High Country Farming
You will often hear the term ’high country’ being referred to in New Zealand farming circles. This is a special sector of pastoral farming steeped in history and one that conjures up immediate images of billowing tussock-lands and vast mountain ranges.
High country farming describes an area of land more than 600m above sea level which is mainly covered by tussock and other native species and is predominantly located in the South Island and – to a lesser extent - in some parts of the North Island. It is classed as extensive pastoral farming and often runs only a few stock per hectare so as to preserve the complex ecological balance of this type of country
The History of Pastoral Leasing
Pastoral farming in the high country goes back over 170 years to the 1850s. During the period between 1880 to the early 1900s many properties were intermittently abandoned or destocked due to rabbit plagues, severe climatic events, and various animal diseases. By 1948, much of the high country in the South Island was in a degraded state and the Land Act 1948 was passed into law which created a perpetually renewable ’pastoral lease’ to give farming families on these lands the ability to farm for future generations and long-term sustainability. There are currently 171 Crown pastoral leases covering around 1.2 million hectares of the South Island. The majority are located across Canterbury, Otago, Marlborough, Southland, and Westland in the South Island high country.
Under pastoral lease tenure, the lessee has no right to the soil and must farm the land diligently, keeping weed and pests under control. The leases are administered by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) and run for 33 years and are continually renewed. When the term expires, the lessee is entitled to obtain a new lease for a further 33 years, subject to the same conditions as the previous lease, but at a revised rent. Pastoral leases give the lessee exclusive possession of the land, and the right to graze the land. Lessees need permission to carry out other activities on their lease. Rent reviews take place for pastoral leases every 11 years, and the rent is based on how much stock the land can carry for pastoral farming.
Simply put, the basis of the pastoral lease is that the Crown owns the unimproved land, which is subject to a ’base carrying capacity’ assessment. The leaseholder owns all of the improvements, including roads, fences, buildings, fertility, shelter belt, weed and pest control. These improvements allow for further stock units to be carried and an exemption is typically granted. Pastoral lease land has well-tested tenure rights.
Native vegetation and low stock numbers are characteristic of these properties, and farming follows the same seasonal rhythms it has always done.
High country farmers tend to face more varieties of natural challenges such as weed and pest invasion, soil erosion and climatic extremes, than other forms of pastoral farming. In addition, as with all other farming sectors, there are now recent legislative challenges that add another layer of challenges - including the freshwater regulations that come into effect in 2025, as well as the new law passed recently by central government around pastoral lease land, referred to as the Crown Pastoral Land Reform (CPLR) Bill.
The Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill
In May 2022, the CPLR Bill passed its third reading. This Act amends the Crown Pastoral Land Act 1998 and the Land Act 1948 and essentially ends tenure review. Tenure review was a voluntary process that gave pastoral lessees an opportunity to buy land capable of economic use from the Crown. Land with high conservation values was protected and restored to full Crown ownership as conservation land and was based on the proposition that it was better to end the leasehold regime with the Crown taking full and unencumbered ownership of high country land in exchange for allowing the leaseholder to purchase the freehold of parts of it.
Under the CPLR Act the land will continue to be leasehold (where the Crown continues to own it) and the leaseholders’ perpetually renewable leases will continue. The key difference is that it provides for a new regulatory system which controls the activities undertaken on this Crown-owned land.
Under the CPLR Act, an “outcomes-based” approach to the regulatory system has been introduced on the premise to ensure “sustainable pastoral farming maintains or enhances the inherent (ecological, landscape, cultural, heritage and scientific) values of the land”. The changes also aim to “increase transparency, improve accountability, enable more public involvement in how the system operates, and better support the Crown-Māori relationship”.
The Devil will be in the Detail
This new regulatory system identifies a range of farming and other management activities as permitted, discretionary, or prohibited (similar to labels applied to many local government District Plan activities) and these changes will come into effect in mid-November. The new system will establish a new process for consenting activities on pastoral land, with the core objective of achieving “positive outcomes such as maintaining or enhancing pastoral land”.
Considerations included understanding more around the types of information required by leaseholders when applying for consents, and potential enforcement measures of non-compliance.
Non-compliance will include certain identified activities such as burning vegetation, disturbing soil, undertaking recreational activity, or contravening a stock limitation without a permit/consent, unless that activity is otherwise permitted. Many of these processes are already in place under current LINZ management/regulation with requirements for pastoral lessees to seek permission to conduct a range of these activities. Arguably there may therefore be limited change apart from the way that the monitoring of these activities is administered and enforced. But as with anything, the devil will be in the detail, and it is yet another complex factor our farming families are having to contend with.
Get in touch with our Rural and Lifestyle Director in Otago/Southland Ruth Hodges for further information on High Country Farming.
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Director | Otago & Southland
Ruth commenced her career in rural real estate in August 2009 before establishing the first Colliers Rural and Agribusiness franchise in New Zealand with Shane O’Brien in September 2014. Her experience and acumen led to a role operating at a national level, spearheading growth in Colliers’ Rural business between 2018 and 2021. Now based in the Southern-Lakes district, Ruth is Managing Director of the Otago and Southland Rural business, of which she was one of the co-founders in January 2019.
Growing up on a large-scale, high-country farm in Central Otago set the foundation for Ruth’s involvement in the rural industry throughout her working life. After achieving a first-class honours degree from Otago University, Ruth commenced a career in rural finance that spanned nine years with the National Bank. She then joined the progressive new dairy company, Synlait, as Business Development Manager, focusing on growing their farming assets via key acquisitions around the Canterbury region.
Ruth’s comprehensive understanding of an often complex and evolving rural market together with her ever-present proactive attitude allows her to provide solutions that go beyond the traditional real estate model. She is excited to be back working in the South and to offer new clients the benefit of her vast knowledge and experience.
She has extensive experience in selling a wide range of rural assets and an impressive track record of over $850,000,000 in farm sales over a short period.