Our Lifestyle Block is 135 acres in the Bay of Islands, near Russell.
My Mother had always wanted to get back into the country to live, "before she was too old to enjoy it" she said. We had planned on buying that piece of land once the kids had left home, we had sold the business and our Auckland house was sold. Instead, the search for land in the country was moved forward by an unexpected offer on our business premises. We thought about it and decided why not. We could always rent a building for the business, we didn't have to own it. Then we thought about the idea of buying that piece of land in the country that Mum craved for and we had intended to retire to. If everything fell into place, it might just be possible.
Over Labour Weekend 2002, My Husband and I took a trip North to have a look at any coastal land that was listed for sale. We had seen a picture on the internet (see left) of a property for sale in the Bay of Islands and thought it would be a lovely view to have outside our sitting room window, but didn't think that we would be able to afford it. As we travelled North, looking at the various properties for sale, we realised that we would need to venture further North of Auckland than we had anticipated, in order to find a property within our price range. On my wish list was that the land be at least 10 acres in size, so that I could keep animals and that it had its own water supply. Grant wanted seaviews and my Mum needed the property to be reasonably close to town so she wouldn't have too far to drive for groceries or a Doctor.
We finally arrived at the property near Russell and after walking around it, felt as if we had come home. Both of us had been born in the North and I had grown up on a Dairy farm. In my mind I had thought flat to rolling hill country would be preferable for our retirement, not the steep hills I saw in front of me, but we couldn't resist the beauty of this bush-clad property. It needed an awful lot of work and money, but it had potential. We brought my Mother up to have a look at the place a month later and she too felt it was right. So we went home and Mum sold her Auckland house. By pooling our money, we were able to make an unconditional offer on the land, which was accepted.
Mum and my Brother were able to move onto the place in January 2003, but it took Grant and I a bit longer before we could organise things in Auckland so our family could carry on without us. For our 'Kids', flatting in the family home after Mum and Dad have left, has been a learning experience for them, as well as a wrench for me. Being four hours away from one's family is hard on a Mum. Thank goodness for phones. They've coped with it well and are now most of the way through their various tertiary courses.
Around 90 acres of the property is native bush and needs to stay that way because of the steepness of the terrain. It is also home to a population of Kiwis which we feel responsible for. No dogs are allowed access to our bush. Even the cat gets locked up at night.
Because of the steepness of the land and the roughness of the pasture, we needed stock that could handle the conditions. After doing a bit of research, I realised that there were a lot of domesticated animals which were now in the 'rare breed' category and were rapidly disappearing from the farming scene. We settled on Dexter cattle as a suitable breed for our situation. They are a short breed of cattle (38-45 inches high at the rump) which originated in Ireland and were adapted to the harsh grazing conditions of the only land available, at that time, to the poor Crofters living in the hills of Ireland.
We bought some Grade 1 and 2 Dexter cows and a purebred Dexter bull and over the next couple of years watched, as they transformed the overgrown paddocks of Kikuyu, into lovely pasture as, with a reduction of the all smothering Kikuyu, more sunlight was able to reach the soil surface and an increasing variety of grasses and clovers were able to grow. With the judicious use of fertiliser, we were able to increase the grass growth even more.
We added a few Gotland sheep, and a Perendale ewe to our menagerie, as I wanted to have a go at spinning. We also bought some of the old breeds of poultry. The breeds that everybody grew up with and some of which are now hard to find as purebreds. We have two meat breeds (classed as heavy) the Plymouth (Barred) Rock (one rooster fed 11 people for dinner one night) and the Light Sussex. (Light because of its colour, not its weight). We have one of the 'Light' (egg laying) breeds called New Hampshire Red. These are becoming very rare, which is a shame because they are such friendly birds and I think make excellent children's pets, as they 'talk' to you. New Hampshires were one of the foundation breeds from which the commercially bred Shavers were produced. We also breed the old favourite 'dual-purpose' Rhode Island Red. I never realised how hard it would be to find a purebred Rhode Island Red rooster, until I had to go searching for a replacement in a hurry. They used to be so common when I was growing up.
Small block land owners are the best people to breed these old 'backyard' poultry breeds as they aren't necessarily commercially viable, but they are the most suitable breeds for anyone wanting to keep a few hens running loose during the day, cleaning up the insects and bugs and laying lovely golden yolked eggs. When kept in a mobile hen house, they make an excellent 'rotary hoe' for cleaning up patches of the garden before the new season's sowing. Guinea Fowl are great for the job too, and don't need to be caged, as they prefer bugs and leave the garden plants alone, which hens tend to eat along with the bugs. The drawback to keeping Guinea Fowl (and Peacocks for that matter) is the loud noise they make, which is the reason many people don't want to keep them. It pays to stay on side with your neighbours. You never know when you may need their help.
