Otago farmers foster healthy streams
Southern Otago's streams are set to be in much better health in future, after farmers and locals saw a need to teach the next generation about looking after their rural environment.
South and West Otago farmers have been learning ways to improve the water quality of their streams through local catchment groups.
Co-ordinator Craig Simpson, from New Zealand Landcare Trust, says the groups, made up of farmers and local people interested in the environment, identified that their learnings should be shared with the next generation of caretakers of the land.
“They said we want to extend this out and involve the children and schools because it is important that the younger generation learn about stream health.”
Since the idea was hatched, Craig has run stream days educating more than 250 children from nine primary schools from Tapanui to Millers Flat.
The children learn how to do a stream health assessment, which includes identifying what creatures and plants live there. “You can tell from what lives there how healthy the stream is.”
The project also looks at ways to restore and conserve a catchment and several schools have adopted a stream that the children can check in on regularly.
Craig says some streams are in poor health due to stream-bed sediment, more prevalent in streams that traverse agricultural land. The area is primarily beef and sheep farming country, with significant areas of dairy farming and forestry.
Farmer representative on the catchment group Simon O’Meara says it’s about raising awareness that the health of local streams can be better. “By educating the kids they can go home and tell their parents that it is not good to bring sediment into the streams.”
He says many farmers did not know a stream they’d been looking at for decades was not healthy. “You won’t realise there is sediment in the bottom of it until you learn about the effect that has, and that there are a number of ways to mitigate sediment run-off.”
“It only takes some small steps and it’s not hard or expensive.” Examples are fencing off streams to use long grass as a filter and digging small sediment traps at the bottom of hollows or gullies in crop paddocks.
One challenge local farmers have is that they need to feed stock on winter crops, like brassicas and fodder beet, which cause silt run-off in hill country, he says. To reduce run-off Simon begins winter grazing his stock from the top of a hill, rather than the bottom.
“I think silt run-off has stopped getting worse and you can certainly see less sediment in the streams – our testing is showing that and phosphorus levels are also coming down.”
Craig says the project showed the students and catchment groups that streams had varying challenges. Waikoikoi School stream for example, was healthy but had bank erosion and a lack of shade, while the stream opposite Tapanui’s Blue Mountain College was full of water cress due to sediment build up.
Riparian planting is a proven method to stabilise banks and prevent sediment run-off. The children have been involved in planting flax, toetoe, cabbage trees, carex secta and kōwhai along streams. “We will go back and continue to plant and monitor and see what each stream is like. Hopefully we will see big improvements in the stream health over time.”
He says the students relished the opportunity to learn about their local environment outside the classroom. “They just love getting out there and they are always amazed at what lives in the streams.”
A highlight has been finding the Pomahaka galaxias, which are found only in the Pomahaka catchment. The Pomahaka galaxias is a cousin to whitebait (īnanga), but unlike whitebait they are non-migratory, living their entire life in streams where they are hatched.
Craig says feedback from farmers, parents and students is very positive about the work and there are examples of children teaching their families and others about life in local streams.
A father shared at a water quality meeting that he had mayflies in his stream, although he didn’t know what they looked like. “His son has done this project and passed his knowledge to his father, who has now passed that on to a group of farmers whose land is on the stream. I think that is gold passing that information on.”
The work has also prompted farmers to fence of areas to protect the habitat. “One has fenced a whole stream that used to have stock access, because the kids have planted it out.”
In addition to the hands-on stream work, the students visited the New Zealand Marine Study Centre’s Aquavan, which takes live marine critters and touch pools to schools and communities to teach children about the connection between river health and the coastal environment.
Craig says he would like to continue the project to involve more schools and keep educating children coming through the schools involved.
Find out more about Aquavan
About the project
The stream health project is run by the New Zealand Landcare Trust in connection with catchment groups, with support from the Otago Regional Council, the Otago University New Zealand Marine Studies Centre, the Department of Conservation and the Otago Participatory Science Platform.
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