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Episode 3: Penguin Paradise


Penguin Paradise

Banks Peninsula farmers Francis and Shireen Helps are proving that farming and conservation can go successfully hand in hand.

Their farm at Flea Bay, on the southeast tip of the peninsula, features on this week's Country Calendar.

As well as running sheep and beef cattle on their rugged 500-hectare farm, the Helps devote long hours to conservation - and thanks to them, the once endangered local penguin colony is now thriving.

Francis and his younger brother Steve bought Flea Bay in 1969.  Back then the property was run down and covered in gorse, with barely a fence standing.

Young, fit and keen, the brothers got rid of the gorse and re-fenced the farm - but at the same time they fenced off the bushy gullies and remaining stands of bush, some of which are now permanently protected by covenant..

A few years later Francis married Shireen and the couple now farm Flea Bay together, in partnership with Steve and his wife Pam, who now live on another farm on easier country closer to Akaroa.  The two properties are run as one, with stock bred at Flea Bay and finished at Akaroa.

In the 1970s Francis and Shireen noticed the local colony of white flippered penguins was in decline and realised if they didn't do something the penguins would disappear.

The little penguins' main enemies are stoats and ferrets, along with cats, rats and even hedgehogs, so the Helps started a trapping programme which has been hugely successful in reducing predator numbers.

As the penguin population has grown, so too has the demand for housing, so Francis and Shireen build nesting boxes which are eagerly occupied by breeding pairs.

Flea Bay is well known to walkers on the Banks Peninsula Track which winds its through the property and round its spectacular, high-cliffed coastline. They stop overnight at the bay and stay in a restored century-old farm cottage.

The track was the first privately owned farm track in New Zealand and was opened in 1989.  At the time when the Helps and their farming neighbours were under huge financial pressure, suffering the combined effects of an end to subsidies and a devastating drought.

Desperate to generate extra income, they joined together and formed the track, hoping people would be prepared to pay to walk it and stay in their accommodation.  The venture was a huge success and now thousands of trampers walk it every year, providing a significant part of the Helps' income.

And for those who want a close-up view of the local wildlife - which as well as white flippered penguins, includes seals, Hectors dolphins and other sea birds - Shireen runs a small fleet of sea kayaks.

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