We also breed Pilgrim Geese, Pekin Ducks and White Turkeys. The Rare Breeds Association of NZ keeps a registry of who breeds what. The list on their website helps people to locate the more difficult-to-find breeds of animals and birds. Each breed fills a particular niche on a property. They all have their pluses and minuses and these need to be considered when deciding which breed best suits your needs.
Previous owners of our property had built an extensive pigsty, so it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. Once again I searched the Rare Breeds Website and discovered that the Large Black (or Devon Black) breed of pigs was dwindling away to seriously low numbers, both in NZ and worldwide. So we bought a sow and a boar (from different ends of the Island) and waited. The following Easter, 5 little black piglets were born and the population of Large Blacks in NZ started going up. In the latest NZ Pig Breeders Association newsletter, it mentions that although numbers of pedigree pig registrations had dropped over the previous year, there was an increase in the number of registrations from the rarer pig breeds and many of those animals were later transferred to new owners. In other words, more people (often LSB owners) were choosing to buy one of the rare breeds of pig to keep. It's very encouraging news. The older breeds were the ones which were traditionally kept by small landholders and they were very suitable for the purpose.
We have also branched out into Wiltshire sheep (an old breed from England) as we wanted to grow our own mutton, but didn't want to increase our shearing load. Wiltshires are one of a few sheep breeds which shed their wool each Spring, leaving a very short coat. It makes the maintenance of them much easier. No crutching or shearing and a lot less worry about flystrike. Self-shedding sheep were just 'made' for Lifestylers I think.
When you first start out on your new piece of land, there is a steep learning curve to go through. So many things happen or go wrong, which are outside your field of expertise to sort out. Fortunately there are neighbours, local farmers and the Lifestyle Block Forum to ask questions of and receive advice from, so you are not going it alone. Being willing to learn is the most important part of adapting to a new lifestyle. We are always learning new facts and new ways of doing things. Everybody you talk to, has their favourite method for getting the job done and it takes time to work out the method that best suits you and your situation. Every farm is different and things like fertiliser needs to be adjusted to suit each individual farm. There's a lot of reading involved. It certainly stimulates the mind. One might say that boredom is a luxury that few Lifestylers have time for.
So, what attracted us to this way of life? Well there are less cars, less pollution, better eggs, better meat, (you know what went into producing that food), having room to pursue your hobbies (like growing your own wool to spin), being able to set your own timetable (mostly, depending on those unforeseen circumstances that animals and the water supply like to spring on you) and taking time out in the evening to watch a group of baby lambs or calves careering up and down the paddock at sunset. Watching baby pigs saying hello to strange new animals, after having wriggled between the wires into a paddock they weren't supposed to go into. The contented look on a cow's face as she chews her cud, her calf enthusiastically drinking the milk accumulated from a day of serious grazing. Taking pleasure in the simple things in life, reconnecting to what is really important. Seeing happy contented stock is one of those things. Realising just how much you've achieved on your property when you look back over the years. It's the satisfaction of making a piece of land better or improving the breeding of your herd or flock. These things take many years, but they are so worth it.
In Grant's case our lifestyle means being able to work at his desk, with this kind of view, while keeping an Auckland office running, but not having to battle with the traffic. A busy day on the road up our way is when six campervans and a few cyclists go by. Of course there are the trucks that accompany any development on neighbouring properties, but unlike many sections in the city, we can never be built out. The view is always there and the climate is lovely. Telecommunications can be a challenge in the country, especially if, like Grant you need to rely on it for your livelihood. We had to wait a year before we could move onto our land in the Bay of Islands as it took that long to organise the Broadband internet service that is vital, for people working remotely. An added bonus for Grant is being able to build a great big three-bay shed all for himself, his power tools and tractor - with implements. For someone who grew up in the city, this is luxury. It enables him to have a hobby completely different from the work that raises the money to make this lifestyle possible. He can use his Engineering skills to assemble equipment which will make life on the farm more comfortable.
We are nowhere near finished developing our land yet. There are so many more fences to put in, paddocks covered with scrub to clean up, a solar-powered water pump to install, enabling a water trough to be put in each paddock, so the cows don't have to walk so far, for water each day and eventually, building a house at the top of the hill, so we can look out over that lovely view. It's always good to have a progressive vision. I think ours will take longer to achieve than some, but that's okay, there's no rush. As I've heard many say, you need to make sure that your property is a lifestyle and not a life sentence, so don't be in too much hurry to get things done. After all, perfection takes a long time to achieve.