Sanctuary in golf at NZ's Lake Taupo

It might not be unusual to find sanctuary on a golf course but it is rare to find a golf course that is a sanctuary. New Zealand's Wairakei International Golf Course is thought to have scored a world first.

The internationally renowned course - rated as one of the top 100 in the world by Golf Digest - has spent more than NZ$2 million developing a wildlife sanctuary that provides a safe haven for all creatures great and small.

Officially opened in March 2011, the sanctuary has extensive native planting and perimeter fencing providing a pest-free environment where native species are already setting up home amongst the fields and fairways.

Golf and wildlife in harmony

The ecological restoration - the first of its kind in New Zealand - was prompted by golf course owner Gary Lane’s desire to create a unique environment where golf and the natural habitat could work in harmony.

Lane says the opportunity to work with ecological experts and create a pest free environment that enhances the natural beauty of the golf course and surroundings, has enabled the vision to become a reality.

The Wairakei course is situated in the Wairakei Tourist Park, a unique geothermal area just north of Taupo township.

Cultural experiences, bubbling mud and hot pools are a major draw card for visitors to Taupo region, and the Wairakei golf course is one of the most popular golfing destinations in New Zealand.

Gary Lane says being able to provide a haven for plant and birdlife gives golf at Wairakei another dimension by adding to the visual experience without impacting on the course.

Wairakei sanctuary

Work on the Wairakei sanctuary began in 2009 and involved constructing a pest proof fence around the perimeter of the 180ha golf course.

While the two-metre high fencing has been used successfully around New Zealand to protect stands of native bush on reserves and privately owned farmland, it is the first time the ‘Xcluder’ fencing has been used to completely enclose a golf course.

Since 2010, an eradication programme - aimed at removing pests and monitoring wildlife - has contributed to an increase in insect life, tree seedlings and a return of native birds to the property.

More than 25,000 native trees and 5,000 exotic species have been planted throughout the property, for both beautification and as a food source for native birds.

Native bird life

The ecological and restoration plan for Wairakei means species like tui, bellbird, kereru / native wood pigeon, pheasant and quail are able to thrive. The local bird population now also includes breeding pairs of New Zealand's iconic brown kiwi.

Wetland areas have also been enhanced and an existing lake on the 18th hole extended so wetland birds and other species can be reintroduced.

A permanent gamekeeper carries out daily inspections of the fence and looks after wildlife on the property.

A herd of 15 small fallow deer and a stag have been introduced to a fenced-off area within the property. The deer are hand-reared to ensure they are quiet and used to being handled. There are also plans for a trail release of deer within the confines of the golf course.

Two hundred mixed colour pheasant have been raised on the property for release on the golf course.

Lane has been working with conservation agencies, NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ducks Unlimited, on the process of introducing populations of endangered species, such as kiwi and brown teal ducks.

Recreation and conservation

Dr Tim Day, general manager of Xcluder and consultant for Rotorua ecologists Wildlands Ltd, is consultant for the Wairakei Golf Course project and says it is a unique opportunity to blend recreation with restoration and conservation.

"At Wairakei you have a highly managed, beautiful, mostly exotic landscape within the golf course where people primarily go to play golf, relax and enjoy themselves.

"The owner is adding to that by enhancing the ecological values and natural features of the site. The restoration activities will add a new dimension to the experience for a group of people who might not otherwise be exposed to this sort of project or its benefits," he said.

Background: Wairakei golf and sanctuary

The privately owned, 180ha property is set in a valley at Wairakei, north of Taupo, and includes the 18-hole international golf course (around 60ha) and exotic plantings, pine and larch plantations, tracts of native bush and grassland habitat.

The golf course was built in the 1960s by the government-owned Tourist Hotel Corporation. It officially opened in 1970 and became New Zealand’s first internationally recognised course.

It was designed by a leading English golf course architect, the late Commander John Harris, English professional golfer Michael Wolveridge and Australian golfer Peter Thomson, a five times British open winner.

The course sprawls over 450 acres of natural countryside, which coupled with the 6444 metres from the championship tees and 108 large well placed bunkers, has given Wairakei worldwide acclaim.

NZ ownership

After being purchased by Japanese in 1989, the property returned to New Zealand ownership in 1997 when it was taken over by three Auckland businessmen, one of whom is the current owner, Gary Lane.

In the same year the owners embarked on a NZ$4 million upgrade to bring the golf course and facilities back up to international standards. That included re-contouring of some golf holes, a new lake and water hazards, redesign and addition of bunkers, new cart paths and golf course irrigation.

Gary Lane took full ownership in December 2008 with the intention of developing a sanctuary on the property.

In October 2010 the golf course was voted number one course in New Zealand in an industry survey that took account of ratings from golf professionals and people in the golf travel industry. It was also rated number one course by readers of New Zealand Golf magazine.

The course was also rated by the prestigious US Golf Digest magazine to be in the top 100 courses in the world outside of the USA in 2005.