Two reports released last year suggest environmental chickens are coming home to roost. David Williams reported on them in this story first published on August 4.

Eight years ago, at a Wellington conference called Valuing Nature, Victoria University of Wellington professor Jonathan Boston pointed out some glaring contradictions – and issued a warning.

The John Key-led government of the day was eager to promote clean, green, 100 percent pure New Zealand, he said, while pursuing multiple policies taking it in the opposite direction.

He cited examples like weakening the emissions trading scheme, endorsing onshore and offshore mining of fossil fuels without mentioning carbon capture and storage, reduced public funding for the Department of Conservation (DoC), investing huge amounts in new roads rather than public transport, and “numerous proposed changes to the Resource Management Act designed to lower environmental standards, fast-track major projects and limit citizens’ participatory and legal rights”.

(You might add to that, policies promoting unfettered growth in international tourists, and the establishment, in 2013, of Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd.)

The Wellington conference panel was asked for its views on the government’s aim of doubling primary sector exports by 2025. Such an objective could only be supported, Boston said, if externalities – such as pollution – were properly priced.

Without such pricing he raised the spectre of damage to waterways, or climate change impacts. “The challenge is how to get governments to implement these sorts of instruments in realistic ways against strong opposition.”

Fast-forward to today, and two reports released in the last week suggest those chickens, in Canterbury at least, are coming home to roost.

The first, from independent research institute Cawthron, said considerable reductions in “nutrient loads” from farmland were required to achieve water quality targets for several high country lakes in Canterbury.

The second, from Canterbury’s regional council ECan, tracked, through satellite imagery, a significant expansion in agricultural intensification in the province’s hill and high country. That led to the “largely unmitigated” loss of thousands of hectares of ecologically significant vegetation and habitats for indigenous fauna.

The development in inland Canterbury was so out of kilter, the report said it appeared the protective planning and regulatory processes of councils, including ECan, had failed.

The terraces overlooking Winding Creek in 2010. Image: Google Maps

The vast Mackenzie Basin, which has been greened substantially by agricultural intensification, has been the lightning rod for environmental interest in Canterbury for years.

But these reports suggest other corners of the province, including areas considered relative hotspots of indigenous biodiversity and thought to be in a reasonably natural state, are being degraded by farm development.

Contacted for comment, Boston, the University of Victoria Wellington professor, says as a public servant – he’s seconded to the Ministry for the Environment – he can’t comment. But he doesn’t resile from what he said in 2013.

Nicky Snoyink, regional conservation manager for lobby group Forest & Bird, says the reports show the link between land use and degrading water quality. “It’s horrific.”

Reform of the Crown Pastoral Land Act and the implementation of a proposed national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity are needed to fill the gaps left by councils, she says, and provide certainty over rules and regulations for native species protection.

“Every report that comes out we’re just documenting loss.”

She points to the previous government’s objective to double agricultural output by 2025. (The goal was to hit $64 billion in 2025; last year food and fibre exports reached $48 billion.)

The policy has been a significant driver of land-use change in the high country, she says, pushing development into marginal areas. The ECan report says intensive development has centred on flat or gently sloping landforms, like the beds and margins of braided rivers, and terraces, as well as outwash plains, alluvial fans and moraines (associated with glacial deposition).

“It was a flawed policy,” Snoyink says. “We’re now seeing the result of those policies from the past.”

ECan’s report found an extra 6847 hectares of undeveloped land or semi-improved farmland, used for low-intensity grazing, was converted to fully-developed farmland – high-producing pasture and fodder crops for stock – in the upper Waimakariri, Rakaia, Hakatere/Ashburton and Rangitata catchments between 1990 and 2019. That included the direct loss of more than 744 hectares, about four-and-a-half times the size of Christchurch’s Hagley Park, of areas recommended for protection in ecological surveys in the 1980s.  

This conversion has led to loss of habitat, probably reduced populations of many native species, as well as adverse effects on wetland and other aquatic environments from high nutrients, sediment and microbial intensification, the report says. There may also be indirect and cross-boundary effects.

(Interestingly, the report, written by ecologists Philip Grove, Mark Parker, Duncan Gray, and Tina Bayer, was completed last November, was reviewed externally, and was only approved last month.)

“High country farmers take a 100-year view of things.” – Colin Drummond

Colin Drummond farms Erewhon Station, a pastoral lease spanning 14,165ha, about the size of Otago’s Lake Hāwea, in the Rangitata Gorge. A Federated Farmers’ high country industry group committee member, he’s farmed Erewhon for 24 years and has 6000 stock units: sheep, cattle and deer.

