The Government is considering proposals that will change the way the high country is farmed. Farmers fear that could spell the end of this unique slice of New Zealand life. Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor investigate.
The rutted track climbs up and up. Short, thick tussocks make the trail hard to discern, and a cold gale howls down the valley.
John Templeton doesn’t break stride. He bends into the wind and forges upwards with the speed and sure-footedness of a mountain goat. A dozen excitable dogs trot at his ankles, and at his side Holly Addison, a 24-year-old shepherd.
The sun is bright in a clear, blue autumn sky. Far below, strands of the Rakaia river weave their way through grey, shingle beds. Mt Arrowsmith towers high above, snow sparkling on its unforgiving peaks.
The air is dry and crisp, and in the high afternoon sun, everything appears clearer. JT, as everyone knows him, and Addison are searching for a flock of merino sheep, barely perceptible as they graze among the brown hill-top pastures.
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After a good hour or more of walking, into a wind that pummels the air from the lungs, hundreds of sheep come into view, huddled on the crest of a rounded hill. The pair climb a ridge, taking them above the flock. Farmer Philip Todhunter hikes in the opposite direction, above the shoreline of a sapphire-coloured mountain tarn. He drives the flock up from below, zigzagging up the steep, ridged hill. Slowly, the merino are herded through a gate, the dogs moving low to the ground at JT’s whistled commands.
It’s a four hour operation, just to shift livestock from one pasture to the next, at the furthermost edge of nowhere.
It grabs everyone by the heart because [of the] beautiful views and we live in beautiful places. It’s nice on a good day, and that’s when most people come but on a rough day, it’s not so good.
The rugged, bleak beauty of New Zealand’s high country should be a god-forsaken place of lost hope and privation. But the seemingly changeless landscape has been conquered by farmers, shepherds and hardy merino. Since the early days of European settlement, high country sheep stations have been cherished by New Zealanders as a cultural icon, part of the nation’s unique identity.
But now some farmers fear generations-old traditions of husbandry are being lost to a raft of changes, inflexible bureaucracy and more hostile public attitudes to farming.
The high country runs from Southland to the top of the South Island, in the rain shadow of the alps. More than one million hectares is Crown-owned, and leased in perpetuity to farmers. There are around 150 high country farming families left, a slice of settler history that have carved out a living from the land for three or four generations. Runholders can only use the land for grazing and they must control pests and weeds.
Traditionally, rents were low but the leaseholders had little control over the land. For any other commercial activity - like tourism, hunting or skiing - they must gain a permit from the Commissioner of Crown Lands, currently Craig Harris. Farmers also need consent to increase stock numbers, and even to burn vegetation.
This regime endured for 50 years, until in the 1990s a changing economic climate and declining revenues saw a desire within the farming community to create more opportunities from the land.
The Government began negotiating with leaseholders, offering them freehold title in exchange for land being protected for conservation. That process was formalised in the 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act, in a process known as tenure review.
Over 25 years, the Crown bought back more than 330,000ha, creating or expanding conservation zones in Ahuriri, Hakatere, Hāwea, Ruataniwha, Pisa and The Remarkables. Leaseholders gained more than 370,000ha.
Critics argued land was being sold on for vast sums, or converted to luxury housing or intensive farming, making millions for runholders who had paid peppercorn rents.
After a report from Land Information NZ said the process favoured farmers at the expense of the environment, Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage announced it would be scrapped.
The Government is now drawing up new proposals for a consenting regime to govern farming - and any other activities - on remaining Crown pastoral land.
Sage released a discussion document - Enduring Stewardship of Crown Pastoral Land - and consultation ended more than a year ago, with more than 3000 submissions.
Sage, who also holds the conservation portfolio, says there was strong support to end tenure review.
Parliamentary counsel is still drafting legislation and Sage hopes to introduce it before September’s election.
A Cabinet paper, released in December says tenure review will be replaced with a regulatory system, that will place environmental considerations over that of pastoral farming. Lease-holders believe that will make high country farming much more difficult, and harder to make a living from.
The paper concedes the costs of the new regime will fall on the lease-holders, but the Government has not calculated how much that is likely to be. “Changes to decision-making will impact on the future ability of leaseholders to change the use of the leased land – this could affect future productivity gains enabled through discretionary consents.”
JT working with his dogs on Lake Heron Station in Canterbury.
JT working with his dogs on Lake Heron Station in Canterbury.
With weather-scoured cheeks and a wiry frame, JT is the gruff embodiment of uncomplaining back country manhood. He is a third-generation farm manager, and arrived at Lake Heron Station, tucked away in Canterbury’s Ashburton Lakes, in January.
I’ve been farming all my life, left school the day I was 15, started work the next day.
“It’s something that gets hold of you that you probably can’t explain... a passion that becomes installed in you.
