Hollywood star Sam Neill says a priceless resource is at stake as opponents line up to try to prevent cubicle dairy farming in the South Island's iconic Mackenzie Country.

Neill, a star in blockbuster films such as Jurassic Park and a passionate South Island landowner, is among high-profile New Zealanders arguing that water rights should not be granted to support dairy farming operations on the majestic landscapes of this rugged region.

Among those seeking the right to take water for farming operations, in resource consent hearings which began yesterday, are three companies proposing to house almost 18,000 dairy cows in cubicle sheds.

Critics have labelled this "factory farming".

Neill said keeping the cattle in sheds for most of the year was an absurd notion.

"I am appalled to learn of the projected fate of the Mackenzie Country, that it may well fall increasingly into the hands of large-scale dairy agribusiness," he said in his submission to the consent hearings, among more than 5000 opposing the dairying.

"If profit concerns are material here, let it be understood that the Mackenzie is a priceless resource for New Zealand. There are very few places like this in the world. Indeed the Mackenzie is unique."

While dairy farming was short-lived, the loss of the landscape would be everlasting, Neill said.

"These proposals may enrich a few, but they will certainly impoverish the rest of us, not just now, but for generations to come."

The companies seeking to set up the cubicle farming operations, Southdown Holdings, Williamson Holdings and Five Rivers, argue any environmental risks can be managed. But they are facing battles on fronts other than just water rights.

The Government has used its powers to intervene on their proposals to discharge cow effluent by setting up a board of inquiry to look into it, while a lobby group, the Environmental Defence Society, has mounted a legal challenge to the companies' land use consents.

Neill is part of an opposition group called Mackenzie Guardians, which includes former poet laureate Brian Turner and artist Grahame Sydney.

In his submission, Turner said: "Turning the Mackenzie Country into the sort of country nature never intended it to be - and nature does know better than we do - is to engage in a grossly destructive and unsustainable act".

The Tourism Industry Association, representing tourism businesses, has expressed concern about how dairying might affect the region, which it considers globally significant.

"The Mackenzie Basin is integral to New Zealand's tourism industry, and tourism is essential to the region's economic wellbeing."

Neill said it was clear that the rugged tussock country of the Mackenzie was unsuitable for dairying.

The consent hearings are due to continue until April 16.


Aside from his exploits in the movies, actor Sam Neill has never been afraid to tackle controversial issues.

He is currently part of a group arguing against dairy farming in the Mackenzie Country.

Last year, he was the target of criticism when animal rights group Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accused of him of being a "pimp" for the meat industry by appearing in a television advertisement promoting meat in Australia.

In 2000, a spat arose between Neill and Queenstown Mayor Warren Cooper after Neill spoke out against development in the Queenstown region. Mr Cooper suggested Neill should "stick to film-making". The pair later reconciled.