There are growing calls to stop cattle grazing on conservation land after a groundswell of opposition to an application in the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.
A braided river, towering snow-covered peaks, lush beech forest and grazing cattle – a growing number of people are arguing one of these things just doesn’t belong here. The Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area on the West Coast has been at the heart of the sales pitch of the 100% Pure tourism campaign, but alongside the Haast River cattle have also been grazing for decades or longer.
Environmental groups say grazing is damaging the valley’s environmental values, while the applicant John Cowan, who wants a 15-year licence to continue grazing 736ha in the valley, says it is improving the land and provides vital employment to an area with few opportunities.
Cowan has grazed cattle from the confluence of the Landsborough and Haast rivers alongside State Highway 6 since 1978. The area is in the Cook River to Haast River Conservation Area, part of the Te Wahipounamu park, and adjoins Mt Aspiring National Park. Cowan says the land has been grazed for more than 150 years. The licence would allow 60 cows year-round and 50 calves for six months a year.
The application has been overwhelmingly opposed during the submission process, with 34 submissions calling for DOC to decline the application, and two in support. Federated Mountain Clubs’ submission said the area’s conservation status was meant to protect the environmental values of the area and cattle were degrading the forest and waterways.
“It is clear that [grazing] is incompatible with conservation purposes. The fact that this is an existing use is irrelevant,” FMC said.
Cattle had also been straying into the adjacent national park, but fencing off the area would further hamper access to the public land.
In its submission, Forest and Bird said braided rivers are rare ecosystems which could be damaged by wandering stock.
“It is no longer acceptable for DOC to consider such activities on riverbeds in public conservation land.”
The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) also opposed the project and said it had visited the site twice in the past two years and saw serious damage to vegetation, cattle faeces in waterways, cattle grazing in Mt Aspiring National Park (where stock is prohibited) and public access obstructed by electric fences.
“It is entirely inappropriate for DOC to be facilitating the presence of cattle in the Haast River while central government is simultaneously pursuing regulations to ensure stock is excluded from freshwater.”
But Cowan’s application said grazing had a ‘positive effect on vegetation in the Haast’ as it kept weeds in check.
“The alternative is a large expense in maintaining weeds such as gorse, broom, blackberry and ragwort,” Cowan said.
Cattle also had a positive impact on the visual values of the land, he said.
“The way in which the cattle graze the Haast Valley, roaming freely about the river flats, creates a beautiful scene, one which is highly photographed [and] painted by artists.”
If the licence wasn’t renewed, three of his staff would lose their jobs, he said.
A DOC assessment said the grazing had little impact, but that has been disputed by many of the submissions, one of which included more than a dozen images showing cattle had caused environmental damage.
The case has raised questions about whether grazing should be permitted on conservation land at all.
Overall, DOC figures show the number of grazing concessions has declined by more than a third in the past decade, from 2252 in 2008, to 1471 in 2018, only eight of which were in national parks.
DOC acting director of planning, permissions and land, Andrew Baucke, said while some management plans called for conservation land to be retired from grazing, there was no policy to reduce the number of licences. In general, grazing licences were assessed on a case-by-case basis, ensuring “any adverse effects on conservation resources have been avoided, remedied or mitigated”.
But the Conservation Authority, which gives advice to DOC on behalf of the public, wants to see the department stop licence renewals. Authority chair Warren Parker said the practice risked damaging how tourists perceive the country and impacted water quality and endangered species.
“Some of the grazing leases are along rivers on high profile tourist routes and this presents an image that is incongruent with effective nature stewardship,” Parker said.
But Federated Farmers president Katie Milne said grazing should continue. Milne is from a family that has farmed in South Westland for generations. She said grazing had little impact at a low intensity.
“Where you take stock out, weeds take over,” Milne said. “Alternatively, you have to use agrichemicals, which is what DOC does in the Landsborough [up the valley from Cowan’s farm]. They now have an extensive programme for invasive weeds. If DOC’s going to remove stock from conservation land, they’re going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars – that’s a massive burden on its limited budget.”
She said wild deer have a far greater impact on the forest.
EDS chair Gary Taylor said cattle never provided any benefit and he questioned whether DOC was getting value for money from the leases. Last year, DOC made $1,695,000 from grazing licences.
“Leases are seldom competitively tendered, which also leads to troublesome expectations of right of renewal, in effect gifting a perpetual right to degrade conservation values,” Taylor said. “Any one of EDS’s supporters would happily pay DOC $2000 a year to fully retire the Upper Haast, and a further $5000 for the lower Haast, which is the gross revenue DOC gets from the two Haast Valley leases. But there is no conservation tender process that allows this.”