“I’ve seen some pretty incredible sights … some pretty spectacular scenery and you gotta take a breath and take it in because it is pretty easy to take it all for granted.”
He says high country farming is a way of life under threat. “I can look at it honestly because I don't own any land - and I never have - but I’ve been in the game a long time.
“It’s not getting any easier, there is no doubt about that. There is now a stigma attached to high country ownership that isn’t correct - and I think it is because of the way it has been portrayed by government departments.”
Philip Todhunter with a merino fleece in the Lake Heron woolshed.
Philip Todhunter with a merino fleece in the Lake Heron woolshed.
Lake Heron has been in the Todhunter family for over a century. It’s a place of contrasting landscapes, from the floor to a tussock-covered basin, to scree-covered slopes that climb up to the Alps, two mighty glaciers and an icy stream that appears to flow backwards into the Rakaia.
At just under 20,000 hectares it is 45km long. Close to the homestead, which is nestled behind tall pines on the lakeshore, the rainfall is about 700mm a year. At the western end of the property, close to the Main Divide, more than two metres falls.
Sheep-farming is in Philip Todhunter’s blood. His great-grandfather, Robert Charlton Todhunter imported merino rams from South Australia’s famed Collinsville empire and established a stud in the Rakaia Gorge. His father Bob, and brother Ben, continue to supply Lake Heron with merino, from Cleardale station in the next valley.
Initially, he chose a different career path, training as a fixed-wing pilot and later helicopter pilot, and flying all over New Zealand, Laos and Antarctica.
My father was very young – in his early 40s – and I was much more interested in learning to fly.
He took over the property, with wife Anne, a lawyer and mountain guide, in 1998. They currently have 11,000 sheep and a 10-year contract to supply wool clothing company Icebreaker, as well as a cattle operation.
But Philip Todhunter is deeply worried that the new proposals will place restrictions on the conditions attached to farming, and that those will be impossible to meet. He is chairman of the High Country Accord Trust, set up to represent farmers.
The new regime will already add to the compliance demands required through the Resource Management Act, regional and district council regulations and pending national policy statements on freshwater and biodiversity.
There are concerns about plans to include a hierarchy in the new legislation that places environmental values above pastoral farming.
“What the Crown needs to be mindful of is that they don’t make the farming so impossible or uneconomic so that the environment suffers at the same time,” he said.
“You need a very good balance for both. There is very good evidence that suggests that farming and biodiversity can live in harmony. And both benefit.”
What irks high country farmers most is the perception they don’t care about the environment. In fact, they spend vast amounts of time and money on pest control.
Every property is different. But the fact is, in many areas that grazing has been removed, weeds and pests have proliferated, at a vast expense.
“Prior to that there was light sheep grazing, and an income being generated from the land. With that gone there’s a huge cost and scarring of landscape with very nasty chemicals being sprayed or just the land being neglected.”
Farmers believe there is a misconception that without them, the land will return to a picture-postcard wilderness. At Lake Heron, the tangle-branched and thorny matagouri, or ‘wild Irishman’ would carpet the valley, making it impassable. “The matagouri takes over and that makes it pretty unpleasant,” JT says. “It only takes 30-40 years and it will be away - and it won’t look so nice.
“Tussock loves being - dare I say it - grazed and burned. It regenerates and bounces back.”
Environmental and conservation groups submitting on the proposals want the Government to continue purchasing pastoral leases for conservation purposes.
Many don’t like the economic term “natural capital” included in the proposals, which refers to the benefits humans gain from the natural environment, whether that’s farming, mining or recreation.
Some, like Greenpeace, also want a number of activities banned on Crown pastoral land, including new dairy conversions, livestock intensification, winter cropping and the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides.
Sage agrees that some of the leaseholders have concerns because the new bill makes changes to the criteria that the Commissioner of Crown Land considers when they get applications for activities like burning, cultivation, spraying and the destruction of shrublands and tussock. “We want to ensure that we have a long-term sustainable, pastoral regime,” she says. “And the bill responds to the public concern about the loss of inherent values, which the Crown Pastoral Land Act was supposed to recognise and provide for their protection.
“But the current CPLA is too much of a balancing act. And because of the test around the desirability of making the land easy to farm it meant that generally applications to change, and intensify were approved. And we want to make sure that we have a much more sustainable regime and those really high landscape, biodiversity values are protected while allowing sustainable farming.”
Sage says there has been an increase in intensification, which has concerned iwi and the public. “It is extensive [farming], but there has been quite a lot of conversion, oversowing, topdressing, ryegrass and clover, particularly on the lower country and a lot of intensification - not of the whole property, but particularly areas. And because of the desire to increase production applications to do that on more and more land.”
