Sunday, July 3, 2022

No green where there’s red

New Zealand needs a viable economy for improved conservation and farmers can have a strong hand, forestry and biodiversity specialist Professor David Norton says. Tim Fulton reports.

Today’s farmers deserve praise for their role in protecting flora and fauna, Canterbury academic Professor David Norton told an audience in Christchurch recently.

Norton’s comments were made as he charted 700 years of change in New Zealand’s natural landscape during one of Canterbury University’s What if Wednesdays lectures.

The author of Nature and Farming – Sustaining Biodiversity in Agricultural Landscapes, Norton concluded long ago people valued health, welfare and education above conservation.

However, financial incentives for farmers and other private agencies and community groups could help sway those priorities, he said.

“There will be a range of approaches to biodiversity conservation but at the end of the day you can’t be green if you’re in the red.”

Production and conservation were too often pitted against each another, as if they were mutually exclusive, he said.

The result was needless friction, as people became consumed in debates about private investment or public, indigenous conservation or exotic, or regulation against voluntary incentives.

Flexible thinking in areas such as the treatment of exotic species could mean achieving more of what everyone wanted, he said.

“It’s not to say we should manage stoats to sustain them but we’ve got to recognise that exotic species are part of New Zealand. In some cases they can be useful and in other cases they can be very problematic.”

Whichever the priorities, conservation funding had to be efficient. Streamlined examples included Landcare Research, which had developed a more efficient way to deliver toxins for pest control.

“It’s not to say we should manage stoats to sustain them but we’ve got to recognise that exotic species are part of New Zealand. In some cases they can be useful and in other cases they can be very problematic.”

Professor David Norton

Canterbury University

Trials with 1080 suggested a 70% reduction in costs per hectare by dropping targeted clusters of pellets rather than broadcasting it. That had to be good for biodiversity because a much larger area was being covered for the same amount of money, Norton said.

Conservationists could also look at the Kimberley region in northern Australia, where threatened animals and plants were being nursed along by the privately run Australia Wildlife Conservancy.

Its broad agenda was habitat protection and fire control, including tactics to contain damage from cattle.

The conservancy was working with three million hectares – equivalent to a third of NZ’s conservation estate – but spent just a third of its budget on administration. The bulk of the kitty went towards on-the-ground management, he said.

A government department would not be able to contain its fixed costs like that so perhaps NZ needed to be more creative, having the Department of Conservation as just one agency among many.

The expanded partners in biodiversity would include iwi, community groups and not-for-profit organisations akin to the Australian wildlife conservancy. Industrial sectors including agricultural would also be closely involved.

In the private sector, conservation trade-offs called biodiversity offsets would allow business ventures to go ahead – at a price.

Typically, as had been evident recently in coal mining, a chunk of sensitive land could be given up on condition dirt somewhere else was saved or restored.

Biodiversity could also be improved through direct incentives, like in the American state of Montana, where grazed prairie was being protected by the Nature Conservancy. The non-government organisation bought a 24,000ha ranch called the Matador.

“Basically they said to neighbouring ranchers, ‘you can graze on our ranch if you do certain things for conservation’.”

The result was 120,000ha of direct conservation action, on Matador as well as surrounding properties.

Norton said this project created a sort of halo effect as farmers enjoying financial gain started talking excitedly about doing good for the environment. It became almost fashionable to protect prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets.

He has spent much of the past decade working with farmers to protect biodiversity.

His efforts have been framed by the reality that two-thirds of NZ isn’t held publicly for conservation.

Of that private property, a large proportion is in farming or plantation forestry.

He has come to see farmers, foresters and other landowners doing all sorts of conservation, like fencing degraded tussock in the high country or exclusion of forest remnants.

He could point to the 4000 Queen Elizabeth II covenants in place around the country, or waterway-planting projects such as Hart’s Creek in central Canterbury as proof.

At Hart’s Creek the NZ Landcare Trust and the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust restored the sort of degraded lowland waterway that is otherwise labelled “dirty dairying”.

Norton wasn’t bothered by the underlying motive for hard graft of this kind. If it was profit-driven that’s just fine.

He recalled a Mackenzie Basin farmer who was worried about the spread of wildings from his forestry plantation. He had the commercial-grade timber cut down so he could afford to keep the nuisance trees.

He had naturally considered that if he didn’t get rid of that seed source he might have a problem forever.

There had also been creative-thinking vintners in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley, who were using native falcons to stop other birds pecking and removing grapes. Introducing the falcons reduced fruit loss of up to 14% to about 7%.

Again, biodiversity and economics were almost indistinguishable.

This wasn’t to say farmers didn’t also act for the environment just because it seemed like the right thing to do, Norton said.

A farmer in Wanaka was working with DOC to resettle weka to the mainland from islands in lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu. The idea was for the birds to be released first into acclimatisation pens before being let loose in the wild.

Norton had mostly praise for farmers as conservationists, saying most were ideally suited to the job.

In knowing their property better than anyone they were often prepared to do the most for it.

He had generally found that even if the landowner didn’t know the scientific name of an animal or plant they’d be even keener to help out once someone took the time to explain.

And farmers were practical and innovative types who could run a conservation project on the smell of the proverbial rag.

Perhaps they could be among the crew of conservation ambassadors the country needed, Norton said.

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