The parched paddocks of farms on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula have run out of moisture – nothing is growing. Farmers fear climate change has arrived and have begun adapting the way they work the land.

Tim Davie, director of science at Environment Canterbury, pauses in a stony gulley, a narrow trough between banks of browning grass. It was not what he expected to see.

“I was hoping to show you some water on the Port Hills of Banks Peninsula,” he tells Frank Film. “But there’s nothing here. Normally this pond would be full of water, up to my waist. On the western flank of Pigeon Bay, Edward Aitken of Craigforth farm walks across the parched ground of his sheep and cattle farm. The scenery is dramatic, the hills a uniform brown against a relentlessly blue sky. “These paddocks would normally have new grass and established greenfield crops. They’ve been fallow now since last November. There is absolutely no moisture in the sub-soil.”

Sixth generation Banks Peninsula farmer Hamish Craw of Ridgecliff farm says he has never seen it this bad. “In the 25 years I’ve farmed, this is by far the worst I’ve experienced. The risk is, we get a cold winter with minimal grass growth and we’ll struggle to feed stock to their potential.”

“The dry” – it is a term normally associated with the arid landscape of Australia. Now it is being repeated through much of New Zealand’s east coast. Data from the eastern bays of Banks Peninsula recorded only 44 mm of rain between January and March – the average for this period is 148mm.

Last year, the region received only half the usual annual rainfall.

Droughts, of course, are part of a natural cycle on the Peninsula. If you have been farming round Canterbury long enough, says MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris, “you probably would have been through a few big ones”. Rain records show a pattern of dry patches throughout the year, followed by wet ones.

The drought of 1988-89 hit Banks Peninsula farmers hard.

“We were unable to sell stock,” recalls Aitken, “and the market price was terrible. We sold lambs for $2 and ewes for $10. What saved us here on the east coast is the irrigation – there is always someone now with irrigation who can buy your stock.”

The difference now, says Ferris, is that both the air and the land are hotter. “So we see evaporation happening more readily.”

Environment Canterbury’s Tim Davie explains the area’s hydrology.

“The water across Banks Peninsula is not connected to the Canterbury Plains aquifers. Rather, it comes from rain seeping down through the cracks and fractures of the basalt rock before emerging as small springs that feed into the rivers and streams.

“Climate change predictions are for longer dry periods, and when it does rain, it is more intense rain which runs off more quickly. There is less held in the rocks, so there are significant changes we are likely to see in the streams of Banks Peninsula.”

For the farmers of Banks Peninsula, their choices are limited. You sell the stock, feed the stock “or send them out to grazing”, says Aitken. “If you can, grazing is usually the best option.”

Due to limited grass growth the Craws are moving stock off the Peninsula for grazing over winter.

“It is frustrating having to do this,” says Annabel Craw. “It’s not what we’ve budgeted for, or planned for, but we need to make sure our stock stay in good condition ready for calving next spring.”

Aitken is selling some of his cows, some have been moved for grazing elsewhere. “Apart from one small mob, the whole cow herd really has gone, and lots of other stock as well.”

If the effects of the dry continue for a couple of years, he says, “we will get some pasture damage. And it will take us a while to build our stock numbers back up again.”

As with other Banks Peninsula farmers, he will be asking the hard question: do we have the right numbers and the right type of animal on properties such as this?

Already he is looking at changing his grass mix, aiming for a hardier, more robust drought-resistant species.

The Craws too are looking at improving the resilience of their farm.

“We probably are going to experience drier patterns so we have to adjust the way we farm the land and look after our pastures,” says Hamish. “Other strategies we’ve got is making sure we’ve got a good genetic basis – we are targeting intra-muscular fat in our cattle and sheep.”

The Craw family has also been planting native trees to improve the biodiversity of their farm but it has been a challenging season to start the venture. While trees in the gully and in the wetter spots have done well, “there’s a few up on these ridges that have been hammered by the dry”, says Annabel. “We’re looking at planting more drought-tolerant species next year.”

As the dry continues, these farmers are being forced into planning not just for the seasonal blip but for long-term changes on the land.

“The climate has been changing,” says Lewis. “We’ve been seeing it changing. It’s not a future problem. It’s a problem now.”

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