Cattle are grazing a river bed on public conservation land in a UNESCO world heritage area. But perhaps not for much longer, David Williams reports.

Earth Day in 2005 was a good one for conservation in New Zealand.

Conservation Minister Chris Carter announced the Nature Heritage Fund had spent $3.2 million buying South Westland’s Landsborough Valley Station, which was added to Mt Aspiring National Park. “This purchase will resolve once and for all an ongoing problem of cattle grazing inside the national park and world heritage site,” Carter said, adding that the public would be able to enjoy it for generations to come.

Thirteen years later, however, the issue of cattle grazing remains unresolved, with accusations the Department of Conservation (DOC) is effectively ignoring its central mandate, of protection, to aid and abet cattle grazing of a river valley within South Westland’s world heritage area, Te Wāhipounamu. The animals are visible from a major tourist highway.

It’s just the latest test for a department grappling with a push for mining on conservation land after what some call years of neglect, and in the face of strong criticism of its land management, especially in the Mackenzie Basin.

“The way in which the cattle graze the Haast Valley, roaming freely about the river flats, creates a beautiful scene, one which is highly photographed, painted by artists and just enjoyed by those who look upon it.” – Catherine Cowan

Farmer John Cowan has applied for a 15-year licence to graze up to 110 cattle across 736 hectares in the Haast River Valley. A hearing will be held in Hokitika on June 26, at which conservation-minded submitters will line up to urge DOC to decline the application, pointing to widespread evidence of cattle fouling and damage.

The valley, towered over by snow-capped peaks and criss-crossed by the glacier-fed braided river, has been grazed for 150 years, and by Cowan in particular since 1978. There are stockyards at Sunny Flat and an electric fence runs for kilometres along the state highway.

His daughter, Catherine, told DOC the family’s “very limited” farming has had a positive effect on vegetation in Haast, especially weed control. There were “no significant effects” on waterways or water quality and “no effects” on adjoining land, she said.

Floods have a bigger effect on ground-nesting birds than cattle, she said, while claiming cattle have a positive effect on the amenity and visual values in Haast. She says for most tourists taking Haast River Safaris boats “the highlight is seeing the cattle grazing in the valley”.

“The way in which the cattle graze the Haast Valley, roaming freely about the river flats, creates a beautiful scene, one which is highly photographed, painted by artists and just enjoyed by those who look upon it.”

The Haast Valley is vital to its farming operation, Cowan says, warning if the lease is lost it might not be able to employ its three permanent staff. “We would consider ourselves as caretakers of this environment and like any responsible person would like to see it looked after for the next generation.”


DOC’s monitoring report, from 2015 – dismissed by many submitters as “inadequate” and symptomatic of its “deficient” monitoring – said the magnitude and extent of impacts on conservation values was “minor” and “of a nature to be expected from the activity”. Report writer Andrew Wells, a community relations officer, said the licence area was “well-managed” and it appeared licence conditions were complied with.

But the vast majority of submitters held a vastly different view, with some urging DOC to review all grazing licences in the area. (Most submitters’ names were redacted.)

DOC is excoriated for its apparent negligence, for either failing to notice or allowing allegedly multiple breaches of the existing licence, which expired on December 31 last year. According to submitters, DOC had not undertaken annual monitoring of the licence, allowed a non-ecologist to write its monitoring report, and allowed cattle to intrude into other areas of the national park.

Conservation group Forest & Bird wrote: “It is no longer acceptable for the Department of Conservation to consider such activities on river beds in public conservation land.”

Several submitters raised concerns about the effect of grazing on threatened species, such as ground-nesting birds banded dotterels and wrybills. There were claims indigenous vegetation was sprayed with herbicide without authorisation, and submissions showed photos of drains dug from cattle yards to allow effluent to flow yards directly into a nearby creek.

“It is entirely inappropriate for the Department of Conservation to be supporting an industry, cattle grazing, on its land that is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions,” a submitter wrote.

Cattle a curiosity

A South Westland tour operator, who holds a guided walks concession, said cattle grazing in a river bed was a conversation topic, with clients “curious to know how this aligns with protecting a world class nature preserve”. “The paradox of cattle grazing in protected areas is not lost on visitors and undermines New Zealand’s reputation for valuing its natural environment.”

Against the flow of opposition were two submissions in support.

Wayne O’Keefe wrote: “The work I have witnessed that has been completed by the Cowan family has improved the environment and only had positive effects.”

Another submitter said the area had a long history of grazing and had been well-managed. “The environmental effects are minimal and are far outweighed by the positive impacts of the social and economic benefits this family-run farm provide to the community.”

But others urged DOC to ignore history. “The fact that this is an existing use is irrelevant,” wrote Federated Mountain Clubs.

“As granting this concession would require the department to overlook the purpose for which the land is held and would have unwanted effects on the national park – either uncontrolled stock access or hindrance of public access – the only reasonable option open to the department is to decline the application.”

Tapping into the public mood

The Environmental Defence Society tapped into growing public impatience with cattle dropping faeces in otherwise pristine streams and river channels. It also pointedly reminded the department of the Government coalition’s environmental promises.

“It is entirely inappropriate for DOC to be facilitating the presence of cattle in the Haast River on public conservation land and within a national park and UNESCO World Natural Heritage Area, while central government is simultaneously pursuing regulations to ensure stock is excluded from freshwater.”

The opposition arguments pile up. The licence is apparently against the Conservation Act, and contrary to the Mt Aspiring National Park management plan – and all for a peppercorn rental, it’s claimed, of little more than $2000 a year.

There is also a link back to Earth Day in 2005. One submitter claimed that granting a concession would breach an undertaking the department made to discontinue grazing when the Landsborough block was bought.

The submitter added: “Granting of this lease would make a mockery of the huge and commendable effort that many responsible farmers are making to exclude their stock from waterways.”

The Landsborough Valley is DOC’s longest-studied area for pest control. Last month, the department hailed a doubling of native bird numbers over 20 years of trapping and aerial 1080 drops there.

* This story was corrected to state the hearing will be held on June 26.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment