Opinion: Dairy conversions in the Mackenzie Basin are a turd in a teacup

Cow in field on hill above smoking factory, Hexham, Northumberland, NE England UK. (Photo by: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty.

OPINION: Trashing the Mona Lisa. Golfing in the Sahara. Dropping a turd in a teacup.

Some of the more colourful phrases that have been used to describe the idea of intensive dairying in the Mackenzie Basin.

The perverse concept of trucking in thousands of cows to trample and urinate all over some of our most unique South Island landscapes and habitats is as preposterous as it is unfeasible.

That's why Greenpeace is saying enough is enough. We need to stop these dairy conversions.

Whether it's through water regulations or the land tenure review which sells public land to farmers, the Government needs to act.      

Even Federated Farmers has said this latest incursion into the Mackenzie is "not ideal".

The most recent proposal is for accountant and developer Murray Valentine to run a 15,000 dairy herd in a wilderness home to some 23 threatened native animals and plants.

The huge dairy farm will involve the destruction of precious tussock land  just south of Aoraki, Mount Cook, with burning, spraying, clearing, drilling and hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser.

Much of this will be carried out on Crown land - property owned by all of us. Large parts of the farm are leased by Mr Valentine from the Government.

The public land earmarked for development has been described by the Department of Conservation as one of the last remnants of Mackenzie Basin in its pre-European form.

Some of its landscape features date back to the beginnings of time.

Simons Pass is the only property to straddle a complete sequence of terminal moraines and outwash gravels from the Pleistocene age.

It is home to fragile populations of birds including the nationally vulnerable banded dotterel and the critically endangered black stilt. There are only 100 left in existence.

Add to that two threatened native grasshoppers, a threatened spotted skink endemic to NZ, and 18 threatened plant species.

Judge Jackson from the Environment Court said halting development in the Mackenzie "may be the last opportunity to protect the aggregation of landscape and ecological qualities."

Dairy conversion in progress.
Dairy conversion in progress. Photo credit: Jason Blair, Greenpeace.

In order to convert golden tussock land into artificial circles of grass for cows, 57 million cubic litres of glacial water will be taken a year.

The water, all fully consented, would be transported along an irrigation pipe, and sprayed through pivot irrigators creating those bright green circles already proliferating in the southern Mackenzie.

The thin soils will require huge amounts of fertiliser to grow pasture for the cows, much of which will end up in the Waitaki catchment as nutrient pollution.

Conservative estimates put the extra nitrogen going into the environment at 76,615 kg a year.

Simons Pass, the part of the farm owned by the Crown is under tenure review, where the farmer or developer leasing the land gets to buy it off the Government in exchange for some land set aside for conservation.

The Government department that looks after tenure review is LINZ - Land Information New Zealand. This department was responsible for granting Mr Valentine many of the permissions to destroy the tussock lands and make way for intensive dairying.

One phrase used frequently in the consents from LINZ is that the "potential for adverse effects on inherent values are outweighed by the benefits to farming."

Given that around 80 consents and permissions have been granted to Mr Valentine from LINZ, ECAN, and the District council, it would appear that the benefits to farming have weighed in pretty heavily.

Although he doesn't yet own the farm Mr Valentine is pushing ahead with an irrigation pipeline which runs across public land, some of which may be set aside for conservation.

One Government department, LINZ gave him permission, but their counterparts at another department, the Department of Conservation have strenuously objected to the pipeline saying it will have adverse effects on biodiversity and the landscape. They are recognised as the experts in this field.

Mr Valentine has been quoted as saying that he only intends to run 5,000 cows, although the consent for 15,000 has not been withdrawn.

This dairy mega farm is not a done deal.

Originally he talked about creating seven farms and selling them off. There are a number of ways people worried about the fragile environment of the Mackenzie can stop it.

Although Mr Valentine has most of the permissions he needs there are consents outstanding for the dairy sheds and accommodation from Mackenzie District Council. Greenpeace is asking the council to decline these consents.

Also the tenure review process which would see the Government sell Mr Valentine land for the dairy operation is not yet complete.

The sale of land has to be signed off by the Minister of Lands Eugenie Sage.

Both of these may become a rallying points for those trying to save this last part of the Mackenzie from a plague of cows.

Putting cows into the Mackenzie is emblematic of the extremes the dairy industry is prepared to go to in its blinkered quest for more of the same, cheap bulk milk powder.

Progressive farmers know that the future for New Zealand's dairy industry is in higher value products, more money from fewer cows so we can take the strain off our rivers.

It is time for the Government to use water regulations in the National Policy Statement to head off these crazy conversions before they start to impinge on our remote and beautiful high country.

Phil Vine is a journalist working for Greenpeace.

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