A stoush between farmers and environmentalists has erupted over winter grazing practices in northern Southland. Activists taking photos at night on a Mossburn farm led to the farmer staging a barbecue with friends across the road from the environmentalists' property. Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor has launched a taskforce to look into animal welfare and environmental concerns around winter grazing. Now that the Government has stepped up to investigate, should the environmentalists back down?
Mossburn farmer and local Southland District Councillor John Douglas, who has been caught of the middle of the stand-off, speaks to The Country's Jamie Mackay about the situation.
Mackay: You were heading to golf yesterday and ended up in the middle of a bit of a confrontation, or discussion between the farmers and the environmentalists. Have things calmed down in Mossburn?
Douglas: Good afternoon Jamie. Oh, yes, I believe they have and even yesterday I think cool heads were beginning to prevail after some late-night antics on Friday. I'm just concerned that we keep this as de-escalated as possible and allow cool heads to talk through the issues.
Mackay: Will you talk me through some of those late-night antics? It wasn't the Mossburn pub staying open too late. These blokes were out filming on farms with infrared cameras, am I right?
Douglas: My account is a van with three members of an activist group were seen filming cows across the fence. The farmer became aware of the situation, he went down and spoke with the people with the cameras, asked what they were doing. They replied that they were filming grass.
So probably at that stage the conversation became a little heated and that did lend itself to the three members exiting the property in the white van.
Mackay: What happened after that? Because someone said that there was a vehicle rammed, I've heard reports that the white van may have had a window broken - that's not the way to deal with these issues?
Douglas: No, Jamie, it's certainly not and I'm really keen to get dialogue going to just dampen down all those emotive actions and talk.
I was talking with the owner this morning and he has made an offer to anyone, these people included, to go visit his farm during daylight hours and see for themselves what good wintering practice looks like.
Mackay: What about the drones that are flying around? Because we've had reports of them, if not being shot down, threatened to be shot down in the Mossburn area.
Douglas: Look, it's not helpful when farmers feel as though they're being placed under undue scrutiny and the use of the drones has certainly increased markedly over the last 12 months.
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I'm not really prepared to comment whether farmers would shoot them down, but they do see it as an intrusion on their farming practice.
Mackay: John, back in the day, when you and I were doing battle on the rugby paddock, we'd be playing on a muddy paddock on a Saturday afternoon and our sheep in those days would've been on a swede break and if it'd been hosing down with rain they got muddy. That was just the way it was back in the day. Are we at the stage now with wintering livestock outdoors in this country, especially the further south you get where you can't even afford to have mud? Because it's impractical, otherwise you're not going to be able to winter livestock outdoors.
Douglas: Yes, well Southland, with its temperate climate, grows very good crops through the summer that a farm utilises to feed stock in the winter time.
There are various guidelines of good practice for feeding that crop to the stock and they include simple things like fencing off waterways, keeping the stock out of critical source areas, which are basically low lying areas that pool with water.
Listen to the full interview below:
It's the use of portable troughs, it's back fencing and it's ensuring that at night the cows have at least a dry knob [area], somewhere where they can lie down safely and comfortably.
Mackay: Yeah but isn't all that already being done?
Douglas: It is being done by most of the farmers, all right? But in all these things, there may be a small 1or 2 per cent that don't follow good farming practice.
Mackay: Well, they need a kick up the backside, because they're ruining it for the rest of the team.
Douglas: And that's often the case, Jamie, that one or two bad eggs spoil the image for the rest.
Mackay: Let's talk about images. There were some images taken not a mile away from where you're farming, I understand, just on the northern or Te Anau side of Mossburn was where some of that footage that came out a couple of weeks ago about bad winter grazing practices came from. I know that area quite well. It appears to me that that footage was taken in a flood.
Exactly and that's the point, Jamie. Nobody can control the weather and this winter has been particularly wet and mild. There's been very little drying. Very few frosts with a great way of drying the ground down. So there has been more mud than usual.
Mackay: Well good luck trying to sort out the impasse that's currently happening in your town between the farmers and the environmentalists and I hope that they meet in the middle and walk a mile in another man's shoes, or woman's shoes.
Douglas: Certainly and that offer still stands. If anybody has concerns about winter grazing in Northern Southland, they're welcome to get in touch with me and I will take them during daylight hours, Jamie, to look at cows.
It's important that people do not go filming farmers' cows at night. Because right now we're in the calving period. It's a critical time of the year for farmers and the cows.
The last thing that we want is for those cows to be disturbed. So if they do truly want to see cows on an operating farm, let them get in touch with me and I'll see that their concerns are addressed.
• If you would like to contact John Douglas, send Jamie Mackay an email at firstname.lastname@example.org