Government adjusts winter grazing rules for farmers, hints more changes could be on the way

Cabinet has made a number of adjustments to new freshwater regulations after farmers across the country complained rules around winter grazing were impractical and unworkable.

The new regulations were signed off earlier this month but have been sharply criticised by the farming community. In Southland, farmers threatened to boycott some of the rules in a bid to send a message to the Government they were not happy.

That move was condemned by Environment Minister David Parker, who told Newshub "no one is above the law" when asked what he thought of the matter.

However, it appears the message has got through to the Government at least in part, with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor saying on Wednesday some changes within the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater had been made.

"It became apparent that some of the regulations within the freshwater standards – including ones around winter grazing – need to be adjusted, so we've done that," O'Connor said.

"The regulations on pugging depths around fixed water troughs and gateways weren’t practical so we have made some adjustments to make them more realistic. Discrete areas around fixed water troughs and gateways have now been exempted. We’ve also amended the definition for pugging to provide more clarity."

The definition of pugging has now been changed to "penetration of soil more than 5cm", and the rules have been clarified to state that the 20cm pugging depth limit does not apply around fixed structures.

O'Connor said he had met with Parker and that officials from the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries would be working together to address other issues related to winter grazing, specifically around mapping.

He also hinted more changes may follow if necessary.

"There are some challenges ahead of us but I'm confident we’ll get this right. Where the regulations are impractical or unclear we will continue to make adjustments," he said.

"It is a change in practice for some farmers but we’ll make sure that it achieves the outcomes that the vast majority of farmers say they want – which is better water quality, better animal welfare standards and making sure that we can sell good-quality product to the world."

On Tuesday, Federated Farmers water spokesperson Chris Allen said the original rules were "entirely unworkable" for Southland farmers.

"Our concerns are not just over one single aspect of the direction or trajectory of the new regulations, but the fact that the new direction is complicated, not clear, and poorly defined."

He was welcoming the fact that the Government had entered into dialogue with farmers.

"The Government at last seems to be more willing to listen to farmers who know how things actually work in terms of production, the seasons, topography and animal welfare."

Speaking to Magic Talk last week, Geoffrey Young, president of Federated Farmers Southland, said farmers weren't against improving freshwater conditions, they just didn't think the new rules were the best way to go about it.

"We're not flouting the rules," he said. 

"It's simply that we don't agree that a resource consent in itself will do anything to help water. Farmers are constantly trying to improve their practice in terms of winter grazing and improving water quality everywhere."