It's not often that a South Island environmental story interests Aucklanders, given all of our local issues. But the proposal for factory farming of dairy cows in the Mackenzie basin has certainly done so. Indeed, it's attracted attention from around the world for understandable reasons: the Mackenzie Country is one of New Zealand's very best landscapes.
There are three factory farming proposals - Southdown Holdings, Williamson Holdings and Five Rivers. These properties cover 8555ha of the Mackenzie basin. The proposals involve housing 17,850 dairy cows in large sheds round the clock from March to October and for 12 hours a day for the rest of the year. Up to 1.1 million litres of effluent could be discharged to pasture daily. The cows would be kept in stalls, fed in the sheds and milked robotically.
Those raising questions about the appropriateness of cubicle dairy farming have been as diverse as Fonterra, the Tourism Industry Association, the Green Party and the Prime Minister.
The concerns range from animal welfare to pollution and from dairy effluent to loss of outstanding natural landscapes. Many see our reputation for pastoral farming, a subset of our 100 per cent Pure brand, being put at risk.
Environment Canterbury has received more than 4000 submissions opposing the applications. What isn't clear from the media is that these three factory farming proposals are only a small proportion of the dairy conversions occurring in the Mackenzie Basin area. Quite separately, commissioners are hearing 110 land, air and water applications to convert up to 27,000ha of tussock grasslands to a mix of intensive dairy farming and other agricultural uses. These applications do not involve cubicle farming but many of them involve replacing native tussock grassland with pasture grasses, watered by huge pivot irrigators.
There is an environmental bottom line in all of this: the landscape and ecological values of the Mackenzie Country are so superb that that it should be a national imperative to protect them.
Putting dairy farming, whether in cubicles or on pasture, into that fragile environment, is a step too far.
The Mackenzie Country is an arresting landscape, an expansive, mountain-circled plain, very dry and hot in summer, snow-clad in winter. The brown grassland spreads as far as the eye can see.
The Tourism Industry Council recently described it like this: The Mackenzie Basin is blessed with extraordinary and unique beauty. It is a place of light and colour, of big skies and dramatic untamed landscape that for many inspires self reflection and personal discovery. In a highly developed world it appears almost untouched ... quite simply, it is unique and one of the jewels in New Zealand's crown.
In addition to its landscape, the Mackenzie Country also provides habitat for many threatened and endangered species including the black stilt, southern crested grebe, black fronted terns, wrybill and a number of native fish, lizards, invertebrates and rare plants.
Many of the species are found only in that area. Pastoralism here would replace a natural, native environment with an artificial, unnatural one, hostile to those species and able to be productive only by irrigation and fertiliser application on a massive scale.
What is the future for this national treasure? Well, the Government has so far failed to define a coherent vision for the Mackenzie Country in spite of its importance to our tourism sector. The local councils have weak plans and ad hoc decision-making is the norm. The hearing process under the RMA is hugely complex and gets bogged down in detail.
What would help is for the Government to step in and provide some much-needed leadership and direction. It should put in place a National Environmental Standard protecting native grasslands and landscapes in the Mackenzie Basin. Then it should fund an expansive programme to manage pests and weeds. It's that simple.
An active and well-organised local conservation group - the Mackenzie Guardians - has an excellent video of the area on its website www.mackenzieguardians.co.nz.
The guardians deserve the support of all New Zealanders. We must not lose the Mackenzie Country.
Gary Taylor is with the Environmental Defence Society.