Hard evidence in short supply

Elizabeth McGruddy

Last year farmers turned out in their hundreds to meetings about the proposed National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater.

This year, another round of farmer meetings are on the go, this time about the proposed NPS for Indigenous Biodiversity.

According to the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), freshwater and biodiversity are both in crisis.

Both are declining.

Both need more and tougher national regulation to “halt the decline”.

MfE acknowledges sterling efforts from landowners and community groups, but sternly counsels we need to double down, otherwise some native plants and animals will disappear altogether.

We don’t want extinctions happening on our watch so let’s take a closer look at the data that shows the decline.

The best source of national data (native vegetation and species) is housed on MfE and StatisticsNZ websites, and the best source of regional data (native vegetation) can be found on the LAWA website.

At this point we encounter a difficulty.

The data available does not support the claimed crisis.

Let’s start with native vegetation.

At the national level, LAWA reports that between 1996 and 2012, New Zealand’s land cover remained “relatively stable”.

The biggest shifts were reductions in pasture, closely matched by increases in pines.

Changes in native landcover were less than 1 per cent (0.6 per cent to be precise).

In the most recent period for which data is available (2008-2012), the change in native landcover was negligible (0.2 per cent).

The picture is very similar at the regional level.

For example, in the Greater Wellington region, indigenous forest has remained stable at more than 200,000 hectares, and indigenous scrub was stable through to 2012 at around 70,000 hectares.

Smaller categories (tussock grasslands, herbaceous freshwater vegetation) were also stable at around 3-4000 hectares each.

Arguably the more interesting statistics come from the recent Beef & Lamb survey which found around one quarter of native vegetation is on sheep and beef farms.

Or from the QEII National Trust reporting the ongoing and increasing demand for covenants over special places on farmland, currently heading up towards 200,000 hectares.

The main impediment to more covenants is resourcing to cater for the ongoing backlog of applicants, plus support for the active management needed to stay on top of weeds and predators.

What about native species?

For that we rely on DOC threatened species classifications. DOC tell us New Zealand has around 14,000 native species. Of these, around one-third are “data deficient” (no threat classification), around one-third are “not threatened”, and around 20 per cent are ‘naturally uncommon”.

That leaves 5 per cent classified as “vulnerable or declining” and 5 per cent classified “endangered or critical”.

In the top risk category, 500 “critical” species are potentially teetering on the brink, of which the biggest group (over 200 species) is “vascular plants”.

DOC also assess which species have improving or worsening conservation status.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, 99 per cent of species have no change in conservation status.

A few are improving (mainly our birds, mainly due to active predator management); and 1 per cent are worsening.

Again the “vascular plants” dominate this list (61 of the 86 species with worsening status).

So, from 14,000 native species, the data suggests we have a priority group of “vascular plants” dominating both the “critical” species and the “worsening” species.

This immediately begs the question who are they and where are they so we can prioritise the investments to bring them back from the brink.

Here the trail runs cold.

Other than a few words about kauri dieback, myrtle rust, and the inability of some plants to survive in the presence of possums or other browsers, the DOC threat classification report is silent on where are these species, what is happening with them, and what do we need to do to turn them around.

The proposed NPS is also strangely silent.

This does not bode well for the 1 per cent of species whose trends really are going the wrong way.

When the next category after “critical” is “extinct”, slogans are no substitute for substance.

We can dream up any number of heavy-duty top-down regulations.

But if MfE fail to come to the table with concrete data on the critical species, their own grim prognosis may well come true.

Back to the farmer meetings.

MfE are asking for submissions by early March; and Federated Farmers and Beef & Lamb have scheduled a dozen farmer meetings through February.

Canterbury people can hear what’s on the table and tell us how it can be improved on February 13, 1pm at the Darfield Recreation and Social Centre, North Terrace, Darfield.

– By Elizabeth McGruddy


Elizabeth McGruddy is Federated Farmers Senior Policy Adviser. The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of the Ashburton Guardian Co Ltd or any employee thereof