Not in your backyard

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Your house, your castle, or so they say. But what can you do with impunity in your own backyard and what is beyond the pale? Bruce Munro scours bylaws and legislation to help you get the most out of your property without ending up in jail — maybe.

Roosters. Regal creatures heralding the new day with melodious crowing. Or, sleep-shattering fleabags best enjoyed with lashings of gravy?

The Dunedin City Council (DCC) is reviewing its bylaws on keeping animals. The review is five years ahead of schedule, pushed to the front of the queue by dozens of complaints about noisy cockerels in urban backyards and on rural properties bordering suburbia.

At present, the Keeping Animals (Excluding Dogs) And Birds Bylaw, although it does include nuisance, health and safety provisions, neither has restrictions on what non-canine, furry or feathered creatures people can have as pets, nor on the numbers they can keep. Want to have seven cats? Be my guest, the city says. Partial to the notion of a dozen pet llamas? Go for your life. Like the idea of waking to a 20-piece rooster reveille? Hang on a moment!

We live in times that make us acutely aware of our own little slice of paradise. Our piece of Earth delineated by wooden fence, brick wall or leafy hedge is an increasingly precious, private sanctuary.

Minds turn to making the most of that space. It is no longer simply a backyard. It is a kingdom, waiting to be moulded according to our will and our desire for the provision of pleasure and gain.

But backyards butt up against other backyards. And so we have laws and bylaws, to manage the impacts of neighbouring kingdoms on each other.

Sometimes, however, those regulations are curious, counter-intuitive or buried deep in government websites and bureaucratic jargon.

So, here is a wholly incomplete miscellany of some of the things you can do, some that you had better not, and some that you might just get away with, in your own backyard.

The future of suburban roosters in Dunedin hangs in the balance. The council wants to know whether residents are happy with the unregulated status quo, think a permit should be required or want them banned outright. In the meantime, if roosters are your thing, fill your yard with their strutting majesties. Do remember, however, that the existing bylaw stipulates your animals cannot be a nuisance to neighbours. Consider fitting your male poultry with a rooster collar. Fitted snug, but not too tight, the collar limits airflow to a rooster’s voice box, reducing the volume of his crows.

The whole topic of keeping birds is somewhat sketchy in the city’s bylaws.

The number and type of birds is not limited, but there are requirements around housing — with some interesting exemptions. Every bird house and run shall be in good repair, clean and free of vermin, the bylaw states. But that does not apply in four situations, including, if the birds are at "a bird show or contest for no more than four days". So, if birds make you happy, you could always buy seven swans, six geese, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge. Put them in your pear tree. If anyone objects, say it is your open air bird house. If they say, well it is not in good repair because the birds can escape, reply that you are exempt for four days because you are also running a bird contest. Pressed to expand on the exact nature of the contest, tell them it is a competition to see which bird stays in the tree for the longest. On the fourth day, collect up as many of your birds as you can still find and put them back in the tree for another multi-day tree-sitting competition.

Bees are not mentioned in the city’s bylaw. That could be a problem.

The bylaw stipulates that each animal must be "caged or otherwise restrained within the boundaries of the private land on which it is kept". The only exclusion is for "cats, pigeons and doves".

Bees are prone to disregarding trespass law. Technically, should every apiarist’s backyard be enclosed in a impermeable biosphere?

Questions to the city council about that and other bylaw-related matters were responded to with an email stating that lockdown-related questions were being prioritised this week. Perhaps it is a bees’ nest best not poked at.

Should one of your backyard menagerie sadly slip off this mortal coil there is, apparently, nothing to stop you burying it in the backyard.

Even if it is a pony.

But, best not dig a shallow grave, particularly in summer.

In the run up to Christmas, 2017, a Caversham resident phoned the DCC in alarm. Her neighbour’s pony, kept in a backyard, had died and been buried where it fell. But the warm weather had bloated the carcass and a leg was now protruding from the earthen mound.

The neighbour told the Otago Daily Times that the DCC "don’t want to do anything about it".

That is understandable. Although city bylaws say it is an offence to keep an animal in such a manner as might be injurious to human health, with the pony deceased it might have been difficult to argue they were still "keeping" it.

