Farmers take a lead in Waikato and national environment protection

Farmers have followed the example of the late environmentalist Gordon Stephenson, pictured here with wife Celia.

Farmers have followed the example of the late environmentalist Gordon Stephenson, pictured here with wife Celia.

OPINION: Farmers' environmental credentials have been under attack lately, but new research highlights just one way those who work the land also strive to look after it.

The late Gordon Stephenson made moves to permanently protect native bush on his Waotu farm decades ago, in the manner of many other farmers before him and subsequently who quietly put in the hard yards on environmental enhancement work.

Waikato Federated Farmers welcomes a study by the University of Waikato Institute for Business Research that highlights the impact and costs of land such as the Stephensons, placed under covenant via the QEII National Trust.

Farmers have been front and centre in the activities of the trust right from the start and we congratulate them on their 40th anniversary, and for commissioning the study that was presented at a function at Parliament last Tuesday.

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When the Stephensons put four hectares of native bush on their farm near Putaruru under QEII covenant for permanent protection, they were the first to do so. They were not to know that over the next 40 years, more than 4300 property owners would follow suit.

Stevenson was a Waikato and national Federated Farmers dairy chairman. A few years ago he was was given life membership for the organisation. Myself and national president William Rolleston took great pleasure in reading an extensive biography about him and awarding him this honour on behalf of all members.

The trust and the Farm Environment Awards are two of the initiatives he started while being in a leadership role and after leaving Federated Farmers.

There were, and still are, committed environmentalists among our members and they've been elected to leadership positions. We take pride in work that protects land and water resources, and there is excitement around the release of this new study.

The Institute for Business Research found that covenanting land owners, most of who are farmers, are together spending an estimated $25 million of their own money every year to protect native species, forests, wetlands and other special areas in their QEII covenants.

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In total, the land owners have made a financial commitment of between $1.1 billion to $1.3b in direct or lost opportunity costs establishing and maintaining land under covenant since the QEII Trust that Stephenson lobbied for was set up in 1977.

The survey responses showed the land surrounding 69 per cent of covenanted sites is used for grazing. While not all covenanted land would be suitable for farming, it's no surprise to us that thousands of farmers have voluntarily opted to permanently protect important wetland, bush and landscape sites, and to forgo revenue from it.

The special sites have even more protection than national parks. The QEII covenants cannot be revoked by subsequent land owners.

In the study the loss of potential income from other alternative uses of land under covenant is estimated to be between $443m to $638m since 1977.

The report noted there are around 650 properties with covenant sites in the Waikato, so there's a high chance, one of these protected sites is not far from you.

There are ongoing maintenance and monitoring costs associated with covenanted land, which include fencing, pest control and waterways protection around waterways protection, restoration planting, wetlands restoration, and weed control.

Survey respondents from Waikato spent an average of $3736 every year protecting covenant land – the second highest of the 16 regions. Extrapolating that across the total number of local covenants, that's a total of $2.42m Waikato-wide, never mind what the landowners spend on other environment protection work on other parts of their properties.

Farmers and other land owners pitch in with environmentalists, volunteers and council staff to carry out planting, pest control, fencing and other work on the covenanted sites.

The philosophy of the late Gordon Stephenson was that kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, of the land for future generations was an honour rather than a chore. The fact is, that's an approach that is followed by farmers up and down New Zealand today.

  •  Chris Lewis is the former president Waikato Federated Farmers.

 - Stuff

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