Nelson deer farmers safe, but fire cordon remains

Nelson deer farmers safe, but fire cordon remains

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Nelson wild-fire continues to be a major worry for deer farmers in the area. Those with farms behind the fire cordon are permitted to return to their farms for two hours a day to feed stock, otherwise their farming operations and lives are on hold.

The good news is that there has been no loss of human life. Nor are any farmed deer known to have died.

The fire has engulfed 2400 hectares of scrub, pine forest and farmland and has led to the evacuation of thousands of residents of nearby towns, as well as dozens of lifestyle blocks and commercial farms.

Graeme and Jan Sutton run 80 velvetters plus replacements and cattle on their Redwood Valley farm inside the fire cordon. Graeme says the limited access to farms and livestock has been a frustration for commercial farmers.

“If you find a problem – like having to replace a ballcock in a trough – there’s your 2 hours gone.”

He says the fire didn’t reach his farm, but his hinds smashed a gate leading from their paddock to the race, probably in response to helicopter activity. The hinds, as well as the stags, then adjusted pretty well to the smoke, noise and activity. 

His big take-home lessons from the fire:

  • Commercial farmers need to be given more access to their farms to ensure animals are getting adequate feed and water. “Civil defence doesn’t seem to be able to get its head around how to deal with livestock. They allow MPI officials and vets to go behind the cordon – if it’s good enough for them, why not commercial farmers? We know our farms, we know our stock.”
  • Vigilance: It’s tinder dry in Nelson and in many other parts of the country. Make sure there’s a serious fire extinguisher on every farm vehicle and that everyone knows how to use it. Observe fire restrictions and encourage others to do the same.
  • Turn off electric fences if you don’t need them: A short in an electric fence could be enough to set off a blaze.
  • Longer-term plant evergreen, non-flammable, trees and shrubs along the fences surrounding your house and farm buildings. Keep the lawns mowed and if possible, watered. “Green vegetation has been shown on lifestyle blocks further up our valley to be an effective fire barrier.”

Ngaire and Kevin Calder have a small deer breeding and venison operation in Pigeon Valley in the heart of the fire zone. They are only about 1 km from Wakefield township, so their farm is on the front-line. Bulldozers have flattened parts of their boundary fencing in order to get access to the land along the boundary to create a “huge” fire break.

Ngaire says she has spoken to FMI Insurance to see whether she is covered for the damage. The answer: No, because the damage was done deliberately. If there’s an official channel for claiming compensation, she hasn’t heard of it.

“The locals have been great. Deer farmers Kim Rose and his wife have been very helpful and Federated Farmers has been on the phone asking if there is anything they can do,” she says.

“We’ve trucked our hinds, stags and fawns to a nearby deer farm where the hinds and stags will stay for the next three months until after the roar. We now want to wean our 60 fawns and bring them home – it’s the earliest we’ve ever weaned – but they have learned to eat baleage with their mums. We’ll add a little grain to the baleage, so they should be OK.”

Ngaire says that for the first three or four days of the fire they were told by fire officials that MPI was looking after their stock, but she had no evidence of this.

“Now MPI is jumping to attention a bit more. We’ve been allowed in to get our animals out, which is a great relief,” she says.

Meanwhile the fire continues and the whole region remains tinder dry. The Calders are staying with family and at night they see patches of vegetation catch alight on the blackened slopes above Pigeon Valley. There’s a glow from over the ridge where the fire is still burning.

Ngaire works as a tennis coach off the farm and husband Kevin is a logger. The fires have disrupted Ngaire’s coaching sessions and Kevin has to wait until rain reduces the fire risk before he can return to work. It could be a long wait.

“Naturally it gets very stressful at times,” Ngaire says. “You have to remind yourself that it will all end eventually and life will return to normal.”

Deer Industry NZ chief executive Dan Coup says DINZ staff have phoned a few farmers in the Nelson area to check that they and their deer are coping under the extreme conditions.

“We’re not aware of anyone in need of urgent assistance. As always, we are seeing farmers banding together and helping each other to solve problems, but if there is anything we can do to help, just sing out,” he says.

Need grazing? If you need help finding grazing for deer as a result of the extreme dry spell, or because of wild-fire, please ring DINZ producer manager Tony Pearse, tel 021 719 038 or your local NZDFA branch chair.

Need baleage or want to help affected farmers? Federated Farmers is doing a great job finding grazing and co-ordinating donations of baleage and other stock feed for affected farmers. Phone Federated Farmers 0800 327 646 option 2 & 3.

Photo credit: Todd Flygenring, Newshub