It’s not every day you come across someone who is looking ahead 200 – 250 years, the time it takes to regrow a forest. But Clive Paton is not your everyday kind of man.


Future-proofing for the long-term

Clive Paton is a man with a double, if not triple, dose of foresight. When he thinks about the future he doesn’t stop at 10 or 20 years. He goes beyond his own, his daughters’ and even his grand- children’s life expectancies, and projects his thinking to a future that none of us will ever know – and few of us will ever contemplate.

While most of us struggle to get our heads around what the next five years will hold, Clive, with the help and support of friends and family, is quietly shaping the outlook for the year 2250. Driven by a calm determination to right the unknowing wrongs of the pioneers of the past, he is committed to doing his bit to future-proof the environment. “His bit” is planting trees – and so far he’s planted over 60,000.

“I’ve studied the disastrous impacts on wildlife that our forefathers unwittingly made when they came and cleared away the forests,” he says. “They had no idea how logging and burning would change New Zealand’s future ecology. They didn’t know the vital role that our trees played in providing food for our birdlife, and they didn’t think about renewing timber sources when they ramped up exports of kauri in the mid-1800s.”

It is Clive’s belief that because we now know the detrimental effects of deforestation and the introduction of predators, we have the opportunity to redress the balance.

He is currently planting out a 120 acre bush block 17kms south of Martinborough, with a mixture of indigenous trees – rata, pohutukawa and totara – as well as “trees for purpose”, including a range of the non-native eucalypt species. Clive’s main goal is to return a large part of the block (which has been covenanted to the Department of Conservation (DOC)) to natural forest, a task that will take a minimum of 200-250 years.

His other ambition is to establish a native timber forestry operation. Many of the eucalypt species he is planting yield a high quality, ground-durable timber and Clive foresees that, in time, this timber can be harvested for building. He explains that certain eucalypts can also be used for vineyard posts. Their durability and resistance to rot means they could provide a future, organic alternative to the CCA (copper chromium arsenate) treated wood that is in widespread use today.

Clive sees no reason why Wairarapa couldn’t be producing substantial volumes of organic, untreated eucalyptus fence and vineyard posts within the next 20 or so years.

Vineyard visionary

This isn’t the first time Clive has helped change the course of local land use – and industry. Clive is the founder of Martinborough’s Ata Rangi Vineyard, one of New Zealand’s revered makers of Pinot Noir. It was down to Clive’s innate foresight, coupled with his natural instinct for opportunity, that saw him standing in the middle of Martinborough, then a dusty and barren backwater, thinking about the future potential of the town.

That was back in June 1980; a time when the township was fading away. Martinborough was originally established as a service town for the outer-lying sheep farms stretching out to the coast. Farming in the immediate area had never taken off due to the rough, stony ground and clay covered hills. Low rainfall, hot summers and dry winds also prevented the early settlers from cultivating the land, since cropping and grazing were impossible under the conditions.

Sitting off the beaten track with diminishing importance due to mechanisation and agricultural automation which lessened reliance on the town’s trades and services, Martinborough was struggling economically. People were starting to leave and few newcomers were moving in.

Ten months earlier in late 1979, Mayor Dawson Wright had called a meeting to discuss how the town could be saved. Clive read about the meeting and learned of the work of soil scientist Dr Derek Milne who had prepared a report for the then Government on the potential of Martinborough for viticulture, in particular for Pinot Noir.

The report stated that the Martinborough climate was similar to the Burgundy region of France. This struck an immediate chord with Clive who had already developed an interest in wine, inherited from his father who had served in Italy’s wine growing regions during World War II.

“I was sharemilking in Kahutara at the time, but was looking for a challenge,” Clive says. “I was curious about the plight of Martinborough and intrigued by Dr Milne’s soil and climate report. I knew that Martinborough would need to embrace its climate and think innovatively about what industry would best suit the land. I realised after reading Derek’s findings that growing grapes was the obvious answer.”

Aged 29, Clive bought a five hectare block of free-draining stony land near the northern edge of the town, and began planting out 5,000 Pinot Noir vines. He extended his love of planting by developing shelterbelts around the property, as well as shade trees and copses of natives throughout the winery.

Conservationist at heart

“I’ve always had a love of nature and an appreciation of trees and birds even before I was aware of their environmental importance,” he says. “In my early 20s, I would devour each issue of the Forest and Bird magazine, thanks to my aunt who would send me her own copy every month.”

