Dairy rail trail is sure to fail

Dairy stock increasingly border the Otago Central Rail Trail.  Photo by Gerald Cunningham.
Dairy stock increasingly border the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo by Gerald Cunningham.

Gerald Cunningham says the Otago Central Rail Trail is now at risk through degradation of the landscape Central Otago cyclists come to see.

The iconic Otago Central Rail Trail, which has done so much over the past 20 years to revive the fortunes of small Central Otago towns, is in imminent danger of becoming the Otago Central Dairy Farm Trail. No other event has had such an effect on the revival of these towns and villages as the Rail Trail.

Now, instead of sitting back and allowing the trail to take the future of Central Otago to even greater heights, there are those who seem hellbent on destroying it.

These destructive forces are a direct result of the dairy boom. The development of a dairy farm a short distance from the trail near Omakau several years ago, and the publicity that followed its subsequent sale in 2013 to a high-profile New Zealander for several million dollars, saw speculators suddenly pour money into Central Otago.

Local farmers are now being offered prices that until recently they could only dream about. The result is an increasing number of Central Otago farms that border the Rail Trail and surround the villages along the trail are ending up in the hands of absentee owners. Most are earmarked for conversion into full-blown dairy farms milking hundreds of cows with all the environmental side effects which come with that. Large ponds to settle the manure and urine produced in the milking shed will be built to hold this potent mixture, which is then sprayed back on to the farm with great enthusiasm.

A dairy farm sees the constant movement of large animals that turn green pasture into a sea of mud during wet weather. Cows love smelly silage, and the behaviour of frustrated dairy beef bulls can be embarrassing to people who have had little contact with farm animals.

Another side effect of dairy conversion is even more destructive. Most dairy farms are spelled during winter, with the cows shipped off farm to be grazed as dry stock. Their effect on the environment is more dramatic, as pasture is much more vulnerable to becoming a fetid sea of mud, manure and silage in winter. The problem is further aggravated by the dry-stock farms carrying greater numbers of animals than the dairy farms, as the former often also graze dairy replacement heifers and dairy beef bulls.

Dairy farm owners must follow guidelines set down by Fonterra to help protect the environment and waterways. The problem is that once a cow quits a dairy farm for a dry-stock farm, that animal ceases to be a dairy cow and all Fonterra bets are off, showing a gaping flaw in the system.

All this comes back to the Otago Central Rail Trail becoming the Otago Central Dairy Farm Trail. Successful dairy farmers and property speculators are not fools and know a good deal when they see one.

At present, there is no legislation or council bylaw in place to oversee which Central Otago farms are suitable for conversion to dairy farms or even, God forbid, pig farms.

The only consents required relate to the location of the milking shed and the two effluent ponds on the property to be converted.

The Otago Regional Council has new water quality policies in the pipeline in an attempt to protect Central Otago waterways. This is to be praised, but the council does not have the manpower or the take-no-prisoners attitude required to police these policies adequately.

There is no way visitors are going to keep coming to Central Otago to cycle the Rail Trail if some form of control on dairy conversion and dairy dry stock is not swiftly introduced.

With the power of social media, word will soon spread that the Rail Trail has become the Dairy Farm Trail, while the small Central Otago towns and villages along the Rail Trail have been surrounded by cows, mud, manure-spraying, the occasional piggery and milking sheds that open for business before daylight.

Why would they, when they now have the choice of the delightful 100km Queenstown Trail and the increasingly popular 350km Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail.

- Gerald Cunningham is a former Auckland businessman turned Central Otago author, photographer and historian. He lives in Lauder and has written several published books on Central Otago including the Guide to the Otago Central Rail Trail.

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