Govt vows to heal rift with pastoral lessees

The Government is promising to heal what it sees as a dysfunctional relationship with high country pastoral lessees.

Lands Minister Richard Worth said the relationship between lessees and the previous government had collapsed, with farmers feeling there was no trust between the government as landlord and the lessee.

Mr Worth said in an interview he was committed to a relationship based on three policy planks his party campaigned on at the last election: voluntary, good-faith negotiations between runholders and the Government; ensuring rentals were tied to the earning capacity of the property; and recognition that runholders could be as effective land stewards as the Crown.

"That's the way I'm going to drive outcomes in respect of tenure review."

Pastoral lessees have said privately they have noticed a different Government attitude recently, characterised by less animosity.

Mr Worth said if that was the case, he was delighted.

"I think that is the start of a better relationship."

One issue he wanted to look at was the use of fire in the high country, given the build-up of fuel on the conservation estate.

Mr Worth has a specific interest in this as he is also the Minister of Internal Affairs, with responsibility for the New Zealand Fire Service.

The Department of Conservation and conservationists had traditionally viewed burn-offs as inappropriate.

"The reality, of course, is that burn-offs are one of the key pasture tools of runholders."

He said recent research by Landcare Research and Scion, a Crown research institute, and the experience of farmers had shown fire could be an effective tool to manage the build-up of vegetation.

He hoped the Department of Conservation and other critics of the practice would change their view and he intended to initiate some discussion on the issue.

"I hope there will be a shift in Doc's position on controlled burn-offs in the high country."

Research in Otago in 2001 and 2006 on the impact of fire on tussocks under various conditions showed there was little harm to the plants when burn-offs were done in spring and under damp conditions.

But late-season fires in dry conditions resulted in a greater loss of biomass, carbon and nutrients and the short to medium-term loss of tussock dominance.

On the issue of pastoral lease rents, Mr Worth said the outcome of the Minaret Station case being heard by the Land Valuation Tribunal would precede any changes he made.

It would be interesting how the tribunal's decision lined up with his party's policy, he said, but acknowledged the case might be appealed to a higher authority.

Agriculture Minister David Carter said pastoral lessees had reported a change in attitude from government departments.

"Already I am hearing reports from high country farmers that the attitudes of government departments have changed substantially. They needed to," he told farmers at the recent Meat and Wool New Zealand's annual meeting in Gore.

There were some major questions that needed to be asked about future management of the high country, he said.

"The land is not easy to manage and the fundamental question we now have to ask is how will the Doc manage its already 43% hold of the South Island."

Mr Carter said Doc and other interested parties needed to work more closely with farming families who, in many cases, had farmed the land for several generations.

"They are the ones who have delivered us the landscapes we see today. They are the ones with the ability to manage it far more sustainably than any government department," he said.

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