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Lupins: A love-hate story

Tourists swarm amongst them, photographers swoon over them, and farmers want to plant more of them. But lupins are also a severe environmental threat and have overrun many high country areas. Mike White travels to the Mackenzie Country, where a battle is raging over the plant.

He placed the camera on a boulder and glanced through the viewfinder to frame the scene perfectly. Then he pressed the button, sprinted towards his girlfriend – and dropped on one knee. It was dusk beside Lake Tekapo, the last sun squinting over the hilltops, and Hayden and Jenny from Auckland were about to get engaged among the mauves and pinks and creams of a lupin field.

Two German cyclists stared at the scene. “I hope she says yes,” one noted gravely. She said yes, and there, with lupins surrounding them, with the famous stone Church of the Good Shepherd behind them, with the evening sun on them, Hayden produced the ring he’d been carrying for days, waiting for the perfect moment and the perfect spot. Only the hardest of hearts could have said it wasn’t utterly perfect.

Between November and January, lupins bloom in the Mackenzie Country, attracting thousands of tourists, as well as bees.

But the thing is, for some people, there’s something terribly wrong with that scene, something terrible in it – the lupins. Between November and January, every day thousands of tourists descend on the lupins flowering around Lake Tekapo, like bees among borage, posing for photos amidst the blooming, with the mountains behind them. These Russell lupins have almost become synonymous with the Mackenzie Country, their show-offy, pastel carnival decorating roadsides in a predominately dun landscape.

But the lupins aren’t natural here. They’re international intruders, originally from northwest America, that crowd out native species, clog riverbeds, and provide shelter for bird-killing pests. The Department of Conservation loathes them and spends up to $150,000 a year trying to eradicate them from high-country rivers. When a photo of lupins near Tekapo won an international photo contest in 2016, one English environmentalist labelled them a complete botanic “thug”, a cottage- garden plant utterly out of place in the wilds of New Zealand.

But at the same time as conservationists are mounting a war against them, local farmers are promoting them as having value far beyond fodder for tourists’ holiday snaps. They’ve discovered lupins are one of the only plants that will grow in certain areas of the Mackenzie Basin, and can provide feed for their merino sheep, improve soil by increasing nitrogen levels, and help hold together erosion-prone soil that simply blows away in summer norwesters.

That’s why they want to plant even more lupins, and spread more colour across that dun landscape. It’s a plan that has set them completely at odds with the forces wanting to rid them from the area – leaving regulators with an unenviable decision to make.

ntroduced in the 1930s, lupins have become almost synonymous with the Mackenzie Country.
In the 1950s, Connie Scott lived at Godley Peaks Station, far up and beyond Lake Tekapo. She began scattering lupins throughout the Mackenzie Basin, often to cover the bare slashes of road construction, eventually becoming known as the Lupin Lady. Today, that name is preserved on her headstone in Burkes Pass cemetery.
Connie Scott's headstone at Burkes Pass Cemetery.

Her son, David, who helped her spread lupin seeds when growing up, eventually became an agricultural scientist and from the 1980s was part of research into whether lupins could be used as food for stock. Now in his 80s, Scott still monitors the research plot on Godley Peaks Rd, near the entrance to the Mt John Observatory. He used to run his old Subaru up and down his driveway over the lupin pods to extract the seeds and is still experimenting with different varieties and hybrids. And he’s long been adamant that lupins, far from being a noxious scourge, are invaluable allies of farmers.

The reality is, the region’s very poor soil means growing anything without lots of fertiliser is difficult. Added to this is the fact that many areas of the Mackenzie Basin have a layer of aluminium running through them that is toxic to most plants. Lupins can cope with this, and also have long tap roots allowing them to endure dry conditions. Once established, they can survive for decades, meaning there’s no need to sow a new crop every year, and the nitrogen they fix substantially builds up soil quality.

Lincoln University professor Derrick Moot says it’s undeniable some farms in the Mackenzie Basin are becoming less viable every year. In an effort to help that situation, he’s led research into different crops that could make a difference, and on one property trialled five types of legumes. Lupins were the only ones that survived. While they weren’t a silver bullet for the entire region, they were invaluable for certain farms and certain soils where nothing else would grow, Moot stresses.

He agrees that once lupins get into waterways – where their hard seed is tumbled and scarified so they germinate more easily – they are virtually impossible to remove. But Moot insists simple measures can prevent this, and says the lupins already there didn’t come from farms, but from wild lupins sown by people travelling through the region.

In some instances, Moot believes that lupins give farmers an alternative to converting to dairy farming, which has begun to encroach into the area. “Can people dairy farm in the Mackenzie? If you have water, you can dairy farm any-where. Is it the right thing to be doing? That’s a different question. This is a low-cost, relatively less-invasive way of dealing with the land.”

