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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 20, 2022

Essay on Sunday: Tales of suburban creep

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As much of our most fertile land is sucked into residential sprawl, Venetia Sherson reflects on the semi-rural land around her home, and two neighbours, each with very different takes on how to make the most of their property.

I stood outside our house this week and watched the procession of wildlife. Two cock pheasants stalked the gully edge, defending their harems of hens and chicks from marauders, while keeping a wary eye on each other in case their lines were breached; three matuku (white-faced heron) swooped to their nests in an ancient pine. With luck, they would later come down to earth to forage for insects and spiders. A lone tūi braved the 20 metres of open ground between the dense gully bush, replanted in natives, and a nectar feeder near the house.  In the early evening, it had the bar to itself.  Even the belligerent magpies know better than to approach a tūi during happy hour. 

To observe the seasonal rhythm of fauna in the country is deeply soothing. It is also one of the pleasures of living in the countryside, as more New Zealanders are discovering. While lifestyle block sales dipped this year in line with urban residential sales, in the past 25 years, lifestyle property sales have increased at a faster rate than residential sales. In the year ended March 2021, 8946 lifestyle blocks were sold, nearly 25 per cent more than the same period the year before. That trend is predicted to continue when inflation eases and in the wake of the pandemic as more people opt to work from home. 

But the demand is not without its headaches for councils and landowners. Fragmentation leads to the loss of productive land. Many of the most desirable sites for rural residential living contain high quality soils, reducing the area available for horticulture and pastoral farming.  The trend towards smaller blocks exacerbates the problem. In the 1970s, when councils adapted their district schemes to allow rural land bordering cities to be subdivided down to 10-acre (4ha) blocks, hobby farmers could at least grow crops, run sheep, or fatten stock. But today’s demand is for much smaller parcels. According to the real estate institute of New Zealand, the median size of a lifestyle block last year was 1.94ha, barely enough room to swing a chicken coop, although many owners do. In 2018, our local body, Waikato District Council, noted that between 2005 and 2016, seven out of 10 consents for new dwellings in the Rural Zone were on properties less than 2ha. “Recent trends indicate that 50 per cent of the growth predicted for the district may seek to live in rural residential environments,” it said. 

We moved to the countryside more than 35 years ago. The location appealed because of its proximity to Hamilton where we worked, and its tranquility. The community was a mix of horticulturists, dairy farmers, equestrians, and gallery owners. There was a small model country school – the place where new residents with children got to know each other. Most of them were block owners. They had day jobs in the city, but also grew blueberries, strawberries, and asparagus which they sold at stalls or the local market. The soil in these parts – a rich silty loam – is fertile and bounteous, a fact recognised by the first cultivators, Ngati Hauā, who grew wheat, kumara and taro until their land was confiscated by the government in 1864.

Our motives for moving to a rural location did not include farming, but we did hanker for The Good Life. After years of repairing and renovating a century-old city villa, we wanted less DIY and more time and SKB (space to kick a ball) with our young sons. The property we bought had a modest house. Half the land was flat, the remainder in steep gully. There were also sheep.

Initially, I fancied the idea of a small flock on my doorstep. It gave the property purpose, plus they kept the grass mown. One day I noticed a ewe with something protruding from her butt. Not being a midwife, I called the local vet. “I think she may have a prolapsed uterus,” I said. “What’s her name?” he asked, being used to lifestyle farmers. Our neighbour, a retired sheep farmer offered to take a look. But on his goodwill mission across the paddocks, he was felled by our ram, aptly named Rambo. The farmer’s dog, a seasoned old campaigner, kept the attacker at bay until his owner staggered to his feet. He offered to slit Rambo’s throat.

