We could hear the chatter, the laughter, even before we walked into the Jean Malpas Nursery at Kelvin Heights Peninsula. It was the trust’s regular Wednesday morning working bee, when members pot native trees to plant across the Whakatipu Basin. Their aim: to restore the indigenous landscape – perhaps the region most affected by human activity in New Zealand – and tempt native birds and insects to return.

As we entered the two-year-old nursery, named for a woman who “famously had her finger in many community pies in Whakatipu” and who endowed a trust dedicated to environmental projects, the reason for the hubbub became obvious. This was a real community gathering. And though they are quick to deflect the credit to hundreds of passionate volunteers who help in the nursery, collect native seeds (under permit), plant and care for thousands of trees and shrubs, and educate schoolchildren on the joys of nature, we only have to chat to a few helpers to realise the driving forces are Barbara and Neill Simpson.

Barbara, a retired schoolteacher, says her passion for native botany grew from Neill; Neill says he “just always had it”. He retired 20 years ago after a career as a botanist and DOC (Department of Conservation) ranger that saw him awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his knowledge of native plants and the effects of exotic pests on their ecosystem.

Their work began with the Whakatipu Islands Reforestation Trust, a 20-year project set up to replant bushfire-destroyed areas on Pigeon Island in Lake Whakatipu. When that work was nearly complete, with 40,000 trees planted, they saw the potential in regenerating other areas, and the new trust was created in 2013. Many plantings are on previously bare council or DOC land, but sites include many of the new subdivisions mushrooming around Queenstown. In 2018, volunteers planted 7513 native plants. Five schools and a preschool look after the sites; corporate groups lend a hand on planting days.

In 2016, Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry presented Neill and Barbara with the country’s foremost conservation award, the Loder Cup. “They are an outstanding couple who have worked with extraordinary dedication, and represent the very best of the New Zealand conservation movement,” she said.