Francis and Shireen Helps, Flea Bay, Banks Peninsula

September 2007
The Banks Peninsula Track was New Zealands first private walkway, opened 18 years ago as a means of earning off-farm income for cash-strapped farmers on small but scenic coastal farms.

Flea Bay is one property crossed by the track, farmed by Francis and Shireen Helps. Farming, conservation and tourism go hand in hand for the couple, who farm Flea Bay in partnership with Franciss brother Stephen and his wife Pam, along with the home farm at Akaroa.

Today tourism earns roughly 30% of Francis and Shireens income. Around 5000 visitors come to Flea Bay each year, now not just to walk the Banks Peninsula Track but also to visit a penguin colony and enjoy kayaking tours.

The Helps highly value the forest on their property and have both donated land to the conservation estate and created conservation covenants. They voluntarily control pests which threaten nesting penguins at the Pohatu Marine Reserve.

Francis and Shireens families have farmed on Banks Peninsula for four generations. The couple owns the Flea Bay property where they live and the Helps home property at Akaroa, in partnership with Franciss brother Stephen and his wife Pam.

Combined, the two properties total 700 hectares running 1600 breeding ewes and 40 cows with most stock bred at Flea Bay and finished at Akaroa on improved pastures and brassica fodder crops. Canterburys weather allowing, all stock are finished to maximise income.

Francis and Stephen bought the two farms that make up the 500 hectare Flea Bay property in 1969; rough and rundown but with the potential for this harder, colder country to complement the easier Akaroa run.

While the two farms are run as one business, Francis and Stephen are responsible for the day to day management of their home farm, combining forces at pressure times like shearing and tailing. Francis and Shireens son Daniel has now joined the farming team.

Lambing starts in mid September for the around 500 Perendale ewes run at Flea Bay farm, with a just over 130% drop the norm. A first draft of lambs is sold off their mothers in late January with the rest heading over the hill to Akaroa to be finished on brassica fodder crops with a draft taken off every month. There are still 150 of last seasons lambs remaining and these tail-enders usually sell well when lambs are in short supply. Dorset Down rams are used over some of the older ewes.

Lambing starts a month earlier on the warmer Akaroa farm with the first draft usually away before Christmas.

Francis believes traditional sheep and cattle breeds do best in the tough conditions at Flea Bay. An experiment with Simmental cattle failed, because although they grew well, they had a tendency to grass-ski down the hillside.

Angus and Angus Hereford cross calves are bred at Flea Bay then run at Akaroa for about two years, when they are sold prime mostly on the local market in October/November. We tend to use fattening stock for pasture control. Over winter, there are cattle in most paddocks cleaning them up before lambing.

Recently, Hereford bloods been bred back into the Angus mob as the cross does especially well on the property. The Hereford bulls come from a neighbour and the Angus from Te Mania stud in North Canterbury, with temperament a high priority. Francis has moved on from the box on short legs cattle type preferred by his father, saying that length of leg is essential when it comes to moving around the rough hill country.

The Banks Peninsula Track was launched when several neighbours all already tapping into farm tourism to counter the farming downturn agreed to establish the two to four day walk with four overnight stops.

The track passes through six private properties, plus DoC land. Four landowners, including the Helps, offer accommodation. All meet regularly as directors of Banks Peninsula Track Ltd.

Walkers are charged $225 for the four-day option, the fee covering transport and accommodation but not food. The money goes into a single account with administration costs (including marketing and booking office fees) deducted and the rest distributed to cover land-crossing fees, transport and accommodation.

Each individual property pays for its own track maintenance; just as important as drenching at this time of year, says Francis.

The Helps guests stay in a 150-year-old farm cottage. When the walkways in full swing, Pam gives Shireen a hand with cleaning. The walking season begins at the beginning of October and runs until the end of May.

Offshore from Flea Bay is the 230 hectare Pohatu Marine Reserve. The largest Australasian Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand Pohatu - is located on the Flea Bay property and adjoining farmland, with around 2000 birds present for much of the year.

For 20 years, Francis and Shireen have worked to protect white-flippered penguins - Canterbury's own subspecies of Australasian little penguin. Yellow-eyed penguins also breed here.

Their nesting habitat is managed by light grazing with sheep only (as cattle trample penguin burrows) and trapping programmes. Using 120 traps, 44 stoats have been caught in the last year (down from a high of 80), 20 cats and no ferrets (compared with 40 in the first year). Another conservation project is building and monitoring artificial nest sites.

Around 10-15 man-hours a week are spent on penguin conservation, says Shireen. The satisfying result has been a 5.6% annual increase in the penguin population; as good as you can get with the birds laying only two eggs a year.

The conservation work is a labour of love, although grants have been received from the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust and Transpower plus visitors often make donations.

The penguins are a major draw-card for the Banks Peninsula Track. Also, Shireen runs a Pohatu Penguins business which offers tours around the colony and kayaking business Pohatu Plunge. Two 4WD vans were purchased to transport visitors from Akaroa.

Another attraction is Banks Peninsula tree weta, easily seen in weta hotels especially built for them by Shireen.

Pohatu was gazetted as a Marine Reserve in 1999, the Helps suspect by default after they became active in a local lobby group which pushed for a reserve to be created in Akaroa Harbour. One motivation was the number of penguins being drowned in set-nets, and found dead on the beach the next day.

With three tourism businesses to run, the Helps have their property to themselves for only the four months from June until the end of September.

I love our isolation at Flea Bay but I also love sharing this special place with lots of people, says Shireen.

About 80 hectares of the combined Akaroa and Flea Bay properties is protected by conservation covenants.

Francis is a member of the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust management committee, the only body outside QEII and DoC that has covenanting authority. The Helps have covenanted four hectares of lowland podocarp forest on the Akaroa property with this local trust.

We believe that rather than using regulation, local government should encourage conservation on private land, he says.

Francis was 21 and Stephen just 20 when they bought the Flea Bay farm in 1969, with next to nil equity. Probably 20 years before their time, they took an objective look at a farm that was mostly covered with gorse with many fences lying flat and decided to manage the land for both for production and conservation.

Suitable country was fenced and cleaned up and gorse was to be left to regenerate to bush. Contact with Canterbury botanist Brian Molloy enthused them about native species present, including all five species of tree fern.

A first step towards conservation was donating 11 hectares of original red beech forest to the Department of Conservation (then the Department of Lands and Survey), now the Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve. Ironically, DoC now charges the Banks Peninsula Track for walker access through the Scenic Reserve!

This was in the early days of the QEII National Conservation Trust and although we would have liked to have retained title to this land, we couldnt have afforded fencing the forest to keep out cattle which were doing damage, Francis recalls.

Today, land set aside for conservation includes one third of 90 hectares of penguin habitat, covenanted with QEII. Twenty hectares was bought especially for this purpose, with assistance from QEII and the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust. The remaining 10 hectares is under a QEII heritage covenant, as it takes in archaeological sites including remnants of Maori kumara gardens where charcoal was added to the soil as a conditioner and beach single to hold heat and moisture.

Nineteen hectares of regenerating mixed hardwood bush and five hectares of red beech have also been covenanted with QEII with another regenerating coastal forest covenant in the pipeline.

On the productive country, native regeneration is controlled to keep the land clear.