Joanna Grigg

Submissions close on the National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity (NPSIB) March 14, with many farmers unaware of the implications and without submitting.

Submission numbers, as of nine days before closure, were 1160 compared to 17,000 for the Freshwater Proposal – barely 7%.

The proposed NPSIB is looking to lift the bar to get approval for clearance. While it recognises that vegetation may regenerate in areas that have been previously cleared, and makes provisions for farmers to clear it, farmers have to prove it’s regenerated in established pasture and doesn’t include threatened or at-risk species.

Hill country farmers up the eastern backbone and central and northern parts of New Zealand have about 20% to 30% of their farms covered with indigenous species. A 2012 survey showed plains and lowland farms typically had less than 10% indigenous cover (Statistics New Zealand).

Having these species can improve aesthetics and add opportunities to a farm business but, to many farmers, some indigenous species are a threat to pasture viability and require a regular clearance cycle. Ongoing clearance is crucial to pasture production and farm viability.

The proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity is looking to lift the bar to get approval for clearance. While it recognises that vegetation may regenerate in areas that have been previously cleared and makes provisions for farmers to clear it, farmers have to prove it’s regenerated in established pasture and doesn’t include threatened or at-risk species.

Also, the planned clearance must not be greater in character, intensity or scale than before. Whippy young mānuka, scattered coprosmas, tauhinu, kānuka, matagouri and ferns in wetter gullies are typical incursions.

Pasture development, the traditional way to expand production, looks set to be more restricted. If it hasn’t been part of a regular cycle of clearance, then it’s going to be hard to get the green light to replace it with pasture.

In other words, what grazing land you have now, is what you may be set to have for the future.

Clearance activities in any part of the farm designated as a Significant Natural Area look set to be very difficult to argue for. The boundary areas marked as improved grazing land, set in Farm Environment Plans or other supporting documents, will become very important for resource consents.

The Government’s intention to recharge councils’ efforts is clear. Upfront in the proposal it states; “While this National Policy Statement supports local authorities’ existing good practice, it seeks a step change in management, recognising the opportunity before us to better protect indigenous biodiversity and support New Zealand’s identify for generations to come.”

At the heart of the proposal is that all land be mapped to see whether it is worthy of a Significant Natural Area (SNA) status. Currently this is variable and not compulsory across parts of the country. The definition of what defines an SNA is crucial, with Federated Farmers’ submission on the proposal saying it is too broad.

“It seems to cover every single indigenous habitat irrespective of its threat status.”

Farmers who missed the chance to make a submission will have a chance to give some input when their land is assessed for SNAs and prescribed an ecological status. The proposal has suggested that all authorities map their region to identify SNAs, using an updated definition, within five years. Farmers will be consulted in this process.

High country farmers and those through tenure review, are likely to have already been through this process.

Even land deemed outside SNAs will still have controls over its existing indigenous cover, with clearance disallowed if it is wider and higher impact than done in the past. In fine print, clearance is unlikely to be approved if it is ‘likely to have adverse effects that are greater in character, intensity or scale than the adverse effects of clearance that has previously been undertaken as part of a regular cycle to maintain improved pasture on the farm’.

The plea from farmers is that the war against exotic weeds like broom, gorse, briar, barberry and wilding pines should not be hampered by excessive controls over intermingled indigenous cover. Some indigenous species loss may have to be accepted, given the longer-term benefit of eradicating a pest plant from an area.

The proposal acknowledges farm productivity is dependent on farmers’ ability to keep regenerating indigenous species off currently productive grazing land. A regular cycle of clearance is defined as the periodic clearance of regenerating indigenous vegetation that is demonstrated to be part of a consistent management regime in place for the purpose of maintaining improved pasture.

Farmers would hope that a regular cycle be at least up to 25 years.

Given financial constraints, differences between north and south facing land, and the sheer size of some properties, a 20 to 25-year gap between getting back to spray or burn a block is quite legitimate.

For example, a block burnt and over-sown in 1985 may have regenerating fernland, coprosma and tuahinu sprayed and burnt in 2005, then a follow-up spray scheduled for 2025.

There has been good return on investment (10% to 20%) from removing indigenous cover on hill country, and claiming back pasture, especially with the advent of metsulfuron spray and protein price increases. This has often been a more affordable option to gain grazing land compared to buying the neighbours.

The proposed legislation will shape the process of both maintaining grazing land available and the ability to bring more land into farm production. It has flow-on effects on land prices, farm management flexibility and the rate of shift to exotic or indigenous forestry.

A declining effective area may reduce farm profitability. This many limit farmers’ abilities to spend on exotic weed and pest control; which is at the heart of biodiversity work in NZ.

A profitable farm through clearing species in one area, in turn, can help fund retirement of selected grazing blocks with older indigenous tree stands or higher-value indigenous species. Farmers are typically very willing to consider this.

An overall farm environment plan integrated with a farm business plan is helpful to strike the right balance between conservation and economic return. However, this trade-off approach to manage indigenous biodiversity has been ranked lower in the proposal, despite it being quite suited to a farming patchwork landscape.

Farmers are at the front line of weed and pest control, spraying roadsides and neighbouring patches of gorse or broom in DOC land or reserves, in an effort to protect boundary incursions.

Farmers are best kept on board and engaged with policy changes, as they manage frontline biodiversity work and decisions each day at work.