The farmer who made national headlines last year for destroying a rare, native shrub, has been fined for environmental offences. David Williams reports.

A Canterbury farmer says he takes environmental responsibilities seriously, despite being fined twice in quick succession for allowing cattle in a stream and wetland.

Brent Thomas’s farm at Kaitorete Spit, south of Christchurch between Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere and the Pacific Ocean, was in the national spotlight last year after he killed almost a third of the country’s population of tororaro, a rare native shrub also known as Muehlenbeckia astonii.

Environmental lobby group Forest & Bird took court action to protect the rest of the plants – which, by one estimate, now number only 1800. That legal fight has been adjourned while the Department of Conservation (DoC) negotiates to buy part of Thomas’s land – which he bought from the Bayley family early last year.

Regional council Environment Canterbury (ECan) confirms it has issued two $500 infringement notices to Thomas and his company Willesden Farms, for offences on two different properties near Christchurch, last October and in April this year. (Willesden Farms is based at Kaituna Valley Rd, Ataahua, while the other property, Thomas says, is on Jones Rd, Kaitorete Spit. The tororaro spraying took place at his farm on Bayleys Rd.)

In both cases, the company was also slapped with abatement notices. One abatement notice, issued in May, orders Willesden Farms not to allow stock access to “the bed or banks of any river or wetland”.

ECan’s regional leader of compliance delivery, James Tricker, says of the fines: “In one instance there was evidence of stock having been in a stream. On the other property there was evidence of stock in the wetland on the property.”

“The infringement notices are the first such issued in my time and you describing it as a ‘pattern’ I think is unfair to me and simply not the case.” – Brent Thomas

Thomas tells Newsroom via email: “It’s unfortunate we received these two infringement notices in quick succession – I would point out that we have been farming out in the area since 1975 and this is the first such infringements I have had.”

He adds that his family takes their environmental responsibilities very seriously. “As a family we have been trying to protect and improve our environment since the early ‘80s.”

Asked if the fines show an unfortunate pattern of non-compliance, considering the trouble with spraying tororaro shrubs, Thomas says: “The infringement notices are the first such issued in my time and you describing it as a ‘pattern’ I think is unfair to me and simply not the case.”

Both offences involved dry stock cattle. Thomas says the first infringement “was our fault”.

“We had a new staff member in our team misunderstand some instructions and put some bulls in an unused paddock beside an unfenced stream by mistake. It was for a short time but they wandered through the stream and caused some pugging, which not allowed.”

Over the last five years, Thomas notes they’ve fenced more than 15 kilometres of waterways, and done riparian planting along five kilometres.

The second ECan infringement notice was for cattle at Jones Rd, on Kaitorete Spit.

When the Thomases bought the property in 2012, the lakefront wasn’t fenced. Stock had been allowed to access the lake bed, Thomas says. “We fenced it when we took over and have, up until this year, been grazing it during the summer months, January to April, when it’s dry.”

He’s been in discussions with ECan since early 2018 about whether the area is a wetland. “We have engaged ecologists to advise us on status of this block and we have been advised, early this year, that this area is a wetland, so we will need to apply for a consent.” (He adds the Te Waihora zone is now part of a cultural management zone.)

That advice coincided “with the time we have had stock out in this area” and a complaint to ECan, which led to the fine, Thomas says. Stock have been removed, he says, and won’t graze the area. They are now considering whether to apply for consent or retire the area.

Eerie echo

In the background is the legal case and potential sale of land at Kaitorete to DoC.

Asked about negotiations, Thomas says: “We are still working through a confidential, court-directed mediation process with all parties at present and have nothing to report on this.”

Which is eerily similar to a separately emailed statement from DoC’s eastern South Island operations director, Andy Roberts: “We are working through a confidential, court-directed mediation process with all parties at present.”

Forest & Bird’s Canterbury West Coast manager Nicky Snoyink says she doesn’t have an update on the adjourned court case.

Roberts, of DoC, says as far as the department is aware, the threatened tororaro population has not been sprayed again.

“However, we are concerned the unique indigenous dryland ecosystem at Kaitorete continues to be at risk from development activities on privately owned land. In some locations, spraying of dryland areas and grazing and trampling by cattle has affected threatened plant species such as raoulia mat vegetation.

“In the case of irrigation of developed areas on private land, DoC has advocated for conditions to ensure there are no effects on neighbouring dryland ecosystems and neighbouring public conservation land.”

Shrubby battle

DoC’s concerns are echoed in a water-take consent application made by Thomas’s company Wongan Hills last year.

The company wanted groundwater permits held by other farms transferred to its 967 hectare property on Bayleys Rd, for irrigation, stock water, and domestic supply. The irrigation area was 202 hectares – more than two-and-a-half times the size of Auckland Domain.

The ECan decision document, dated November 28, notes the Forest & Bird court action, after Wongan Hills cleared and cultivated three of the farm’s eight paddocks to plant oats. (The city council has opposed some of Wongan Hills’ applications. But last year it issued a certificate of compliance to Thomas for certain activities on the Kaitorete paddocks, including spraying, applying fertiliser, irrigating and grazing.)

Thomas’s irrigation consultant, Anthony Davoren, said in a report that through good design and management, the drift of irrigation water to other areas, including those with native plants, would be “de minimis”.

The company’s consultant ecologist, Robert Usher, said, however, the irrigation plans would, without appropriate mitigation, result in the potential loss of 24 shrubby tororaro plants. Wongan Hills proposed to create an area in one paddock “to encompass at least 50 specimens of shrubby tororaro and protect them from grazing pests as required”.

“I do not believe that the measures proposed to avoid or ‘minimise’ potential edge effects are adequate.” – Philip Grove

Propagation of plants from an irrigated paddock would be done to “preserve the genetic distinctiveness” of those plants. And those cuttings, “as well as whole salvaged plants”, would be transferred and planted within the new “protected area”.

Those measures would “minimise the risk” of irrigation and provide a “clear net benefit” to tororaro and associated plant and animal species, Usher wrote.

However, ECan’s science team leader of environmental science and hazards, Philip Grove – whose advice was dismissed over irrigation consents for a big Mackenzie Basin dairy farm – disagreed. He wrote: “I do not believe that the measures proposed to avoid or ‘minimise’ potential edge effects are adequate, and I consider that further site-specific information on both the risks and efficacy of proposed mitigation is required.”

In particular, he thought a proposed 30-metre setback from the coastal boundary wasn’t big enough. He noted there were no setbacks offered for other dryland habitats adjoining the irrigated areas.

An ECan panel, which granted consent, suggested a suite of conditions, including a baseline survey, follow-up surveys, a minimum of 50m setbacks in some areas – and 30m and 10m in other areas. It also wanted Wongan Hills to establish a continuous, five-metre-wide buffer of locally sourced plants, including tororaro, “to provide visual and ecological buffering”.

A cultural impact assessment was required by the Taumutu and Wairewa rūnanga. Consent conditions can be reviewed if adverse effects arise from spray irrigation drift.

Promise to re-invest profits

Thomas says Kaitorete is a “wonderful, dry environment” to winter sheep and beef cattle.

“The key driver to our land purchase down there was to get our wintering of stock out of the heavy soils in the Kaituna and Prices Valley floors, which has been a weakness of our business.”

His family’s commitment to the environment includes a QEII covenant in Prices Valley established in 1987. Thomas says: “We can always do more and we will do more – our biggest challenge is remaining profitable so we can reinvest profits into fencing off more bush, planting waterways, etc, to improve biodiversity.”

Having to pay fines to ECan doesn’t help. But it’s probably a veritable drop in a paddock compared with the thousands of dollars spent on well infrastructure, pivot irrigators, and the bevy of consultants needed for consent applications.

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

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