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Is conservation enough?

Is conservation enough?
Anne and Philip Todhunter from Lake Heron Station are concerned that the water quality in the Ashburton Lakes area is deteriorating. PHOTO SHARON DAVIS

Farmers from a high country station are concerned that conservation efforts spanning more than two decades are not enough.

A recent report found that several Ashburton high country lakes were at an ecological tipping point, despite catchment farms meeting or exceeding the latest regulations.

Philip and Anne Todhunter from Lake Heron Station, which borders the top end of Lake Heron, worry that regulation is not the answer.

The 19,600-hectare high country station has been run by Philip’s family since 1917.

They run 11,000 merino sheep and a number of breeding cows, with various tourism activities bringing in extra income.

Since taking over the farm 27 years ago, the couple have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on conservation and fencing waterways that impact Lake Heron or feed into the Maori Lakes.

They started this 20 or more years ago, well ahead of any regulations - because they believed it was the right thing to do.

“Our time here is fleeting in the vast scheme of things. We don’t want our legacy to be the degrading of the land here - or downstream," Anne said.

“We’re not extractors of the land and environment but custodians of it."

Philip said there was a strong connection to the land for family farmers.

“When land has been in a family for generations, there is a very strong attachment, understanding and appreciation of the land.

“Lake Heron Station has fenced off streams since 1997.

Mid Canterbury’s Lake Heron. PHOTO SHARON DAVIS

“We don't bring in dairy grazers for the winter for biosecurity and environmental reasons.”

They have also fenced off sensitive tussock areas and replanted riverbanks.

Philip said the nature of farming was to earn money from the land alongside preserving the naturalness, biodiversity and landscapes – as well as controlling weeds and pests.

“We’ve made a huge investment in the water quality – but the water quality in the lakes continues to decline, which is a concern,” Anne said.

The pasture systems and minimum nitrogen use all contribute to farming with a “light touch”, Philip said.

While they are not the only farm in the lakes' catchment, Philip and Anne are concerned that regulation is not the answer.

Regulation is a blunt tool and it's not always fit for purpose, they say. Too often, regulations lack nuance and don’t necessarily end up with the best environmental outcomes, Philip said.

In some instances, farmers have anticipated certain regulations and modified areas before the regulations to protect them came into effect.

The regulations - such as stock exclusion zones - come with unintended consequences, he said.

“When you exclude stock you then get an issue with wilding pines, elderberry and weeds such as broom, gorse and willows.”

There were also ongoing costs of weed control – a cost that would not be needed if a low level of grazing was allowed to keep the weeds under control.

“Regulations can affect the profitability of the farm.”

Sometimes the effects of stopping an activity are minimal, while the cost is enormous.

“As soon as you put a fence up, you create an effect – and rivers are dynamic and will change their course.”

Philip said New Zealand was at risk of becoming a country of 'no', with layer upon layer of bureaucracy.

“As a country, we are not good at investing in good long-term fixes. We tend to be reactive.”

As a leasehold farm, Lake Heron has consent from Land Information NZ to clear a small amount of matagouri, with input from the Department of Conservation - and have to apply to the Ashburton District Council for consent too.

Philip said some of the non-government organisations and lobby groups needed to better understand the consequences of their lobbying.

“The costs of consenting can be so onerous that funds are diverted away from conservation initiatives,” he said.

The Todhunters plant grass with the winter crop mix in exposed areas. It helps the soil and acts as a catch crop for the nitrogen and urine from the sheep.

“Lake Heron Station has a cooler climate and a short growing season. We are very limited in what we can produce, and we don’t have the opportunity for irrigation. We make the best of what we have rather than try to bang it into shape.”

Philip said high country farming currently wasn’t profitable – but he was hopeful of that changing.

A tourism income stream had helped this year, and long-term wool contracts had also helped “insulate” the business.

“Good stewardship comes at a cost, whether it is on private or public land. But if it is not done the landscape suffers,” Philip said.

“We’re trying to make a difference in our own place. It is the only thing we can control,” Anne said.

One of the streams through Lake Heron Station is one of the regions most successful salmon spawning sites.

“They (the salmon) wouldn’t keep coming here if the stream was degraded,” they said.

Water quality issues

The Ministry for the Environment’s Ashburton Lakes lessons-learnt report found the lakes were shallow, with slow flush rates, which made them vulnerable to land use changes.

According to the report “90% or more” of the water quality issues in the Ashburton Lakes was due to leaching and run-off from adjacent farms.

Additional minor sources (less than 10%) were potential seepage of human wastewater at Lake Clearwater and Lake Camp, and waterfowl waste at Lakes Emma and Emily.

The quality of the lakes had continued to fall, despite farms in the catchment areas meeting or exceeding regulations.

Allowing farmers to average nitrogen losses across the farm, had allowed grazing intensification (and leaching hotspots) near the lakes.

Of the eight lakes monitored for the report, Lake Denny had the worst trophic level index, meaning it had the poorest water quality. Neighbouring Lake Emma was next poorest followed by Lake Heron and the Maori Lakes, with the front Maori Lake in slightly better condition than the back Maori Lake.

Lake Camp had the best water quality, followed by Lakes Emily and Clearwater. However, none met the freshwater management goals for trophic levels.

By Sharon Davis