The Otago Regional Council also washed its hands of the issue.

"If it were in a waterway or a body of water, we might have jurisdiction in terms of our role ... but because it’s on land, it’s not really something we can do anything about," a spokeswoman said at the time.

The pony, which had died of natural causes, was later removed by its owner and buried elsewhere.

So, let that be a lesson to us all.

What lesson? Possibly, waste not, want not.

The city council used to issue fire permits, but that job has been given to the Otago Rural Fire Centre. According to the centre, if you live in Dunedin, Oamaru or Queenstown you can have a hangi, umu or lovo this weekend.

"Good news! It looks OK," the centre’s online, automated fire permit adviser responds for each of those locations on those dates.

"These Backyard Contained Fires are allowed without a permit, if you follow our ‘Reduce your Risk' guidelines."

Back in 2017, a hot charcoal fire topped with a few large stones before the dearly departed was buried could have rendered the issue of a shallow grave null and void — and fed the whole neighbourhood.

If profit, rather than pleasure, is your primary backyard motive, consider growing and selling vegetables.

Benji Biswas, of Invercargill, has blazed a bright, ultraviolet trail on this front.

Two years ago, watching a documentary about food wastage made Biswas wonder how he could turn an entrepreneurial spirit and limited resources in to a thriving business that did good.

Without any formal background in agriculture, but with some seeds, some compost, a table in his garage, and online videos as his teacher, Biswas began experimenting. On the second day, he knew he could grow microgreens.

His business is now based at a different property with a larger garage. But that does not change the fact that Crunchy, supplying greens to dozens of cafes and supermarkets, providing a full-time income for his family and employing another person, started in Biswas’ backyard.

That is a true and inspiring story for all would-be backyard market gardeners. Unlike the New Zealand-based hoax that circulated around the globe twice in the past decade.

In 2014, Reddit online discussion site user WhyNotSmeagol asked if gardening in New Zealand was illegal. In an impressive act of group trolling, everyone who responded said yes it is illegal to have a home garden in Aotearoa. Stories and laws were fictionalised to back it all up.

"My uncle lost an arm in the 1981 Spring Bok-choi Riots," wrote one.

"My brother was killed in the Moutua Gardens protest," said another.

The conversation spilled over into the mainstream. Stories explaining the hoax made international news.

Then, two years later, it happened again, this time on the back of high avocado prices.

Reddit user DinaDinaDinaBatman uploaded a photo of his mother "flouting the law, growing her own avocado in her illegal garden".

Once again, New Zealand Reddit users played along. The thread made it to Reddit’s front page, where hundreds of thousands of people read all about New Zealand’s "illegal" gardening.

Online news site Buzzfeed, detailing the hoax, quoted user Heavy-Metal-viking.

"I ... had a late season crop of cabbages, a few broccoli, a few cauliflower all hidden away by fences in my backyard ...

"A few members of the Dept. of Agriculture showed up and ripped it all out. They practically goose stepped in with jackboots ... and now I have a cease and desist letter and a hefty fine.

"The letter states, if I concrete this area to prevent further illegal activity, the fine will be halved to a more reasonable $700. Silver lining is I will have a nice BBQ area."

Around the globe, people expressed their dismay and anger.

"Did you know: growing a personal home garden in New Zealand is ILLEGAL? The liberal govt rips out your plants and charges huge fines. #YayLiberals," DefendingOurFreedom, for example, wrote.

New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries felt compelled to make an official statement.

"There are no laws against people having gardens, or sharing food that they’ve grown at home. New food safety law (the Food Act 2014) only applies to food for sale, so has no effect on people sharing food," they said.

"The law also allows people to sell the food they grow at home, at their farm gate or on a market stall for example, without the need to register under the Food Act."

So there you go. If you want to follow Biswas’ example and go on a backyard, money-making, vegetable adventure, you have the Government’s official blessing.

But maybe take a photo of that MPI quote, just in case you hear the sound of jackboots in your driveway.

Looking for a different revenue avenue? How about breeding possums for their fur or meat?

They are a major threat to native vegetation and wildlife, they spread bovine tuberculosis and they have nasty claws, but, hey, why not?