(Erewhon is a play on the word “nowhere” backwards, a reference to the satirical novel by Samuel Butler, a Canterbury high country runholder between 1860 and 1864. Neighbouring Mt Potts Station was the location for Edoras, fortress city of the Rohan, in The Lord of the Rings movies.)

There has been some development in the foothills of the Southern Alps, Drummond says, but it hasn’t been out of control. “I don’t see there’s that much of a big problem.”

He points to development of paddocks at Mt White Station, in the Waimakariri (another pastoral lease), which, Drummond says, were worked in the 1940s and 1950s.

And oats were previously grown on the controversial Riversdale Flats.

This is the problem, Drummond says – anti-farming critics are taking a short term view. “High country farmers take a 100-year view of things. And everything that you do, you’re comparing it to previous generations.”

Of ECan’s report, he says: “Let’s just say that there’s obviously a fair bit of bullshit in that report.”

Pastoral leases are administered by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). “There hasn’t been, in my experience, that much development on pastoral leases,” he says. (The ECan report found 1928ha, or 28 percent, of new intensive agriculture in the four inland Canterbury catchments between 1990 and 2019 was on Crown pastoral lease land.)

Drummond refers to catchment board run plans in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, which, he says, retired land above 3000 feet (915m) and “everything below that was deemed to be allowed to be improved”.

(This seems a stretch, considering the 1980s surveys identified significant areas for protection. These days, leaseholders must apply for consent from the Commissioner of Crown Lands for certain activities, such as vegetation clearance. District council consents may also be required.)

“Yes, it will have been intensified a little bit,” Drummond says, “but most of those places, the ones that I know of, they actually didn’t put their total stock numbers up. All they did was put some fertiliser and seed on the lower country and grow a bit more grass there.”

Drummond isn’t afraid to dish out criticism, although at times it seems misdirected.

DoC is blamed by Drummond for farm intensification in some places, like Mt Potts Station – which “has been farmed to its absolute limit; possibly overgrazed with cattle”. The department’s “land grabbing” in tenure review left only a limited freehold area to farm, he says.

He also has a potshot at ECan for “possibly trying to take some of the heat off of their not letting people take shingle out of the rivers that helped contribute to some of the flood bank breaches” – a reference to May’s contentious floods.

But Drummond also makes some constructive points.

On the benefits of tussocks, he says: “A good tussock cover stops the wind getting in and drying you out in the summer. It breaks the snow in the winter. And it creates a micro climate for those grasses and clovers in-between the tussocks.”

And he talks of his faith in organic-based, non-acid-based fertilisers. “As soon as you start growing massive amounts of grass and then you start putting [manufactured fertiliser] urea on it, then of course you’re going to have runoff. And most farmers, except the poor old dairy boys, would agree you don’t want to be doing that. You’re pushing the envelope too far if you need to use high amounts of urea.”

Intensive farming south of the Harper River, in and around Ryton Lakes, in February of this year. Image: Google Maps

The Cawthron report, commissioned by ECan and DoC, compared predictions for nutrient levels in high country lakes from a 2014 computer model, recently updated, with in-lake values. It found measured nutrient concentrations were under-predicted in several lakes, including Lakes Emma and Denny.

This could be down to many factors, the report said, including higher-than-expected loads from tributaries or groundwater, and the internal recycling and processing of nutrients.

(Heron was significantly over-predicted for nitrogen, while Māori-front and Hawdon were over-predicted for phosphorus. None of the 13 lakes met plan objectives, based on 2015-2020 mean concentrations for chlorophyll-a.)

One surprising finding was the difference between predicted and measured concentrations from streams draining from largely undeveloped areas within the DoC estate. The department is now responsible for managing a considerable area of land in the Ashburton basin and upper Rangitata River following tenure review and other processes.

The Cawthron report suggested follow-up studies and monitoring for Lakes Emma, Denny, Clearwater, and Hawdon.

Turning to ECan’s report on the expansion of intensive agricultural land use, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers.

Raw land-use change of 6847 hectares can be broken down to 1139 hectares in the Waimakariri – “whoop-de-do”, says Drummond – 3918 hectares for the Rakaia, 1069 hectares (Hakatere/Ashburton) and 721 hectares (Rangitata).

Forty-three percent of new development, or about 2914 hectares, took place in the most recent period, between 2013 and 2019.

Of the roughly 102,000 hectares of developable land in the hill and high country, the proportion now fully developed for intensive farming has increased from 29 percent to 36 percent. The most developed area is the Upper Rakaia, at 48 percent.

The Harper River area in 2007. Image: Google Maps

It’s worth comparing the ECan study’s findings with the Mackenzie Basin – where greening and intensification has been nationally prominent.

