Forgotten corners: Boosting biodiversity on Marlborough vineyards

Winepress | Sophie Preece – 12/8/19

Pernod Ricard's Kaituna wetlands project has seen large numbers of natives planted | Derek Flynn
Pernod Ricard’s Kaituna wetlands project has seen large numbers of natives planted | Derek Flynn

Thousands of “forgotten corners” in Marlborough vineyards could be planted with native species, enriching the region’s biodiversity. That might require a change in mindset for growers who like their rows straight and their fence lines sprayed, says Marlborough District Council environmental scientist Matt Oliver.

But it would help mitigate the monoculture of Marlborough, he adds. “We have imposed our will on nature across the Wairau and Awatere Plains. The very least you can do is give up a bit of control in these little pockets of land.”

He describes forgotten corners as “the annoying space that every vineyard manager has in their vineyard, whether it’s a funny shaped piece that is not big enough for vines or a few sheep or a drain that you have to spray twice a year”.

Planting those areas in native grasses, flax and kowhai would cost a few hundred dollars. They will require a bit of weeding initially but this could be done in the time operators would have otherwise have spent backing the tractor in to spray, he says. “In a few years’ time, you might have tui in the kowhai and giant kokopu in the drain. You’ll find you’ve saved a bit of money and done something good. It might even make a good photo for your marketing.” Wine Marlborough advocacy manager Vance Kerslake says the organisation fully supports industry front-footing biodiversity projects.

“We sponsor the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards and love to see and promote the work being done by growers and wine companies to mitigate monoculture,” he says. “Industry members are increasingly seeing how important that is for the environment, primarily, but also how it adds richness to the story of individual companies, as well as the reputation of brand Marlborough.” MDC biodiversity coordinator Mike Aviss, who runs the Significant Natural Areas project, as well as Tui to Town, says the plains have lost 99 per cent of their natural cover since Europeans settled here. “All the drainable wetlands have virtually been drained, along with the
kahikatea and swamp forest. This was once a huge wetland system.”

With every change in land use there’s loss of native land cover, he says. That is certainly true of vineyard conversions, which typically run in straight lines, putting creeks and trees at risk. “It really depends on how focused the developer is on wanting to get the most out of the land,” says Mike. “Whether they are driven by converting every inch to grapes, or see themselves as part of the landscape, and can see the value in keeping areas of natural habitat.”

Some companies already have biodiversity targets that include small pockets of new plantings or large expanses of restored natives, including Pernod Ricard’s Kaituna wetland, Wither Hills‘ nationally significant Rarangi wetland, and Spy Valley‘s Hillocks Rd restoration. “There are some pretty neat forgotten corners out there,” says Matt. “But there are so many more to develop.” The Forgotten Corners is not a council policy, but Council can assist with funding through the Tui to Town project and other funding to assist landowners. In the meantime, Matt and Mike hope vineyard owners will spring the $2.50 for a native grass or $3.50 for a kowhai and do their bit for biodiversity.

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