Well, in many parts of the country the answer would be, because they are listed in the region’s pest management plan. Under the Biosecurity Act 1993 it is an offence to "breed, knowingly communicate, exhibit, multiply, propagate, release, or sell a pest" under almost all circumstances.

But here in Otago, we do it different. The ORC’s pest plan only designates possums pests on Otago Peninsula, West Harbour/Mt Cargill, Quarantine Island and Goat Island.

So, why not think big? How about turn your backyard into New Zealand’s biggest possum ranch, right there in Kelvin Heights, Belleknowes or Peninsula Bay.

There is plenty of scope. Possums are marsupials, so maybe you could milk them. Although, getting the tiny cups on would probably be challenging.

Free range is all the rage these days. So, why not build them a few dens — they like holes above the ground such as hollow tree branches or trunks — and then let your herd ... flock ... passel of possums (look it up, it’s a thing) forage throughout the neighbourhood. It will cut down on feed costs and give you that free-range branding advantage.

Because possums are nocturnal, your neighbours — although they are likely to be woken by the throaty screech of hundreds of possums fighting in their backyards, denuding shrubs and trees, killing and frightening off native birds — will not know you are the culprit because every morning your possums will be tucked up, out of sight, waiting for night to fall.

Possums as pets would be a next-level marketing challenge. Domesticated possums would be best. A sure-fire device for taming possums is available from Predator Free NZ. They suggest the Trapinator — an all-in-one, spring-set, kill trap.

Here you are, king or queen, surveying your backyard kingdom. You make the rules, sort of, and what you feel like now, surrounded by all this flora and fauna, is taking the step from naturalist to naturist.

But you have neighbours. Where to draw the line? One person’s stylish swimwear is another’s immodest underwear. Togs, togs, undies. Context is everything.

The Weekend Mix tried to take the guesswork out of this for you.

Among questions put to the DCC were these gems: What state of undress is OK in your own backyard? Are underpants/Speedos acceptable if you've got a swimming pool? How small a swimming pool? If you were standing in a bucket of water in your undies, is that OK?

Alas, there has been no reply. Covid can be time-consuming.

Acts of Parliament seemed the only recourse. It has been revealing.

It turns out, you can be completely starkers in your backyard — if you meet one particular condition.

Firstly, there is no law against being topless anywhere in New Zealand.

That is not quite true. In 2008, New Plymouth District introduced a bylaw requiring beach goers to be "properly and sufficiently dressed". While it does not actually mention being topless, if you know anything about the good people of New Plymouth you will not risk it.

The problem in law — in the Summary of Offences Act 1981 to be precise — is indecent exposure of genitalia. You can be half naked, just not the bottom half.

But here is the loophole. Section 27 of the Act says, "Every person is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding $2,000 who, in or within view of any public place, intentionally and obscenely exposes any part of his or her genitals".

It then adds, "It is a defence in a prosecution under this section if the defendant proves that he or she had reasonable grounds for believing that he or she would not be observed".

"Public place" is the key phrase. According to the Act, that is a place that "is open to or is being used by the public". Your backyard, as long as it is not visible from the street, is your private space. That the neighbours can see you from the privacy of their house or backyard, is immaterial.

Trust me on this. More than three decades ago I narrowly failed a whole year of university introductory law papers.

Bottom line, it is your backyard. So, feel free, get your gears off. But maybe not while milking the possums.


"Possums as pets would be a next-level marketing challenge. " and illegal

From the RPMP: Requirement to Act (regulation) – RPMP rules are the ‘backbone’ of the RPMP........ Other pests (such as wallaby and possums) cannot be kept. Failing to comply with RPMP rules can lead to enforcement action by ORC.

Anyone buying a house in a rural area or on the boundary of one should expect rural noises and smells. If they don't like rural smells and noises, then don't buy there - certainly don't grumble and complain.

There should be a bylaw about cats. People who keep them don’t realise their precious moggy is a terror to their neighbours, pissing on outdoor furniture, pooing on the lawn and killing native birds. Cats should have to be chipped, snipped and preferably somehow fenced or kept indoors/leashed.