You could say Clive was a conservationist way before conservation was ‘a thing’. He was caring for the environment before it was deemed necessary, and well ahead of the term becoming part of today’s zeitgeist.

“I guess I’ve been a conservationist in my heart, all my life. I believe we need to observe and learn. Through the generations, we have watched the lands being cleared and we have watched the devastation wrought by introduced predators – possums, rats, stoats and ferrets. We have finally learned that the land has no protection without trees, and that our birdlife cannot thrive while it is prey to other creatures.”

Clive is a supporter of the Predator Free New Zealand 2050 programme, facilitated by DOC.

“DOC’s programme aims to rid New Zealand of these predators altogether. It is an ambitious task and hugely challenging. This is the only way we will ever halt the extinction of many of our endangered species, and it is our only hope of increasing our bird numbers.”

Clive adds that community participation is vital to the success of the programme. There is now a large predator control operation in place in South Wairarapa, run by local volunteers including landowners, local Lions clubs, a mountain running group and interested individuals from the Wellington and Rangitikei areas.

Preserving heritage and culture

Project Crimson is another initiative with which Clive and the Ata Rangi family is involved. Volunteer-led, Project Crimson seeks to restore pohutukawa and rata (better known as New Zealand’s native Christmas trees) to our forests. Both species were in decline until planting commenced in earnest in 1990. Ata Rangi has since named its

‘Crimson’ Pinot Noir after the project to help raise awareness. It also supports the project with an annual donation and helps out on planting days. 

Clive acknowledges the importance these trees play in terms of our heritage and culture. “Besides their beauty, they feed the native birds, they provide the pollen for great bush honey and Māori have used them through the ages to make medicinal remedies.”

So passionate is he about re-establishing rata in inland areas that he propagates his own cuttings. He has over 1,000 young plants in his nursery and, having spent 15 years planting the species, estimates that he has dug-in over 1500 individual rata trees.

Clive also plays an active part in the Aorangi Restoration Trust. A long-term trust member, Clive is chairman of the group which aims to return the birdsong to Aorangi Forest Park and surrounding areas, as well as improve the forest’s biodiversity.

Research and common sense

All of the work Clive is involved in draws on scientific research studies. He works closely with the likes of DOC, the University of Wellington, and TBfree NZ, as well as local and regional councils.

But he also draws on his own observations. He’s aware the climate is no stable force. He witnessed El Nino, which blew through Ata Rangi during the first few years of establishing the vineyard. He and the team have watched anxiously as spring frosts have slashed yields in half, and waited patiently for ripening when summer temperatures have been lower than average.

“Climate change is just another excuse for me to plant more trees,” he jokes, before adding that if climate change predictions become reality, and if Wairarapa is set to become more like Hawke’s Bay, we need to start thinking about irrigation now.

“If Wairarapa warms up and becomes drier, as estimated by NIWA, it makes sense for us to think about how land use might change again. Importantly, we need to think about what will facilitate such a change.”

For Clive, with his immense foresight, investment in water storage and distribution systems is part of the answer.

“We have good water here but without the means to harvest and share it, Wairarapa won’t be able to diversify if climatic conditions so prevail. Without irrigation, we as a region won’t be able to go to that next level of, say, growing high value crops on a commercial scale.”

A sense of selflessness

Alongside Clive’s mission, there also lies a personal quest to leave a lasting legacy. He tells the story of how he grew up with high hopes of taking over the family farm in Waikato, only to be disappointed when his grandfather died unexpectedly and the property was sold for family reasons.

“I was devastated. I loved that farm, I loved the place. I had worked on the farm as a child and up, until then, all I ever wanted was to stay there.”

From that day, Clive resolved that whatever he did in life he would create something he could pass down to his children.

“I wanted our children to at least have the option of taking over the family business. I didn’t ever want them to feel the disappointment I had felt. I knew that the children might not want to be involved, but the day I invested in Martinborough I secretly hoped they would.”

It’s 37 years since Clive first started planting vines at Ata Rangi. He says he is lucky to be doing what he loves, but he takes joy in the fact that he is “doing his bit” for his country – and his family. Recognition for which, he says, is not important.

Story by Lisa Carruthers
Photography by Jannelle Preston-Searle