At a recent Deer Industry New Zealand field day, Darryl Butterick shared the turmoil of the event and the long hard slog to recovery.
In his words, “we were hammered, two rivers nailed us, it was a raging torrent that took over my farm”.
That was two years ago and the Buttericks, while having most of their 170ha farm up and running again, still have some way to go to full recovery.
Walking away was not an option and, with the help of a supportive rural community and friends, the couple are able to look back on the long hard slog that has returned their deer, beef and sheep unit to some farming normality.
“She was a pretty hectic day,” Butterick recalls. It started with the emergency helicopter rescue of two neighbouring farmers trapped in the floodwaters.
As the storm eased, the carnage that emerged was devastating.
Butterick’s deer fences and gates were all washed away, posts scoured out by the force of the deluge, irrigation systems disrupted. His deer shed was completely inundated, he lost all of his valuable equipment on the floor of other sheds, the house was cut off and his deer, sheep and cattle were roaming free, unsettled and going feral.
Two thirds of his deer farm, carrying 500 hinds and sire stags raised for velvet and trophy hunting, were under water.
“The water just came so damn quick, from both sides and so bloody fast. It took everything in its way, uprooted trees, fencing, deer yards gates, stock.
“It left me carnage, dead stock, lost stock, paddocks of shingle and rubble and more than 130 of the neighbour’s heifers, most of which were dead, tangled in trees and debris.
Butterick lost 30 deer, including all but two of his sire stags. Hinds and weaners, last seen in the headlights at 6.30am, drowned or were never seen again.
Bambi, the farm’s pet hind, helped bring home wild roaming deer.
Most of the deer bolted up the river, across the river, down the river.
“It was quite amazing how quickly they went feral but through river searches by helicopter, vehicles and the now more highly rated deer-detecting Bambi, we got a good lot back once we got some fencing up.
Bambi is Lyn’s “headstrong pet hind that has been a pain in the ass all her life”.
“But every day I’d kick her out, she would cruise around, the next morning you would find her parked up with a few deer around her.
“She did hook quite a few back. She gets to be in the best paddock now.”
Taking it one step at a time, most of the farm is back to where it was.
“We couldn’t do a lot until the river had settled, but the first two to three weeks were bloody hard work.”
As things settled into a pattern, it was one or two meetings a weekday with bureaucrats and getting on with farm work, uninterrupted, at weekends.
“If you got bogged down in the bureaucracy nothing would happen,” Butterick says.
“People came here wearing shiny suits and red bands with their stickers still on.
“They would make all the right noises and bugger off and you would never see them again, they’d wasted half a day and tomorrow you’d get another crew.
“It’s not been easy, we’ve had no trophy for two years. There’s been a bit of velvet paying a few bills along the way.”
Recapturing stock, recovering farmland, building yards, fencing, replacing lost machinery – “it was a case of try to slow down. Do it properly and do it only once.”
A lot of time, energy, hours; blood, sweat and tears; sheer grit, friends and community support have gone into repairing the farm, Butterick says.
In two years he has had only three days off farm, and that was just a month ago.
The river cut out 200m of stopbank, dumped more shingle and silt, created more refencing, flowing for three weeks through the sheep and cattle side of the farm.
“We had no river protection at all for 12 months.
“We were lucky the water didn’t come through the house but it was in the yard, through the woolshed, in the machinery sheds.
“Anything of value at belt level in the workshops was stuffed.”
The irony was that the stock water system – pumps, pipelines, the lot – was wiped out.
“Would you believe it I had no stock water, just another thing to add to what became a very long list.
“If it [the river] had broken out the other side it would have gone through Ashburton, so we’ve gone through a massive rebuild.”
The deer unit on the lower lying part of the farm was the hardest hit.
New fencing and yards have been established and repairs made to the deer shed. Paddocks have been resown to restore top soils.
“We had fencers on and off the property, still have, with the shortage of fencing supplies slowing things down.”
Once cleared of the shingle and the bulk of the silt, recovering pastures were spread with manure and ruined straw, and sown with plantain and a mix of seeds with some over-sown in clover.
“Some did well, others didn’t. We found sunflowers didn’t mind the silt and the deer thrived on the plantain, along with vetch, which we learnt deer like and do really well on.”
Rape and other, similar crops were planted where new grasses were patchy to build up organic matter.
Weeds never seen before were popping up everywhere on farm. Blackberry, willow weed and hemlock took hold and had to be controlled.
The deer block now has water features and fenced-off ponds, reminders of the flood.
While insurance payouts and government relief funding have been welcome, they fall well short of covering the recovery, with the Buttericks left well out-of-pocket after the experience.
“Everyone has been slogging their guts out for each other. I can tell you it’s been real bloody character building.
“The narking part is the river did not have the capacity in that stretch to take the flood.
“I have been telling Environment Canterbury forever to let their guys in and get the shingle out, they have been made well aware of the potential there for the river to break out, it’s been ongoing for years.
“Their answer is put more bureaucrats in and do nothing on the ground.
“My farm saved the town and still [Environment Canterbury] have done nothing.”
“Two years and we’re still chipping away; the implications will drag on for years.”
And the cost? “Well into the six figures and climbing. I’m too scared to work it out.”