WORDS Sue Hoffart PHOTOS Supplied

A gutsy plan to cultivate tourists alongside sheep has helped save Canterbury’s white-flippered penguins from extinction.

In 1989, five Banks Peninsula landowning families set out to conserve their livelihoods in the face of a farming downturn and establish New Zealand’s first private walking track.

Thirty years on, they have rescued much more than themselves; the Banks Track has attracted tens of thousands of paying tourists and significantly boosted conservation efforts on the peninsula.

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Shireen and Francis Helps have been working their 550-hectare Flea Bay property for more than 40 years and helped develop the track, alongside son Daniel and daughters Josephine and Jessica. They have also created Pohatu Penguins, a company offering penguin and nature tours, kayaking, and accommodation.

While the Helps were environmentally ahead of their time, Shireen says tourism has enabled them to set and attain loftier goals.

“It gave us the excuse we wanted to properly look after this precious place,” she says. “Before the track, we had to scrape every dollar out of farming. While we still run a successful working farm, forty per cent of it is now in native bush for us and future generations to enjoy.”

Francis was aged 21 when he and his younger brother Steven began farming in the late 1960s. He went on to protect native bush areas under various reserves and covenants, including Tutakakahikura Scenic Reserve, which was gifted to the Department of Conservation in the 1980s.

When Francis and his young wife Shireen arrived in Flea Bay, it didn’t take long to realise they had company. On their first night, raucous penguins kept Francis awake.

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“We are both from long-established Banks Peninsula farming families, so knew about the penguins here, but became increasingly disturbed by the number of dead birds we were finding.

“We didn’t have much money but whenever we had some spare cash we’d buy a couple of traps to help keep the stoats and ferrets away. We also created nesting sites, monitored the penguins and rehabilitated any that were struggling to survive.”

A conservation department survey, completed in 2000, found only a few remnant colonies in sea caves and under cliffs everywhere except Flea Bay and nearby Stony Bay. Collectively, the Helps’ 717 breeding pairs and their neighbour Mark Armstrong’s 45 breeding pairs ensured that saving the white-flippered penguin colonies no longer seemed a lost cause.

“DOC then put a trapline right around us and got rid of the last of the ferrets.”

Meanwhile, Mark had helped bring the Peninsula’s last sooty shearwater seabird colony back from the brink of extinction, to more than 50 breeding pairs.

As Banks Track approaches its 30-year anniversary, Flea Bay boasts 1260 breeding pairs of penguins in Flea Bay – the largest little penguin population on mainland New Zealand.

The Helps started offering penguin tours in 1998, so New Zealanders and overseas visitors could see the birds but minimise any impact on the creatures they wanted to assist.

Shireen, who oversees the business with help from various family members, says it provides essential income for the family’s ongoing conservation work and she never tires of sharing the penguins with guests.

“People regularly say ‘where are these penguins? I haven’t seen any,’ and I’ll see one under a rock or piece of wood, right beside them.”