Farmers keen to increase native plant and bird life in hill country, but 'biodiversity not well understood' - study

Hundreds of farmers were interviewed about their views on hill country farming.
Hundreds of farmers were interviewed about their views on hill country farming. Photo credit: Getty

Sheep and beef farmers are keen to increase the amount of native birds and plants on their land, however the term biodiversity is "not well understood", according to the initial findings of an ongoing industry-led research programme into hill country farming.

The Hill Country Futures is a five-year programme aiming to understand what farmers, decision-makers and influencers think are the best outcomes for the future of hill country farming, and what can be done to achieve these outcomes.

As part of the programme 298 people were interviewed between July 2019 and March 2020, with the initial findings from those interviews recently published.

The interviews revealed most farmers were passionate about what they did and took pride in their work, however many had concerns around certain Government initiatives, particularly those relating to the environment, such as One Billion Trees and the Emission Trading Scheme. Constant new regulations were also found to be "confusing and overwhelming", and the media and public perception of farming seemed "too negative and unfair", farmers said.

The interviews also identified high rural land prices as being a major threat to the economic viability of hill country farming.

As well as stressing the importance of rural communities, farmers also said increasing biodiversity on their land was important, however, researchers found "the term 'biodiversity' was not well understood".

"We found that most farmers talked with enthusiasm and pride about native birds, native bush, and the stream life on their farm without ever using the term biodiversity," the report said.

"For some, native biodiversity was viewed as a 'nice to have' but did not see it as having a direct influence on farm production. Others discussed biodiversity more broadly – emphasising soil biodiversity, different plant species, pastoral mixtures, livestock breeds, and genetics – and spoke about the importance of biodiversity for their production and farm business."

Researchers said the interviews revealed that there were a number of different views on the productive or economic value of nature on farms. Some participants focused on synergies between environmental protection and financial well-being, researchers noted, while others said that rising regulatory costs were set to erode profitability, meaning environmentally conscious farmers would have less to invest in environmental projects.

As well as a failure to truly understand the meaning of "biodiversity", the term "soil health" also meant different things for different people, researchers found.

Despite the different views shared, the report said there was a "considerable consensus" that an ideal future for hill country farming called for a more integrated approach, "with excellent environmental and social outcomes running alongside a good profitable business model".

Researchers said there was still much work to be done in analysing the "large library of information" collected in the interviews, with the project's aim being to provide recommendations for action to support the future of hill country farming.

The Hill Country Futures programme is co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force.