Beating the plague
A destructive long-eared villain once waged a war on Earnscleugh Station, one of the country's most rabbit-prone properties. Diane Bishop reports.
Massive rabbit plagues and pressure from the banks threatened to destroy Alistair Campbell's livelihood.
His family, who settled on Earnscleugh Station more than 30 years ago, were almost forced off the farm because of the destructive long-eared villain.
"We certainly wouldn't be here without the rabbiters," he said.
"We were in real strife."
Mr Campbell farmed several South Island high country properties before he and wife Judith bought Earnscleugh in 1981 in partnership with four prominent Dunedin businessmen.
Since 2003 the Campbells have owned the property in their own right.
Mr Campbell admits he was drawn to the scale and scope of the extensive hill country property, just a short drive from the township of Alexandra.
"And it's great wintering country which keeps our costs down," he said.
Earnscleugh has attracted a lot of interest from the public over the years so it was hardly surprising that more than 300 people turned up to a recent field day there.
As usual, Central Otago turned on a perfectly hot day.
The Campbells farm 2500 stud merino ewes and 12,000 commercial superfine and ultrafine ewes, producing an average 16.6 micron fleece, as well as 7650 hoggets and 4850 wethers on Earnscleugh and Obelisk Station, which the family bought five years ago.
Both properties comprise a total of 21,000 hectares and are challenging to farm because they are prone to hot dry summers and harsh cold winters.
Rainfall is low and varies from 300 millimetres a year on the flats to 1200mm on the tops.
Mr Campbell's son Duncan, who is a shareholder in the farm business along with his sister Jessica, is in charge of the day-to- day running of the two properties, but they share the stud work.
"I'm just the boy now," Mr Campbell said.
Earlier this year, the Campbells scooped three major awards in the 2013 Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards - the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Livestock Award, the Otago Regional Council Sustainable Resource Management Award and the Alliance Quality Livestock Award.
Their main focus is wool production and they typically produce about 100,000 kilograms of high quality merino wool annually.
About a quarter of the clip is sold under contract with the finer end going to Icebreaker.
The Campbells also farm 525 stud cows, 140 two-year heifers, 155 one-year heifers and 170 one- year bulls.
They arrived at Earnscleugh with their Te Akatarawa hereford stud and in 1997 established their angus stud followed by a composite cattle stud in 2000.
The composites have injected hybrid vigour into the herd.
The Campbells aim to breed top quality hill country bulls with an excellent temperament for their commercial clients.
"We want great cattle that are a joy to handle," Mr Campbell said.
Both Mr Campbell and Duncan, who came home to the farm 10 years ago with an agricultural science degree, share a love of stud farming.
"We're not really machinery minded; we just love stock," Mr Campbell said.
During the early 1980s the Campbells embarked on a large- scale development programme at Earnscleugh.
They erected more than 100 kilometres of new fencing in the first two years and applied fertiliser and seed at a rate which saw stock numbers increase from 15,000 stock units to 22,000 stock units.
However, the stock increase was short-lived as rabbit numbers started to escalate out of control.
After many years of using 1080 as a single method of control, the rabbits had become extremely bait-shy and stock numbers dwindled back to the original 15,000 stock units.
Mr Campbell said the rabbits were a "seething mass" at mid- altitude.
"It was a terrible, frightening time," he said.
The Campbells employed two full-time rabbiters and in 1990 the Government introduced the Rabbit and Land Management Programme. The aim was to reduce rabbit numbers to a manageable level and withdraw from subsidising rabbit control entirely after five years.
After some initial problems, and a total cost of more than $2 million (of which $800,000 was paid by the Campbells), the programme was a success.
With the aid of permanent rabbiters and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), formerly known as rabbit calicivirus disease, rabbit numbers have been very low on Earnscleugh since the late 1990s, which has allowed native and exotic grasses to flourish.
"Rabbit control has been our top priority," Mr Campbell said.
The Campbells now have just one full-time rabbiter.
"We owe the fact we are still here to the work of those rabbiters," Mr Campbell said.
"Every single management decision on this property puts rabbits first."
The Southland Times