Updated: Jul 19
Tukituki Land Care is celebrating all the great work being done by local farmers in the Tukituki sub-catchments. They met up with Ross and Claire McCormick whose battle with hillside erosion saw them create a poplar pole nursery on their farm in Hatuma.
Ross and Claire McCormick farm sheep and cattle on 500 hectares of hill country in the Maharakeke catchment. Ross is a second generation farmer on the property and wife Claire has lived on the farm for 34 years, since a chance meeting with Ross in Africa saw her leave England for the green hills of Hatuma.
In 2008, the McCormick family started planting willows and poplars on their farm to deal with hillside erosion, which was causing slips most years to one side of their farm. With help from family members, volunteers, and some paid help, they have now planted thousands of poplars and willows on the erosion prone land. Little did they know when they started, this journey would see them creating their own poplar and willow nursery with a variety of poplars and a vast knowledge gained through many lessons learnt.
Years ago, Claire’s father started growing poplars on his farm in Waikato. “He started with one tree and took cuttings from that, planted them and just kept going,” says Claire. Inspired by the idea, Claire decided to give it a go herself and started a small nursery using 300mm off-cuts. She now grows six different types of poplars. “I like the variety, it makes it more interesting. The various clones have different shapes and canopy cover, they lose their leaves at different times, and the autumn colours are varied”, says Claire. “It’s different to farm work, I find it relaxing to come here and prune away. I quite enjoy it actually”.
Poplars are a great choice for erosion prone hill country. They have an extensive, deep root network which prevents mass-movement from occurring during large-scale weather events, something that was witnessed by Ross and Claire in the aftermath of cyclone Gabrielle. They also work in shelter belts, reduce damage to watercourses and provide shade and shelter for stock. Their use as drought fodder has also been a saviour for many Hawke’s Bay farmers in the long, dry summers. “Poplars are perfect trees for hill country because they can be grown from poles and therefore can be planted in pasture without retiring the whole paddock,” adds Claire. Ross has not noticed a difference in their stocking rates. “Sometimes I think it creates a bit of a micro climate”, says Ross. “Perhaps it provides a bit more shelter from the wind so the grass grows more. It certainly provides shelter for the ewes and lambs”.
Claire’s father also introduced them to the opportunities provided by New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Poplar plantings are eligible to enter the ETS under the Exotic Hardwood category as long as the area and spacing meet the minimum eligibility requirements. Poplars and willows are rammed in at approximately 15-25m spacing which allows for livestock grazing with a minimal loss of productivity. “This seemed a win-win opportunity to control erosion and also produce extra income from the lower productive hill country” says Claire.
Like many farms in the area, cyclone Gabrielle wreaked havoc on their farming operation as well as their nursery. Large slips have washed away some planted areas and the Wharehungacreek that runs through their farm has, in places, changed its course. In the nursery, carefully laid weed mat is now covered in silt and grass and some trees have been uprooted. This year, they had hoped to harvest 600 poles from their own nursery but after the cyclone and the wet weather they may only get 200. Ross and Claire are encouraged however, to see the effect established trees have had on hillside erosion caused by the storm. “Where trees planted a few years earlier stand alongside more recently planted trees, you can really see the difference they have made,” says Ross. Whilst the cyclone brought too much rain to Hawke’s Bay, Ross and Claire have also had to deal with a number of Hawke’s Bay droughts. In 2019 they planted 1200 poles on the farm but it was a very dry summer and they lost a large number of the trees. They have spent the last few years replacing these and have therefore been unable to expand their planted areas as much as they hoped. Luckily though, the last few years have been great for pole survival.
Ross and Claire have learnt a lot over the years through trial and error and they have also sought advice from HBRC. “We are getting better at it,” says Claire. “In the nursery we have now started to plant the poles further apart. They grow more quickly if they have more space”. Transferring the poplars out onto the farm has also been challenging at times. “You learn where to put them, that is half the trick”, says Ross. “You need to plant them where they will grow rather than where you want them. We used to put them in ridges that were too dry. Where there have been slips you learn not to put them in the hollow”. “Starting a poplar nursery really is something that any farmer could give a go”, says Claire.
Ross and Claire started their nursery in a small flat area with fertile, well drained soil. You can start a nursery with just a handful of 300mm segments of one year old poplar. The original stools remain in the ground year after year producing 2-3 poplar poles ready to plant out. The tops of the trees are removed before planting but these are not wasted, instead they are used to expand the nursery. Ross and Claire have adapted their techniques over the years. They have started giving the poles more space in the nursery so the new trees do not compete for nutrients and light. They now store the newly cut 300mm cuttings in bags in the freezer until they are ready to plant into the nursery. They cut their poles slightly shorter than the recommended 3m to 2.5m so that they are easier to carry out and plant on the farm with a waratah rammer. This year they have started using a fungal spray when harvesting to prevent silver leaf. Every year they are learning and making changes, but most importantly, every year they keep growing and planting moretrees.
For advice on controlling hill country erosion with poplars and willows as well as information on available funding, contact - waiting for details from HBRC. To learn more about Tukituki Land Care head to www.tukitukilandcare.org or check them out on facebook.
In the McCormick poplar/willow nursery… Crows Nest - Moderately fast growth. Narrow crown but very strong. Suitable for erosion control and shelter belts Veronese - Fast growing and narrow crown. Some tolerance for drier sites. Not ideal for windy sites Yunnanensis - Leaves hold on a lot longer. More possum resistant. Don’t grow as straight. Fraser - Moderate growth and a narrower crown. Suitable for dry, windy sites Otahuao - Fast growing, heavier limbed tree Kawa - Fast growing, pretty tree with late leaf fall Tongoio Willow - Especially bred for hill country planting