It soon became clear we were not cut out for sheep. Weekends were spent dagging (divesting bums of poo-encrusted wool) or treating foot rot, which involves cutting back the hoof with shears, while avoiding flesh. It’s a messy job and backbreaking. The smell of rot is vile. Because I feared drawing blood, my attempts were more like a pedicure, which did nothing for the disease. The neighbour, who was still speaking to us then, suggested I instead oversee the footbath. The flock was eventually despatched to a more dedicated farm. For many years, the paddocks were leased to a stock agent to graze cattle.

Sheep: picturesque lawnmower or high maintenance drain on your time? (Photo: Getty Images)

I tell all this because it demonstrates that while many of us love the countryside for its looks, we may have very different views about its purpose. Which brings me to our neighbours.

Long after the sheep had departed and the stock agent had moved on, our council again reviewed its district plan. Responding to increased demand for smaller properties with less maintenance, it allowed up to two additional lots to be created from a minimum of 3.9ha (1.3ha average) and a minimum of 5000 sqm for additional lots. Around us, the diggers moved in. Our neighbours came closer. We resisted for a bit, but the kids had flown the coop and we were nudging 60.    

In 2006 our property was carved into four sections, two on flat land; the third – like ours – with a steep gully aspect. A young couple bought the gully section. When the deed of sale was signed, they drank champagne on the empty site. They also cut down a shady belt of macrocarpa. The second section was bought by a paediatrician, a counsellor, and their family. They put in a pool but kept the grass as open space for games.  

The last section went to a couple from Kāwhia. I worried about that property. Its most striking feature was a non-native but majestic pin oak (Quercus palustris) with a branch span of some 14m, under which stock once sheltered from the sun. The tree was vulnerable to building plans, especially for a large home. But the new neighbours loved the tree and kept it. They also planted weeping cherry blossom trees along the driveway and other trees between our properties.

In 2009, new owners bought the gully property. They were originally from China and spoke no English, but their adult daughter who lived with them brought across a batch of biscuits to introduce herself. Within weeks, her father began to dig and plant.

The property with the oak also changed hands. Eventually, a young family moved in. The children started at the local primary school. The oldest boy fashioned a soccer pitch on the lawn as our boys had done. Soon, a swimming pool was excavated. The kids loved it and, at night, the adults and their friends relaxed on gigantic floating conversation pits. We could hear their chatter and the clink of glasses. Later, a cabana the size of a tiny home was added by the pool. A tennis court was laid on along the back of the property where the boy had kicked his football. A putting green joined the list. An arborist was engaged to fell several of the cherry trees. “The petals fall in the pool,” he explained. I cast an anxious look at the deciduous oak. The trees along our boundary fence were also felled. A double garage was added and a boatshed.

The gully neighbour, now in his seventies, continued to dig and hoe the land. Rows of neatly spaced squash, radishes, lemongrass, bok choy, broccoli, and spinach have now replaced all but a small patch of lawn. Dozens of triangular bamboo climbing frames resemble tiny tepees. There are two greenhouses. The gully, which is steep and hazardous for all but the sure-footed, has been transformed into neat terraces of produce bedded in raised mounds like puke used by Māori to grow kūmara.

 Tending the terraced garden requires stooping, lifting, bending, and slogging up and down the slope in all weathers. Our neighbour moves up and down like a mountain goat, carrying on his back produce that can’t be reached by barrow. I am an early riser, but he is earlier. He packs away his tools at sunset. Most of the produce goes to markets. But we also reap the benefits of his windfalls. Once, when he saw my husband picking up a few feijoas on our side of the fence, he brought out a container for him to take more. During the 2020 lockdown he left bundles of fresh coriander, pumpkins, and squash in a barrow by our gate. At a neighbours’ Christmas get-together some years ago, his daughter told me her father had grown up in a rural area where even the most stubborn land was farmed. She said, “It keeps him young.” 

The front property, meanwhile, continues to evolve and grow. Half the land area is now under concrete. As with most properties around us, the structures built above the ground are valued more than the soil below. The price of rural residential property reflects that.

This week more tradies’ vehicles were parked outside the house.    

But the oak still stands.

Keep going!