It’s not practical for councils to accurately map the over 100,000 hectares of natural wetland across New Zealand’s 49,000 farms, and for farmers to then exclude stock from these areas.
While Federated Farmers supports the goal of avoiding further loss of natural inland wetlands, this can best be achieved by identifying key wetland areas in farm environmental plans and developing a farm-specific plan to enhance those wetland areas.
That’s the thrust of the Federation’s submission on an exposure draft of proposed changes to the National Policy Statement Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) and the National Environmental Statement Freshwater (NES-F), including wetland regulations.
Feds has contended throughout the development of the Essential Freshwater package that many of its elements have been poorly drafted, poorly targeted and are unworkable. The recent release of an internal Ministry for the Environment (MfE) report confirms the process was deeply flawed.
Failings highlighted in the report included:
- The process was not properly resourced, for example, late involvement of suitably experienced planners with specific RMA technical expertise
- Relatively new or junior staff working in key areas such as drafting, often with little senior guidance
- Potentially significant ‘judgement calls’ being made by people at different levels, often under time pressure, with a lack of clarity or process about what decisions could be made by whom
- Little or no real opportunity to ‘stress test’ regulations – external stakeholders were given only three working days to provide comment on the exposure draft
Little wonder, then, that following the Essential Freshwater release various surveys showed plummeting farmer confidence
Principal Advisor Water and Environmental Strategy Paul Melville, who put the Federation’s submission on the proposed wetland regulation changes together, said that despite numerous amendments, significant shortcomings in the Essential Freshwater package still exist.
“We view the Stock Exclusion Regulations as unworkable and in need of complete review,” he said.
And we still haven’t got the wetland regulations within the stock exclusion rules right either.
The exposure draft on the NPS-FM and NES-F changes proposes a tightened definition of a natural wetland as one that does not include areas that are more than 50 percent exotic pasture species. MfE hosted a field trip to demonstrate methodology of how this would be assessed.
This involved ecologists assessing small plots of land identifying each species within the plot using a magnifying glass to determine if it was a pasture species or not. Judgement calls were needed to estimate what portion of a wetland each individual species covered. The method was time consuming and non-definitive.
“With hundreds of thousands of individual wetlands – potentially millions – across farms, it’s just not workable on a regional or national scale,” Paul said.
It would be costly for ratepayer-funded councils to do the assessments and there are likely to be plenty of inaccurate results.
“Farmers will then be left to undertake expensive appeal processes to clarify the status of wet areas within their farms,” the Feds submission said.
The proposed changes are also based on a false assumption that removing stock from a wetland will lead to greater preservation of wetland values.
“Grazing by stock currently controls invasive species and allows native species to dominate. Removing the stock would see the wetland become dominated by pest species. Farmers would then require an expensive resource consent just to spray these weeds.”
Feds undertook targeted engagement with farmers across New Zealand to understand how fencing all areas of natural wetland would impact them.
“High country and hill country farmers we talked to expressed concern that almost every gully on their farm will contain areas that are dominated by non-pasture wetland species,” Paul said.
“If these areas are intermittently wet, then any area of non-pasture will qualify as a natural wetland and require cattle exclusion. On typical hill country farms, most valleys contain patches of native tussock. The farmer would need to fence a mosaic of areas in order to continue to farm cattle.
“Farmers we engaged with said rather than fence large areas of wetland, they would likely be forced to shift away from farming beef and towards a sheep only model [sheep are not captured under the stock-exclusion regulations].”
Other aspects of the proposals could also unintentionally stop routine farm activities, including:
- removing a single weed from a wetland or replacing a board on a maimai will require written consent from a council
- The definition of ‘vegetation clearance’ appears to include stock grazing (even sheep)
- The regulations appear to prohibit irrigation within 100 metres of a wetland, meaning an over three hectare exclusion zone near any small area of rushes on a farm
- The regulations prohibiting earthworks within 100 metres of a natural wetland will mean farmers are unable to carry out routine maintenance on drains without a resource consent
- Building a minor structure like a maimai will now require a resource consent
“There are so many areas where these regulations are simply over-reach or unworkable,” Paul said.
“The definition of a ‘natural wetland’ requires at least 50 percent exotic pasture, rather than 50 percent native species, to qualify as a wetland. What we are seeing is that areas that are particularly weedy, for example covered in buttercup or water pepper, can suddenly qualify as a ‘natural wetland’ and then require all sorts of different resource consents just to clear the weeds away or dig drains.”
The wetland definition in the regulations also does not exclude a wetland that has developed unintentionally. So, in theory an area that is flooded accidentally due to a blocked culvert becomes a wetland if it has too much buttercup.
“While these examples seem too bizarre to be enforced, we are hearing cases already of farmers being told that a flooded paddock is now a wetland or that removing silt from a drain near a wetland is a breach of the regulations.
Regulations this unworkable are of course very distressing for farmers. They undermine confidence and investment in our sector even before they are fully implemented,” Paul said.
“I believe these regulations are actually so unworkable they have a low chance of being enforced. Federated Farmers will be pressing our concerns strongly with Ministers and officials in Wellington over the coming months to make sure farmers don’t have to suffer this uncertainty for much longer.”
“There needs to be far more emphasis on local solutions and individual management plans for our significant wetlands, rather than blanket rules,” Paul concluded.