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Forest & Bird has applied for Court enforcement orders after a farmer near Christchurch damaged or killed nearly thirty percent of the national population of an extremely rare and threatened plant.

The vast majority of Muehlenbeckia astonii, or shrubby tororaro, exist on one farm on Kaitorete Spit, a narrow stretch of ecologically significant land between Lake Ellesmere and the sea. Recently, a new owner of that farm sprayed and cultivated three of the farm’s eight paddocks.

Credit or caption

Drone footage shows the area where the rare plant has been removed. More footage, including stills, is available here.

Muehlenbeckia astonii, which has small bright-green heart-shaped leaves, is a popular landscaping plant but extremely rare in the wild.

According to Forest & Bird ecological evidence, the clearance and sowing of oats damaged or destroyed an estimated 29.3% of the total nationwide wild population. Numerous other Threatened and At Risk species live at the site, including birds, lizards, plants and invertebrates.

“Biodiversity is in crisis in New Zealand. Often it’s a case of small impacts adding up to a major loss, but here a single incident has made it far more likely for a species to go extinct in the wild. Imagine if someone deliberately killed thirty percent of our wild kiwi or kākāpō,” says Forest & Bird Chief Executive Kevin Hague.

“That these plants remain in people’s gardens does nothing to mitigate the impact – we have a responsibility to not let these species go extinct in the wild. We don’t want to see our threatened plants and animals only remaining in zoos and people’s gardens.”

Forest & Bird has applied to the Environment Court to prevent further destruction, and to require rehabilitation of the area. Much of the rest of the national population of Muehlenbeckia astonii exists on the farm’s other paddocks.

Water consents for the area have also been sought from Environment Canterbury. Forest & Bird has asked that those irrigation consents be publicly notified.

Forest & Bird is also concerned about a Christchurch District Plan rule, which allows clearance of indigenous vegetation in “improved pasture”. The destruction of the Muehlenbeckia astonii is claimed to have been carried out under this rule, which was considered at District Plan hearings in 2016.

“We don’t have a problem with a well-crafted rule that allows normal farming activities while protecting important native species. In this case, the rule is poorly drafted and lacks clarity,” says Mr Hague.

Due to this uncertainty, Forest & Bird has also sought declarations regarding the improved pasture rule and definition, including that the rule is so uncertain that it could be unenforceable.

“This is also only one example of many in the Christchurch district where there are threatened plants living on land that has been grazed. Unless the rule and definition are fixed, this could happen again and again – we’re risking ecological destruction on a much larger scale,” says Mr Hague.

“It’s very frustrating. Our natural environment is already pushed to the limit. Only last week the Statistics New Zealand Our land report stated that lowland and coastal environments are our most threatened and worst protected areas, particularly on the east of the South Island. And yet we can’t have confidence in local government to stop the destruction.

“We have complained to the Christchurch City Council but those interactions give us no confidence they will address the matter appropriately and promptly.”

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