She doesn’t want to drive high country farmers from the land. “There’s 1.2m ha of Crown land in the high country, and where that has been managed with a conservative regime, not overstocking, taking care of matagouri, shrublands and gullies and the like, those landscape and biodiversity values have been sustained.
A lot of the land owners have done quite significant weed and pest control...so there is a partnership required with weed and pest control - and we have been trying to get more funding for that.
Farmers fear the proposed legislation could undermine the pastoral lease contract and scuttle assumptions about property rights - a battle that is likely to pit high country farmers against the Government in a court battle.
Lease-holders thought they had some certainty about where they stood after a 2013 legal settlement. But one lawyer Stuff spoke with suggested a sequel to that legal fight was looming.
Sage says: “I would like to understand how they think this is an encroachment on property rights. We are not changing the rights of pastorage or the right to quiet enjoyment, nor are we changing the rental regime.
“This land is crown land, the Crown needs to ensure that those inherent values are protected as part of the management of that land.”
The sun rises over Lake Tekapo.
The sun rises over Lake Tekapo.
Until recently, Todhunter said the Crown was “a benign landowner, relatively absent.”
“The Crown felt that everyone would go through tenure review and there wouldn’t be any pastoral leases left. That was probably a naive assumption,” he says.
“In the last couple of years …, [it] has focused much more on their management...and has realised that [it] will be at a lessor for the long-term.”
He says the relationship could change for the better. “It just depends how the Crown performs its role.
“I’d like to see them work alongside lessees. All a regulatory approach does is waving a stick rather than working alongside their managers and stewards to get the best outcomes for the property.”
Like many station owners, the Todhunters diversified into tourism, converting a century-old cottage into a cosy guest house and running Methven Heli-skiing.
“You can make a good living just by farming alone. We’re fortunate that we live in an area of high natural beauty … and welcoming other people to share what we have, and having more strings to the bow, certainly helps build resilience.”
For other runholders, diversification was the only way they could keep going. The Simpson family have farmed Balmoral Station, on Lake Tekapo, since the 1970s.
They nearly lost it all after a rabbit plague erupted in the MacKenzie Basin in the 1990s combined with a fickle wool market. “We had to diversify to actually survive,” Andrew Simpson says. “Through the 90s were terrible years, we hit red flags and interest rates that were 23 per cent on some of our money, so we had to get creative.”
Their first venture was forestry and trading in carbon credits. The family moved into tourism in 2000 - with accommodation, horse-trekking and a golf-course - and property development. Son Sam continues to focus on producing merino wool and meat, running more than 5000 sheep.
A new $1m irrigation system has increased profitability - and with coronavirus devastating the nation’s tourism industry, it will be farming that props up the business.
Andrew Simpson’s father began working on Mt Cook Station in 1928, and he grew up on Mt Hay on the other side of the lake, which he now runs with brother John.
Balmoral is a 10,000 hectareswathe of breathtaking vistas in the heart of the MacKenzie. With views across Lake Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook, it encompasses Mt John Hill and takes in Lake Alexandrina and Lake McGregor.
“Growing up in the MacKenzie you get to really think this is the best place in the world,” Simpson says. “It’s a harsh environment to farm. But you get really attached to the land and it’s just in your bones.”
The Simpsons bought the property in 1975 and wanted to pass Balmoral onto their three children, and six grandchildren. So, they entered into tenure review - a process that dragged on for 17 years and cost the family tens of thousand of dollars, before they eventually dropped out.
“They initially wanted half the property, which meant we would be unviable. We couldn’t continue to farm - we would be a glorified lifestyle block.
“And the cash only lasts one generation and that wasn’t a goal - we wanted our children and our grandchildren to take over and be proud of the property.”
Simpson set out to prove to the Crown that conservation values can be managed under private ownership. He established a trust board to manage biodiversity and fenced off 180ha of red tussock grassland, which is monitored and compared with an adjacent area grazed by sheep. The station also plants thousands of trees each year and spends upwards of $50,000 a year on pest management, including wilding pines, rabbits and wallabies.
“We are very good at managing weeds and pests. Had the Department of Conservation taken it over I don’t know that the same standard of management would have been there to look after it. They don’t have the budget.
“And it would be devastating to watch it fill up with wildings and be overrun by rabbits again.
“They’re very complex places to run and if all of the high country farmers stopped farming it would be a huge burden on the taxpayer to actually manage that land.”
The Covid-19 crisis may help heal that divide. “A lot of farmers, particularly our young farmers, have found themselves in a very lonely place in the last five years.
“I like to think the understanding might shift as people get to understand where their food comes from.
“And it’s our interests to tell our story so that people do understand. We still grow food, and we love the land. The two can coexist.”
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Words Andrea Vance
Images Iain McGregor
Design Kathryn George
Editor John Hartevelt