Week in Review

Complaint alleges deputy chair broke water rules

Environment Southland is investigating a high-ranking councillor for an alleged rules breach. David Williams reports.

Last August, as a campaign against poor winter grazing practices gained momentum, Southland regional council chairman Nicol Horrell issued a press statement.

Pictures of cattle mired in mud made national headlines and sparked outrage.

(It also prompted a bizarre comment from Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker, who compared cows in mud to protesters at Ihumātao.)

In his statement, Horrell said he and deputy chairman Lloyd McCallum had inspected Southland farms from the air and were disappointed at some of what they saw. “We need to see a significant improvement in best practice.”

Animal welfare and good winter grazing go “hand in hand”, Horrell added.

Ten months later, it’s Horrell’s deputy, McCallum, a dairy farmer, who’s in the environmental spotlight.

The Southland regional council, known as Environment Southland, confirms it received a complaint last month about a farmer feeding cattle on a stony bank of the Oreti River, near Lochiel. Property records show the farm in question is owned by Strone Farms Ltd, a company associated with McCallum.

Soon after the complaint was made, it’s alleged a gate, with an “access closed” sign attached, was put across the road leading to the river.

McCallum says: “I just expect to be treated the same as anybody else.”

Drone footage shows a wire to keep stock out of the river channel – the new water rules have a blanket five-metre setback. The investigation will focus on whether the stony area is considered active riverbed.

An interesting aspect is how Environment Southland has acted.

McCallum says after Newsroom asked him for comment last Friday, he rang the council – a month after the initial complaint was laid – which confirmed there had been a complaint. “I was a bit shocked, really,” says McCallum, who put out a statement yesterday to say he’s stepped aside from his role on the council’s regulatory committee until the investigation is completed.

It’s understood council staff have now visited the farm.

Twice Newsroom asked Environment Southland if it had failed to contact its deputy chair, but it wouldn’t answer the question directly.

Compliance manager Simon Mapp says via email it doesn’t discuss individual cases, and that includes naming the people involved.

“We received a complaint, triaged it based on our protocol and are following it up in accordance with our Compliance Enforcement Policy, all of which is usual practice. There is nothing more I can say as this is an active investigation and we cannot risk compromising it.”

Environmentalist Angus Robson, of Matamata, was behind last year’s winter grazing campaign in Southland. (Winter grazing, also known as winter cropping, is when cattle are fed crops in strips. It’s when the crops are gone, and paddocks are churned, that problems emerge, especially in places with wet winter climates, like Southland.)

Robson alerted Newsroom to the complaint against McCallum. He believes the drone footage shows a breach of Environment Southland’s existing regional water plan. “He’s put cattle and feed on river stones, which is a live riverbed, which is not legal by their own rules.”

The problem isn’t just that the river will wash over the stones, flushing excrement into the river, Robson says. Intensive feeding on riverbeds means urine goes straight into the gravel and then the river. “So it’s a very direct source of nitrate [pollution].”

There’s also an animal welfare issue, he says. “Those cattle don’t like being on those stones.”

Robson’s unsure how Environment Southland has responded. But he says the complaint was initially dismissed. It was only when the complainant pointed out a potential breach of rule 42c of the water plan that a compliance officer said the council would discuss the matter with the farmer.

“It doesn’t look to me like Lloyd’s been treated the way any other farmer might be treated,” Robson says. “To be in high office like that, especially deputy, you ought to hold yourself, and be held to, a much higher standard of conduct.”

“Blocking” a public road was an attempt to hide what’s happening on McCallum’s farm, he claims.

The offending gate across Valley Rd, Lochiel. Photo: Supplied

As a dairy farmer, and a regional councillor since 2013, it’s fair to assume McCallum is familiar with the rules.

McCallum tells Newsroom the area where the cattle was fed is higher than the river by a metre or metre-and-a-half. “Environment Southland will go through the process, they’ll look at those sorts of things and comment on it. We believe we were carrying good farm management practice, the same as everybody else in Southland’s trying to do.”

Asked about potential animal welfare issues of having the animals on river stones, he says his farm is regularly visited by vets. “The animals down there were well-fed and are in good condition. Let’s just let the process follow through.”

In terms of the gate across Valley Rd, he says three young boys lost their lives in the Oreti River some years ago, so there’s a safety issue. It also protects the farm’s stock. “But with Covid-19 with [cattle disease] M. Bovis … we thought it was prudent to have the gates there for health and safety for everybody. That’s why they’re there.”

