Kings of the hill feel regulatory squeeze

Last updated 05:00 07/07/2014
Geoffrey Young
BRIDGET RAILTON/Fairfax NZ
CHANGES AHEAD: Cattle Flat Station farmer Geoffrey Young says most farmers will easily comply with proposed changes to hill and high-country farming in Southland but it was about finding the balance between farm productivity and environmental impacts.

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Straddling the Southland-Otago border in the upper reaches of the Mataura River lies a massive sheep and beef farm that is high country in every sense of the word.

Scaling the heights of the Mataura Ranges, ascending well over the 700-metre limit proposed by Environment Southland, Cattle Flat Station has the potential to be hugely affected by the regional council's planned changes to hill and high-country farming.

Farmer Geoffrey Young, who bought the land about 20 years ago, is pragmatic about the potential changes.

Surveying the substantial land area, complete with fodder crop-sown slopes of varying degrees, Young said they had always tried to develop the land in a way that went well with its natural character.

"It's about finding that balance.

"It's not about favouring one over the other [environment or business], it's about finding the best possible outcome for both and I do believe the two can go hand in hand."

The regional council is proposing hill and high-country development become a permitted activity and comply with set conditions. If the conditions cannot be met, then a resource consent will be required.

As it stands, the conditions state development cannot take place above 700m, fodder crops cannot be established on slopes greater than 20 degrees, and development cannot take place within 20m of water within 5m of a gully or swale. Broadly speaking, Young felt the council had "got it right", but there was definitely a need for a few tweaks, he said.

There needed to be a leeway of about 5 to 10 per cent for fodder crops on slopes because farmers could end up being penalised for small areas on larger slopes that might be just over the 20-degree limit, he said.

The last thing anyone wanted was compliance officers flying around in helicopters pinging them for non-compliance, he said.

He was surprised at the dearth of communication between the council and the farming community on the planned changes.

"At the first meeting [in Gore on Monday] I was pretty much up in arms about it.

However, he said he was impressed at the way staff handled the meetings, and commended their openness and willingness to take on board farmers' concerns.

"Most farmers recognise we need to be as proactive towards the environment as we can be . . . as long as it doesn't impinge on their ability to improve production."

However, some in the farming community took a more ominous view of the impending changes.

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Southland Federated Farmers local government representative Doug Fraser said it was essentially the beginning of farming by consent.

"That's the real fear . . . that my individual property rights will be mopped over by someone on North Rd in Invercargill."

"Hill country is just the start of the process."

His concern was the council was running the risk of alienating the farming community, and questioned when the urban communities would start being penalised.

The problem was the council had consulted with only a small group of people through the steering group and most farmers had not been made aware, he said.

Farmers who attended the meetings on the proposed changes, held in Gore and Mossburn, might have had their fears allayed but there were still many unanswered questions, he said. "All we're asking is they take a deep breath and give farmers an opportunity to assess the situation and the effects it will have on us."

Council senior planner Fiona Young said based on feedback, the key message they had taken on was that farmers were frustrated by a lack of communication.

The councillors were well aware they needed more information out in the community on the potential changes and that was the main reason the decision on how to progress with the plan change was deferred at the previous council meeting, Young said.

Another area it needed to focus on was implementation - what was affected by the rules and how that would be reflected in the farming community, she said.

There was some confusion around definitions, which areas need to be managed and who would be affected, she said

It was important to note that it was not singling out hill and high-country farmers, this was merely one of four focus areas the council was looking at to meet its obligations under the Ministry for the Environment's National Policy for Freshwater Management, Young said.

When asked whether it was indeed the beginning of farming by consent, she conceded it was not out of the realms of possibility but at the moment there are no rules in place.

"It's about encouraging best-practice management."

Staff will report back to Environment Southland councillors at the council meeting on Wednesday and it will once again consider its next step.

WHAT'S HAPPENING?

Water and Land 2020 And Beyond is Environment Southland's response to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.

The three main components of Water and Land 2020 are to encourage good management practices, prevent further water quality decline, and catchment limits.

- The Southland Times

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