Simon East

War of the lupins

The planting of Russell lupins as sheep feed in the Canterbury high country is triggering a clash between farming and conservation values.

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In early summer, photographers jostle for space on the roadside to capture a calendar shot across Lake Tekapo to snow-covered Mt Cook, through a dazzling blaze of lupins. It’s a view that dazzled me, too, on my first trips in the back seat of the family station-wagon through this country in the 1960s. Yet my father, botanist Peter Wardle, didn’t share our love of the lupins, telling us that while they looked pretty, they didn’t belong in this high-country landscape.

In 1999, however, I heard an alternative view from retired AgResearch scientist David Scott. He called the deep-rooting Russell lupins (also known as perennial lupins) the most exciting of all the pasture species he had studied, being a long-lived and nutritious sheep feed that needs little fertiliser.

As a schoolboy in 1949, Scott helped his mother, Connie Scott, of Godley Peaks Station, near Tekapo, scatter lupin seeds along the roadside. She bought about £100 worth from the local stock and station agent, hiding the bill from her husband for many months, hoping simply to make the world more beautiful.

Russell lupins, planted along high-country roadsides last century, are a siren of summer in Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury. Their seed is now being sown as a robust forage feed for stock in the arid high-country climate. However, they also displace native species, creating a colourful conflict between farmers and ecologists.
Russell lupins, planted along high-country roadsides last century, are a siren of summer in Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury. Their seed is now being sown as a robust forage feed for stock in the arid high-country climate. However, they also displace native species, creating a colourful conflict between farmers and ecologists.

Today, Connie Scott lies in Burkes Pass cemetery beneath a headstone remembering her as the ‘lupin lady’. David Scott, who turned 81 in September, lives at the foot of Mt John near Lake Tekapo, keeping an eye on forage trials he helped to establish in 1982.

Based on a lifetime of research, Scott’s ideas are gaining traction as farmers and agricultural scientists greet Russell lupins as a potential saviour for merino sheep farming in difficult times. The New Zealand Merino Company (NZMCo) is drafting a new protocol to promote lupins as a high-country fodder crop, and seeking the support of Environment Canterbury, as well as conservation groups and farmers. It’s a bid to stay on the right side of environmentalists and ecologists who see lupins as an environmental time bomb.

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Frances Schmechel says she first felt the threat posed by Russell lupins when walking the lower Ahuriri River, looking for black stilts.

“The thing that amazed me is how tall the lupins get,” the senior biodiversity adviser to Environment Canterbury recalls. “They were over head high and so thick that we had to either walk in the water or push our way through. There was no clear gravel, and no way could birds nest in there.”

Russell lupins may become an environmental weed as serious as broom, Schmechel predicts. The hard-coated seeds spread long distances, especially in waterways. There are ecologists who seriously doubt that Russell lupin can be effectively contained.

Ecologists are concerned about the propagation of lupins--particularly along watercourses--which can displace native species and habitat, and spread rapidly downstream. Here, in Sawdon Stream near Tekapo, lupins are sown across a riverbed; farming an area which once would have been habitat.
Ecologists are concerned about the propagation of lupins–particularly along watercourses–which can displace native species and habitat, and spread rapidly downstream. Here, in Sawdon Stream near Tekapo, lupins are sown across a riverbed; farming an area which once would have been habitat.

Yet the government, through its Commissioner of Crown Lands, has given high-country farmers a green light to plant Russell lupins on pastoral lease land, against advice from the Department of Conservation (DOC). Ease of farming was weighed against native ecosystems, landscape, cultural and historic values. Consents came with conditions, including planting back from waterways and controlling growth by grazing.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) helped to fund trials of what a spokesperson describes as a productive grazing species with soil conservation benefits in a difficult environment.

DOC’s stance is that it is unclear whether the agricultural benefits of Russell lupins outweigh a major risk to fragile native ecosystems, including braided rivers. Its staff are working with Environment Canterbury, government agencies and the merino industry towards understanding how lupins could impact conservation values and adjacent areas.

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The push and pull over lupins is a familiar scenario, highlighted by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) this year. The society’s new book Vanishing Nature: Facing New Zealand’s Biodiversity Crisis points to the tendency among regulatory agencies to align with powerful interests, then set symbolic and ambiguous policies that fail to protect public interest in biodiversity.

“Landowners who destroy biodiversity through development stand to gain financially, while the cost of depleted biodiversity falls on the public,” writes EDS senior policy analyst Marie Brown and co-authors.