Despite the no access sign, McCallum says: “They’re not locked, they can go through if they want to. Most people come and ask me.”

“The sign is not one council would promote.” – Hartley Hare

Southland District Council’s strategic transport manager Hartley Hare confirms it doesn’t maintain Valley Rd. The council’s policy about gates across roads is to ensure public access – “hence why gates are not to be locked”.

“We believe there was a tragedy linked to access along this road several years ago and so there is a balance between access and safety.” He adds: “The sign is not one council would promote.”

Federated Farmers Southland president Geoffrey Young says McCallum is a highly regarded farmer with a large farming operation, who has adhered to the highest environmental standards. “I’d be surprised if he’s breached any rules.”

Young says Environment Southland has to work through the complaint on a professional basis, “just as Lloyd would expect them to”. “And if he’s breached any rules he will undoubtedly have to face the consequences. It’s one of those things. There’s only one rule for everyone, and no exemptions.”

Last month, McCallum told his fellow Environment Southland councillors at a video meeting there was an expectation of good management practices in the coming months. The meeting was held after the complaint had been made.

“Environment Southland will be looking at what is happening on the ground by air through the winter period,” McCallum told councillors. “We’d expect that, and I think some general public may be doing the same. So we want to make sure we get it right.”

Councillor sat on water panel

McCallum was a council representative on a panel considering the regional council’s proposed new water and land plan, which held public hearings in 2017.

The notified plan was slammed by farmers, who said parts of it were impractical, unworkable and not economically feasible.

After considering submissions, some of the proposed rules were watered down. There was a large increase in allowable intensive winter grazing areas, and a uniform five-metre setback from waterways was adopted for cultivation, instead of a variable setback based on slope.

Critics panned the finalised plan as being too weak, watering down the work of the council’s science and planning staff over many years.

Parts of the plan have been appealed by 19 different organisations, including three Southland councils. Environment Court hearings are expected to continue later this year.

The complaint against McCallum comes to light just a fortnight after the Government announced its long-awaited plan to clean up waterways, aimed at halting, and eventually reversing, pollution in lakes, rivers and wetlands from intensive farming.

The Government has set aside $700 million to help with the clean-up, and vowed to help regional councils – the bodies responsible for managing water – to deliver water plans more quickly, and collect information and monitor farms to ensure water quality can be improved.

Freshwater ecologists Mike Joy and Russell Death have criticised the plan, but there’s also a healthy dollop of optimism.

“A lot of councils don’t adequately monitor, let alone enforce what is needed.” – Kevin Hackwell

The structural issue remains, however, that while Wellington sets nationwide environmental priorities, the implementation is devolved to regional councils. (The consequences of failures by multiple agencies can be seen in places like the Mackenzie Basin.)

Two years ago, a Forest & Bird report revealed regional councils weren’t properly enforcing the rules on dairy farms. Kevin Hackwell, the lobby group’s chief conservation advisor, tells Newsroom: “A lot of councils don’t adequately monitor, let alone enforce what is needed.”

In the 2018 report, Environment Southland was called out for not monitoring all dairy farms, and not being able to say how many permitted dairy farms the region had. The province has the third-highest number of dairy cows in the country, the report said, and the fourth-highest number of dairy farms.

Last year, a report running the rule over the performance of regional council was dropped on Budget day, which highlighted “significant shortcomings”. (The reported noted Environment Southland’s prosecutorial success in 2017/18 by securing 41 convictions against 11 individuals and 25 convictions against 11 corporate defendants.)

Southland has some heavily polluted rivers. A government freshwater report released in April this year said some Southland rivers rated poorly for water quality and ecological health – and at many sites that trend was worsening.

At Wallacetown, for example, a monitoring site downstream from McCallum’s farm, the Oreti River’s report card is mixed.

While it ranks comparatively well on some measures, it’s in the worst 25 percent of Southland sites for total nitrogen and total oxidised nitrogen, and in the lower half for E. coli. It’s labelled “unsuitable for swimming”.

Greenpeace NZ executive director Russell Norman says it would be extremely concerning if a person providing oversight of the regional council was found breaking the rules. But there are other potential issues at stake, he believes – like the message it could send to the public.

“I think it will have a big impact on whether the council officers feel empowered or motivated to actually enforce the rules on everybody.”

Environmental campaigner Robson is fascinated to see how the council treats a high-ranking member of its own, “who’s said he wants everybody to do the right thing this year, and that they will be watched on behalf of the council”.

“What happens when it’s him [being complained about]?”

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