begin to bounce back.
Just getting the groceries was a mission of epic proportions, because not only is the Outer Pelorus Sound peninsula accessible only by boat, but from the beach, a month’s worth of food had to be carried 50 metres up a steep, muddy hill to where the Plaisiers had set up home.
It was a rough life of hard work riddled with setbacks.
But the Plaisiers had never been so happy. A seemingly far-fetched dream to restore this barren, grey peninsula, stripped bare by pest animals, was starting to take shape, inch by hard-earned inch.
The Tui Nature Reserve was born. Volunteers came from around the world to visit this extraordinary place and help.
The Plaisiers had 38 hectares of land placed under an open space covenant through the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust.
The birds started to come back. The kohe kohe, a tree threatened with extinction on the mainland because of possums, began to flower, which gave the Plaisiers a huge boost of confidence.
Ellen and Brian’s children, Leona, 14, and Liam, 12, have been an important part of the peninsula’s restoration through the physical work they willingly put in and the huge wealth of knowledge they built as they grew up.
Leona is the keeper of the red-crowned kakariki (parakeet) that live in the reserve’s aviary, while Liam takes charge of the geckos and skinks in another enclosure. Leona and Liam have inherited their parents’ passion for conservation and love to share it with others. Visitors to the reserve are invited on a tour given by the pair, who impart their wealth of knowledge of the trees, plants and animals that live in their backyard.
The family lives in a home that Brian built from recycled materials. Solar panels provide power, backed by a generator. The Plaisiers have a compost toilet and use only eco-friendly cleaning products. Heating is simply a fireplace, but even that may soon be replaced with a greener solution, such as a pellet burner.
The house, the guest cottage, the eco-lodge and the new bird and gecko enclosures blend in with the surroundings so well that from the sea the peninsula looks uninhabited. Leona and Liam are home-schooled at the family dining table that looks across the peninsula over the Sounds to the open sea. There, the outside world passes by in the form of mussel boats and the occasional container ship.
Eight months ago, the Plaisiers welcomed a fifth member to their family, Esmae.
Feisty and with big inquiring blue eyes, Esmae arrived just in time to witness great change on the nature reserve.
Soon after her birth, the Plaisiers entered the reserve into the Marlborough Environment Awards. They had never entered before and did so after encouragement from Marlborough District Council staff who had supported the Plaisiers on projects and when applying for funds.
The judges came, and the Plaisiers prepared to visit Blenheim for the awards night in early May. What they had not prepared for was that they would win not only the habitat award but also the supreme award.
The judges called the project inspiring, particularly to those who thought the environmental crisis was too big a task for one person or family to tackle.
They said the Plaisiers were future-proofing by looking forward to the generations who would benefit from their work.
The Plaisiers could not believe they had won. After 15 years of quietly working away, out of the public eye, a huge crowd of people were applauding them and with that, the Tui Nature Reserve was thrust into the limelight.
With the win came $3000 in prize money, a pot of gold for the Plaisiers, who have largely funded the entire project themselves through their small eco-accommodation and tour business and a very understanding bank manager.
About the same time, they were told their application for two years of funding from the Biodiversity Fund and a grant from the Marlborough District Council had also been successful.
With such financial resources a rarity on the Tui Nature Reserve, the Plaisiers have allocated their funds carefully.
The winnings from the Environment Awards will go towards building nesting chambers along the shore of the peninsula for little blue penguins.
Brian says the penguins already come to the peninsula and, with their numbers under threat, shelters to keep them safe are important. How many shelters are built depends on how far the money stretches.
After a visit from a Marlborough District Council consultant who did a report on predator control on the peninsula, it was decided the biodiversity grant would be turned into rat traps and monitoring funnels. The funnels contain an ink pad so that whatever goes in leaves footprints, revealing what animal it was.
Brian says the opportunity to increase rat control to such a level is hugely important to the reserve, because at present, rats are only a by-catch of the pest-control operation.
“I think in a few months after we start (rat control), we will end up with a lot more birdlife,” Brian says.
“The food chain is restored, but the rats are always a weak spot.”
But the only way of totally restoring the peninsula, and coming as close as possible to ousting all the pests is a predator-proof fence.
The fence would stretch across the peninsula from coast to coast, cutting off the Tui Nature Reserve from the mainland.
Once the fence is in place, the Plaisiers can begin to slowly, carefully, reintroduce species that once roamed the peninsula. It is the ultimate reward for a family that has dedicated their lives to this cause.
But, of course, the fence comes at a great cost in the area of $200,000 and the Plaisiers need help to pay for it.
They hope publicity gained by winning the Marlborough Environment Awards will help attract new company partnerships.
Recently, New Zealand King Salmon was the first to sign up for a two-year sponsorship.
For the Plaisiers, life is suddenly a whirlwind where work that would have taken them years to complete has been fast-forwarded.
The last month has been amazing, says Ellen. As the project moves into a new stage, the Plaisiers hope to attract students who are doing conservation work to come and bring their specialist skills to the peninsula.
Until now, international volunteers have been perfect for bringing much-needed elbow grease and a myriad of skills that have all been helpful, but Brian says attracting students is part of the overall vision of turning the reserve into an educational resource.
The Plaisier family is thrilled at how far they have come, but are realistic that there is still a lot of work ahead of them. Pest control must continue, even when the fence is eventually built, because pests have ways of sneaking back.
In the meantime there is a bird pond to be built, wildlife permits to apply for, penguin shelters to install and many, many other jobs.
For Ellen and Brian a major achievement is seeing their children grow up in the safe, free environment they created and knowing that, should they choose it, the reserve and its eco spin-offs can be their future.
“There is a second generation coming after us who can enjoy it. This is about the future, very much so,” says Ellen.