Environment Canterbury walks this line between promoting economic development and meeting environmental responsibilities. Its Canterbury Pest Management Strategy lists Russell lupins as a biodiversity protection pest, meaning people are free to plant this weed and yet not required to control its spread.

Merino sheep graze in a field of Russell lupins at Sawdon Station, near Tekapo. Lincoln University's Derrick Moot sees the crop as a saviour for high-country farmers. Able to survive lean soils and extreme heat and cold, the nitrogen-fixing lupin provides forage and even a little shelter for lambs, pictures here at nearby Glenmore Station.
Merino sheep graze in a field of Russell lupins at Sawdon Station, near Tekapo. Lincoln University’s Derrick Moot sees the crop as a saviour for high-country farmers. Able to survive lean soils and extreme heat and cold, the nitrogen-fixing lupin provides forage and even a little shelter for lambs, pictures here at nearby Glenmore Station.

Among those suggesting a tougher stance is Landcare Research scientist Robert Holdaway. “If the aim is to protect biodiversity, Russell lupin’s pest status needs an upgrade to stop its spread into catchments where lupins are absent,” he says. “Otherwise, legislators may as well open the door on lupins, as their existing status does nothing to stop planting, not only by farmers but anyone wanting to scatter seeds and change the landscape.”

Holdaway’s research—published in the British Journal of Ecology—describes metre-high Russell lupins clogging the braided upper Waimakariri riverbed in Canterbury. They capture silt and create shade, ideal conditions for more weeds, which soon invade.

Twizel-based senior DOC ranger Aalbert Rebergen describes teams of people wearing backpack sprayers heavy with herbicide spending hundreds of hours seeking out and killing Russell lupins in braided riverbeds and wetlands. The work is being done under DOC’s Project River Recovery, supported by energy companies Meridian and Genesis. The perennial’s seed stays viable for decades so the job must be repeated year after year.

DOC spent close to $147,000 on Project River Recovery Russell lupin control in the Mackenzie Basin in 2014–15 and is this year budgeting a similar amount for the upper Waitaki Basin alone.

Nesting in the upper Waitaki are most of the world’s remaining black stilts, about 5000 nationally vulnerable wrybills, nationally endangered black-fronted terns and the final stronghold of banded dotterels. Introduced rats, stoats, ferrets and cats predate these birds to extinction, while their habitats are swallowed by aggressive weeds, including Russell lupins.

Rebergen says if it wasn’t for 25 years of weed control, rivers including the Tasman would be bank-to-bank in Russell lupins, like the lower reaches of the Ahuriri described by Schmechel.

“Why should we risk this globally significant open landscape and the plants and animals living there to benefit individual farmers?” asks Rebergen. “These weeds must be forbidden as a crop in the upper Waitaki catchment, not just in strips along waterways. The moment you get a flood, those buffers will mean nothing.”

DOC ecologist Nicholas Head questions Environment Canterbury’s neutral stance on Russell lupins, given the threat the plants pose to biodiversity and landscapes and the cost of control.

“The Merino Company thinking lacks understanding of weed ecology and is based on an exaggerated palatability of lupins,” says Head. “Lupins are spreading, sheep are not controlling them, and carry the seed far and wide in their fleeces, while landowners take no responsibility.”

The mix of opinion has created some unusual paradoxes. Last year, a landowner was controlling lupins in a riverbed, just downstream from a proposed planting. “Surely my neighbour shouldn’t be allowed to plant the weed I was asked to eliminate?” he observed. “What is the point?”

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Through the eyes of a high-country farmer, Russell lupins have the power to transform a wasteland of invasive hawkweed and wilding pines into productive pasture.

A hand-painted sign surrounded by Russell lupins marks the entrance to Sawdon Station, overlooking Lake Tekapo, where Gavin (‘Snow’) and Sue Loxton have farmed for close to 20 years. Against a backdrop of dust-coloured hills, 300 hectares of flowering lupins add a splash of summer colour and dwarf the merino sheep that graze beneath.

The success of the lupin in high-country regions is due, in part, to the hydrophobic properties of the leaves, which allow morning dew to be collected and used efficiently by the plant.
The success of the lupin in high-country regions is due, in part, to the hydrophobic properties of the leaves, which allow morning dew to be collected and used efficiently by the plant.

