By Alice Angeloni, Local Democracy Reporter
An East Cape pharmaceutical company has admitted planting mānuka over at least a hectare of "regionally significant wetland" and using its water for irrigation.
Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals, based in Te Araroa, also excavated 460 metres of channels in the wetlands to lower the water table to reduce ponding and flooding of its mānuka plantation.
The company pleaded guilty to modifying and taking water from Te Whare Wetlands in breach of the Resource Management Act on February 10. Two charges were brought by Gisborne District Council.
According to a summary of facts, Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals managing director and founder Mark Kerr said he "wasn't aware" there was a protected wetland in the area and he didn't think a resource consent was needed for the plantation.
The company was founded in 1991 and since 1993 has operated a factory at Te Araroa that extracts oil from the mānuka tree leaves.
Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals previously harvested wild mānuka trees but in November 2019 established a 30ha mānuka plantation, some of which encroaches on Te Whare Wetlands.
While the company admitted undertaking work in a "protection management area", the total area of land that was of ecological value was disputed at a hearing at Gisborne District Court on Thursday, before Environment Court Judge Brian Dwyer.
The area of wetlands planted in mānuka will be finalised in a joint memorandum and amended summary of facts provided to the court on June 25.
The council received a complaint about the company taking water from the wetlands on February 6, 2020.
The complainant alleged it had caused a drop in water level and a decline in water clarity, but this was not confirmed.
Council officers visited Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals on February 24, 2020, and found a large area of recently cultivated mānuka trees, some that appeared to be in the wetlands.
They also found a mobile pump connected to a hose running into the wetlands, and irrigation equipment.
The 30ha plantation spans four properties owned by four sets of multiple owners. Part of Te Whare Wetlands is located within the four properties.
Te Whare Wetlands is classed as a "regionally significant wetland" under the council's Tairawhiti Resource Management Plan (TRMP).
It provides habitat to threatened indigenous bird species such as matuku (Australasian bittern) and spotless crake and fish species like giant kokopu.
According to the summary of facts, Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals used a tractor to disc and harrow the land to create "uniform terrain" and rows to plant the mānuka trees.
On November 28, 2019, the company started planting 200,000 mānuka trees in rows.
It used water from the wetlands to irrigate the young crop during a dry period of weather in January and February 2020 by pumping water from the wetlands into a portable sprayer that was then towed around by tractor.
No resource consents were obtained.
When questioned during hearings on Thursday, Kerr said the company had chosen areas for the plantation that were "sufficiently dry and suitable for cultivation".
This included areas where there wasn't any standing water.
In a report assessing the impact of the mānuka plantation on the wetland, council ecologist Abigail Salmond said wetlands were one of the "most nationally threatened and degraded" ecosystem types in New Zealand.
In the Gisborne region, wetlands had been reduced to 1.75 per cent of their original extent, she said.
Salmond said the potential effect of the plantation earthworks on the wetland was likely to be significant because of reduction in habitat, and loss of hydrological functions and indigenous vegetation.
The loss of wetland vegetation might result in increased surface water, flooding and sediment and nutrients downstream.
Salmond said sediment runoff would return to normal once vegetation had grown back and the drains had been filled in.
She also noted a loss of indigenous bird habitat and said if machinery was regularly used for harvesting, it would discourage foraging and nesting.
Ecologist Dr Hannah Dumbleton, who was brought in by Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals, disagreed with the extent of the effects the offending had caused to the wetlands.
The vegetation had regrown and sediment runoff levels would have returned to what they were before the mānuka was planted.
Dumbleton also said most of the area converted to mānuka was of a degraded, grazed nature and the value of the land to nesting and foraging birds would have been low, compared to other wetlands in the area.
She argued planting the mānuka trees would have increased the land's ecological value.
Dumbleton considered the boundaries of the wetlands as outlined in the TRMP did not reflect the extent of the wetlands on the ground.
She believed some areas within the Protection Management Area did not form part of the "core wetland" and the majority of the mānuka was planted in a drier, marginal, seasonally wet area that had previously been dominated by grazed pasture.
Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals has committed to remedial steps recommended by the ecologists including filling in the drains, retiring the mānuka plantation that is in the wetland and installing a fence.
Tairāwhiti Pharmaceuticals has four directors: Mark Kerr, Peter Jackman, Sydney (Syd) Clarke and Pierre Henare.
According to Kerr's LinkedIn profile, he is also the managing director and founder of Natural Solutions and the East Cape Mānuka Company.
Judge Dwyer remanded the company to a nominal date of July 30 for sentencing.