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High country farmers give new mandate to Accord

High country farmers give new mandate to Accord

The leaseholders who farm many of the South Island's iconic sheep stations have renewed their mandate for a campaign aimed at keeping sheep in the high country.

Families, many of whom have farmed their leasehold properties for three or more generations, are in an increasingly bitter battle with the government over who should manage 1.2 million hectares of the high country.

Most of the land in dispute is tussock grassland grazed by Merino flocks. Because the farmers have perpetual right of renewal for their leases, they have a much bigger financial interest in the land than the Crown.

"The government wants this landscape handed over to the Department of Conservation, to enable it to revert to a utopian ecological state * meaning scrub and forest," says Donald Aubrey, chairman of the High Country Accord.

"Everyone is better off if our members continue to manage it sustainably. New Zealanders get to keep the tussock grasslands and the high country farming heritage they know and love, at no cost to them as taxpayers."

Last week, Aubrey and his committee met with lessees and their families at a series of 10 meetings from Southland to Marlborough.

"Half of the country's pastoral lessees and their families either attended or sent in their apology. At each meeting they gave us their unanimous support for a research-based programme, designed to demonstrate that New Zealand is better off * economically, environmentally and socially * if most of the high country stays in private hands."

He said the Accord would be funding research projects looking at high country tourism, the use of covenants as a sustainable land management tool and the high country farming cultural heritage. An independent university study would also look at whether representative examples of each of the various high country ecological zones are being adequately protected at present.

"This will provide a scientific basis for determining whether any land on pastoral leases is of such ecological significance that it needs Crown protection. DoC already has more than 40 per cent of the South Island in parks and reserves, so there is a big question mark over how much more land is really needed and how much is just Crown empire-building.

"We are also working closely with Federated Farmers on the development of access accords, which would provide the public with assured access under agreed terms through high country farms to the conservation estate."

Aubrey says high country lessees are becoming increasingly frustrated by the unreasonable demands being made by DoC in the land tenure negotiations which farmers go through to get freehold title to their land.

"A lot of families have been in negotiation with the Crown for more than 10 years. That's a big chunk of someone's working life.

"In most cases the Crown wants so much of their summer grazing country that their farms would become non-viable. Also, they would be unable to continue the Merino wool farming for which this country is so well suited and is world-famous for.

"The farmers would lose their land, their farming system and the viability of their business. And what for? To have DoC as a neighbour, doing a poor job of managing land that the farmer took such pride in?

"We are up against a mind-set which says DoC is the only organisation capable of managing the high country in a sustainable way. There's also a false belief that productive and conservation values can't co-exist.

"Well they do. Farming and conservation values have been co-existing on high country farms throughout the South Island for 150 years * which is why the Crown wants our land."

Mr Aubrey said the Accord would be holding a lessee seminar in Omarama in March.

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