Snow Loxton first planted the seed in 2003. Search for his name in farming media and you’ll read about how the crop grows from early spring well into winter, surviving more than 140 frosts a year. Sowed among sparse pastures, it boosts the struggling growth of introduced grasses and persists for decades.

“If we did nothing, the land would be destocked and completely covered in wilding pines,” he says. “I’ve seen other options like red clover fail in front of us, and lucerne is too expensive.”

As a leaseholder of publicly owned land, Loxton must apply to the Commissioner of Crown Lands to plant any crop, including Russell lupins. He claims permission to grow about 1100 hectares, but his dream would be to plant out the entire 7100-hectare station, spreading seed then lightly harrowing it into ground too stony to drill.

Leading the lupin charge are Lincoln University agricultural scientists seeking to drought-proof east coast farms as climate change kicks in. Trials confirmed that Russell lupins survive searing heat and extreme cold, sown into existing pasture with little fertiliser and no need for cultivation. Their long roots add nitrogen to high-acid, high-aluminium soils not tolerated by lucerne—the go-to crop for easier country—while protecting against erosion by wind and rain.

Mobs of sheep in small fenced plots grazed the lupins back so hard they did not spread, first eating flowers, then leaves.

Lincoln’s lupin trials come under the umbrella of the $36 million NZMCo-led Sheep Industry Transformation Project, aimed at strengthening the merino industry by developing feed plants, genetics, animal health and marketing options. MPI invested $15 million from its Sustainable Farming Fund into the five-year project, extended this year to end in 2017.

Cyclists push through lupins on the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail in the Mackenzie Country, where the blooms have become as much of the landscape as tussock.
Cyclists push through lupins on the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail in the Mackenzie Country, where the blooms have become as much of the landscape as tussock.

At Sawdon Station, a separate Lincolnw study found merino ewes and lambs gain similar weight on lupins as on lucerne. Ewe pregnancy weights, lambing rates and wool production are also similar, and the crop has been fermented into nutritious silage.

Lincoln professor and legume guru Derrick Moot says Russell lupins will enable many high-country farmers to grow out lambs ready for slaughter. This is good news as they run out of options, while down-country finishers (who once bought the lambs) instead graze dairy cows for cash.

However, as Russell lupin seed becomes more readily available, it seems likely farmers will scatter small amounts across vast blocks of land where control will be difficult. Merinos are notoriously picky grazers and Russell lupins could be well down the menu, as they contain bitter-tasting mildly-toxic alkaloids.

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Asked if it’s possible to keep Russell lupins inside fences, Loxton replies, “Yes, but why would you want to? The horse has already bolted in the 1980s, with lupins growing in basins and riverbeds of the Mackenzie Basin and a fair chunk of the South Island. There’s no way of halting spread down waterways.”

In his eyes, that’s no bad thing. Russell lupins are good for sheep, good for the soil and a tourist attraction. They give a nitrogen shot to native tussocks and, he claims, provide pied stilts with places to hide and insects to eat. (Rebergen dismisses this comment as “rubbish”.)

Knowing he’s playing a political game, Loxton likes to invite decision-makers to visit, including Government-appointed Environment Canterbury commissioners who, he says, appeared impressed. He collects and sells seeds for sowing in environments as diverse as sand hills in the Manawatu and as far afield as Switzerland, North Korea, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Scotland.

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NZMCo is treading carefully and its adviser Dick Arnst is uneasy that promotion of lupins as forage feed in the rural media and at field days could raise opposition in a retail environment where products—such as the clothing brand Icebreaker—often trade on their long-term sustainability.

“It’ll be a challenge keeping farming interest under control,” he admits.

Lupins have spread from at least one Mackenzie Country planting, but Arnst claims that this is a rare example of sheep being too laxly grazed. Generally, the crop is hard to establish and easily killed by overgrazing, he says.

Merino farmers have been invited to let Arnst know about any plantings. Without giving away precise locations, he says 3- to 10-hectare plots are springing up in places including Tekapo, Omarama, the Rakaia Gorge, Craigieburn, the Waiau district and the Hakataramea Valley in Canterbury; Roxburgh, Wedderburn, Manuherikia and the Maniototo in Central Otago and Palmerston in North Otago. A smaller plot has been sown in Marlborough.

While debate rages between farmers, scientists and ecologists, lupins rage on too, feeding, beautifying or invading the country’s rural areas, depending upon your perspective. Will an industry protocol bring parties together? Can we preserve an ecology of the past while providing farming options for the future?

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