'No one's above the law': David Parker's message for boycotting Southland farmers

Environment Minister David Parker has issued a stark warning for farmers in Southland planning to boycott new winter grazing rules, telling them "no one is above the law".

His comments come after the head of Southland Federated Farmers urged farmers in the region not to get resource consent when it comes to certain aspects of winter grazing, because new legislation addressing the practice is "not fit for purpose".

Geoffrey Young, president of the farming lobby group's Southland chapter, says he has "serious concerns" over the rules - which are part of newly introduced freshwater regulations - particularly around pugging and re-sowing deadlines. He says he wants to send a clear message to the Government that farmers are unhappy.

But the Environment Minister on Friday told Newshub Young's actions were "irresponsible", adding "no one is above the law".

On Thursday Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage also condemned Young's boycott, tweeting that it's "irresponsible when the NPS [National Policy Statement] was developed after full public consultation and scientific input".

But Young is defending his actions. Speaking to Dominic George on Magic Talk's Rural Today on Friday morning, he said farmers weren't against improving freshwater conditions, they just didn't think this was the best way to go about it.

"We're not flouting the rules. 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 and that's backed up by 23 catchment groups that are all largely founded and led by farmers down here, so it's not about that at all."

The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management was signed off earlier this month and will come into effect on September 3. Young said new rules in the plan around re-sowing - which give a deadline of November 1 for farmers in Southland and Otago - were not practical in the region due to the weather.

"In a wet spring that we can get down here it may be late November or even December by the time farmers are able to get some of those paddocks re-sown - so that's the nonsense of it . Farmers will certainly get those paddocks into new crop or grass as soon as they can but it's totally weather related."

He also said rules around pugging - hoof prints in the ground - were unrealistic.

"The rules state that unless you have a resource consent, you can have pugging no deeper than 20cm anywhere in the paddock, and pugging of any depth must not cover more than 50 percent of a paddock… that's totally unachievable at all times, I think."

Young proposed farmers have more control in creating a farm environment management plan, with a specific section for dealing with winter grazing.

He said, although such a plan was set to become mandatory soon in any case, as it stood it required certification by specially qualified non-farmers.

"We just don't have people that are qualified, and I'm not even certain what that entails.

"There's not enough people around that would certify every farmer's farm plan. It needs to be written by farmers and taken ownership [of] by farmers - and that's the way to improve water quality, if farmers take ownership of it and write their own plan. 

"They know their own farm and they can do their best job then."

Young said the boycott was not aimed at regional councils - which are just tasked with implementing the rules - but the Environment Minister.

"We hope that we can ultimately get some dialogue with those people and hopefully get these rules changed because they're certainly not fit for purpose."

Parker told Newshub the Government was "determined to improve and protect our waterways" and that Young "should play his part".

"Intensive winter grazing done poorly severely pollutes rivers and estuaries," he said.

"A single hectare can lose 30 tonnes of sediment each year. This can be reduced by two-thirds if done properly but that is still far more than a grass paddock, which loses very little.

"Whether there is a breach of the law and whether there should be any enforcement action taken is a matter for the local council."