A 2018 paper found intensively farmed areas in the Mackenzie more than doubled between 2003 and 2017, from 20,000ha to 45,000ha. But that’s within an area of flat and easy country spanning 269,000ha.

That means only 17 percent of the Basin is developed, compared to 36 percent of the ECan report’s study area.

The ECan paper says: “The same patterns of land-use intensification and associated adverse environmental effects in other parts of Canterbury [beyond the Mackenzie] have received less attention.”

Ann Brower, a senior lecturer at University of Canterbury, and lead author of the 2018 Mackenzie paper, says consenting rules within so-called ‘recommended areas for protection’ needs to be clearer, instead of leaving it up to councils to decide on a case-by-case basis.

Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, says her complaints about inappropriate development often descend into an argument over the definition improved pasture – which, in many council plans, is too loose.

Agricultural land use intensification is ongoing, the ECan paper’s authors note. “This suggests that a more coordinated approach and better alignment between management agencies is still required to deliver on national and regional objectives for the maintenance and protection of biodiversity, ecosystem health and natural character.”

Existing multi-agency groups include the Mackenzie Basin Agency Alignment Programme and Ashburton Lakes Working Group.

Agencies fail to protect

Somewhat uncomfortably, the ECan paper makes special mention of the failures of councils – including ECan. District and regional council planning and regulatory processes have failed to implement objectives and policies in the Canterbury regional policy statement, the paper says.

(Policy 9.3.1 states: “areas identified as significant will be protected to ensure no net loss of indigenous biodiversity or indigenous biodiversity values as a result of land use activities”.)

Similarly, councils’ planning and regulatory measures have failed to protect sensitive aquatic environments and wetlands.

ECan’s regional planning manager Andrew Parrish didn’t answer the criticisms directly. In an emailed statement, he said the report provides “helpful insights”. ”Our initial analysis requires follow-up in the field, but it provides a helpful basis for informing policy settings.

The report will feed into its review of its regional policy statement (RPS), scheduled to be notified by the end of 2024.

Chapter 9 of the RPS – which district councils and ECan must act on – requires significant biodiversity, including indigenous vegetation, to be protected. Parrish says: “Since the RPS was made operative in 2013, Environment Canterbury has been working alongside district councils to progressively update their district plans to comply with this requirement.”

Ashburton Mayor Neil Brown and Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The ECan report also criticises other agencies – the authors name LINZ and DoC – for approving native vegetation clearance and farm development without regard to district and regional council requirements.

DoC’s director-aquatic, Elizabeth Heeg, makes no mention of past decisions. She said, in an emailed statement, the ECan report reinforces the findings of the Cawthron report “and concerns about the impact of declining water quality on freshwater habitats and species sensitive to nutrients”.

“DOC will work closely with mana whenua, Environment Canterbury and landowners to protect the ecological values of these high-country lakes and streams, and implement a catchment-scale response to improve water quality.”

Meanwhile, LINZ’s head of Crown property Jerome Sheppard says it’s not true the Commissioner of Crown Lands, or LINZ, operates without regard for Resource Management Act requirements. Leaseholders are told when they apply for consents they’re responsible for obtaining other necessary approvals.

The commissioner must weigh up the desirability of protecting inherent values against the “desirability of making the land easier to farm”, Sheppard says. DoC is consulted – and, critics would say, often ignored – and information is obtained about inherent values.

In Wellington, the Environment Select Committee has recently reported back on the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill. Sheppard said it would makes changes to the consenting process for lessees, including a greater emphasis on the protection of ecologically significant vegetation and habitat for indigenous fauna, as well as consideration of cross-boundary effects.

Isn’t this happening a little too late?

Canterbury’s biodiversity strategy from 2008 highlights why the hill and high country is so important – around 90 percent of previously extensive indigenous vegetation in lowland and coastal areas are gone. In some places, less than 1 percent remains.

Meanwhile, water quality in about a third of Canterbury’s small to medium-sized, high-country lakes monitored by ECan is deteriorating. Two-thirds of the lakes exceed objectives and limits for their trophic, or nutrient, state. Pertinently, most lakes that don’t meet plan objectives are in the upper Ashburton, Rakaia or Waimakariri catchments.

Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, says what’s needed most is a change in attitude by authorities.

There are already any number of policies and rules for protection, she says, and the Resource Management Act, of 1991, required councils to map significant natural areas. “But it just doesn’t get implemented.”

She hopes a strengthened national policy statement on indigenous biodiversity will ensure councils act consistently. But she worries: “By the time we get that all across the line there’ll be hardly any left.”

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

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