Friday, April 19, 2024

Ungrazed DOC land adds fuel to the fire

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We need to have a conversation about the fuel load that results when conservation land is left ungrazed – and the risk it poses to productive farms, says Craig Page.
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As much of the country continues to dry out, the threat of wildfire sits at the forefront of many farmers’ minds as they look to keep their properties and businesses safe.

But this week it was land owned and managed by the Department of Conservation in the North Otago area of Duntroon that raised some serious questions after fire burned through 30 hectares.

The fire threatened to spread to neighbouring properties, including a dairy runoff block belonging to Federated Farmers North Otago dairy chair Otto Dogterom.

Dogterom vented his frustration about the fire after having repeatedly aired concerns about the state of the DOC reserve. He believes the land, which has not been grazed for five years, is overgrown and a fire risk. He has offered to help keep the vegetation in check by grazing it, but DOC declined the offers.

DOC has good reason to protect some areas from grazing.

There are often threatened plant, animal or insect species to protect in parcels of land. In the case of the Duntroon site it is home to a limestone ecosystem and nationally critical species, one of which is only found at one other site in the country.

Any such ecosystem could be quickly damaged by stock. 

However, given the tinder-dry conditions and growing fire threat, a major blaze in the area would destroy an ecosystem within minutes.

It is not the first time issues have been raised about the potential fire risk of DOC reserves.

The most notably was after the 2020 Lake Ōhau fire, which destroyed about 20 homes and forced dozens of evacuations.

At the time, Federated Farmers High Country Committee chair Rob Stokes said he had been warning the government about this danger for 12 years.

He said the DOC closing up land for national parks meant that the ground was not grazed by sheep and cattle and therefore tussocks and grass were left to grow wild.

Just weeks ago, Dr Derrick Moot, a professor of Plant Science at Lincoln University and leader of its Dryland Pastures Research team, spoke of the need to graze excess vegetation to help prevent wild fires.

Moot was involved in investigating the biological causes of the 2017 Port Hills fire and at the time said it would happen again unless our approach changed.

In December last year he predicted 2024 would be a burn year. A wet spring had seen the grass grow tall and flower and, without suitable grazing, it had become tinder dry and a perfect fuel for wildfires.

Moot discussed the need to graze cattle higher on hill country, using virtual fencing, to eat away at the rough, flammable overgrown pasture that sheep ignore.

“Cows are the lawnmowers on commercial hill country farms. They clean up the excess vegetation in spring and summer and reduce the risk of a burn,” Moot said. 

The DOC has indicated it is keen to have a “broader conversation” about how the reserve is managed and how it can work with landowners and mana whenua to manage such sites.

It is certainly a conversation worth having. Some middle ground needs to be reached before another fire on DOC land causes even more damage.

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