Snow Loxton of Sawdon Station has become a strong proponent of lupins, their long tap root being one of the secrets of their survival.
Will Murray picks up the rain gauge in front of his house, peers into it and tosses the contents into the garden without a smile. Only 10ml from an overnight storm. “I thought there would’ve been more than that.”

Four generations of Murrays have farmed Glenmore Station, 20,000ha of high country on Lake Tekapo’s west flank. In the past, they could usually count on getting 600ml of rain a year.

“Nowadays, who knows what we’re going to get. It’s all over the show, really. Last summer was the driest I’d had in 15 years. It was bloody hard work.”

Things haven’t got much betterin 2016. He looks at the chart in his office and reels off the tallies: August, 9ml; September, 12ml. It was the worst end to winter in more than a decade – normally they’d get three or four times that amount, sometimes 10 times.

About six years ago Murray noticed much of the farm wasn’t performing as well as it had been. Land devastated by hieracium and rabbits had been sustained with fertiliser, but gradually this had turned the soils acidic and clover was disappearing. “That, combined with the dry years, meant we were just getting an absolute pounding.”

They tried growing lucerne but the aluminium in the soil killed it. Other new crops suffered the same end. “And the only thing that survived was the lupins and they just went berserk.”

Murray knew about lupins – he passed David Scott’s trial site every time he drove to town. “My initial thinking was, ‘Oh yeah, they’re a pretty plant but nothing eats them.’ And it’s been right under our noses for years with David’s work. But until the system started to crack, there was no need to start looking for alternatives.”

Some thought Scott was a bit crazy, but the success of lupins on Glenmore proved what he’d been saying for years. “I don’t think David’s a mad scientist – he’s a great guy, but he’s not a great communicator.”

Murray runs some 6500 merinos on Glenmore, their wool ending up in Italy. But despite improvements across the farm, sustaining that number is tough – he dropped 500 ewes last year. You can feel the weight on his shoulders: every dry day, every below-average week, every arid month presses down on him as he strives to keep the farm viable and pass it on to a fifth generation.

This is the third season Murray has grown lupins. He’s got 75ha planted presently, and he’ll double that in the next year, given the huge benefits they’re delivering. They provide shelter for lambs from spring storms, and nitrogen for grasses that he grows among them; they survive in the droughts, the winters that get down to minus 20°C, and the acidic soil. The increase in weight of ewes and lambs feeding on them has been dramatic.

Ultimately, Murray reckons he could have 500ha in lupins – only a fraction of the farm, and only on non-productive lower land. He’d never plant them on the hills, on the tussock country, and never near rivers or the lake, recognising the damage they can do there.

“There’s no way the whole Mackenzie Basin is going to be one big swaying mass of lupins. I mean, imagine if it was – it’d be beautiful,” he adds, with a huge laugh. “I think there’s just a lot of misinformation out there about them. But if people actually came and had a look at the site and realised that if you plant them in the appropriate area, and manage them appropriately, they’re not going to do you any harm.”

DoC ranger Dean Nelson points to the Tasman Valley, where he’s battled lupins for more than 30 years.
Around the time David Scott was beginning research on whether lupins could be useful stock food in the Mackenzie Country, Dean Nelson was pulling them out around Mt Cook. As a young ranger there in the 80s, controlling lupins that had been sown around the village by enthusiastic mountain guides and others was one of his main jobs. Nelson is now a Department of Conservation senior ranger in Twizel and finds himself still fighting the lupin invasion – though now the battle is much bigger.

In his Mt Cook days, they’d fly down the Tasman Valley in a helicopter, land and pull out about a dozen lupins. “Now we spend up to $50,000 [on eradication] in the Tasman itself each year.”

While he feels they are making progress in the Tasman Valley, other rivers are disaster zones. “They’re a bit of a lost cause in the Ahuriri, and certainly the lower Ohau and Tekapo – it’s pretty stuffed.”

Trying to control lupins in these areas would just be too expensive, so DoC concentrates on spraying them in more pristine rivers, a programme that runs for three months every year.

Nelson agrees it appears slightly crazy for public funds to be spent eradicating them on the one hand, but also on research that will lead to greater planting of them on farms in the region. To that end, he says a clear government position on the use of lupins would be helpful. (Conservation minister Maggie Barry said she was too busy to speak to North & South.)

“I understand there are some parts of the [Mackenzie] Basin that are pretty difficult to farm and I can understand they’d like to find alternative fodder crops,” says Nelson. “But the issue for me is, how you allow farmers to use it as a crop and not get it into streams.”

While some farmers will be responsible, Nelson questions whether there is a strong culture of protecting waterways from weeds or nutrients. “I don’t think it really hits their radar, to be honest.”

And among lupin proponents, he identifies a fanatical element who seem determined to spread them throughout the area, and beyond. Thrown out of car windows, they have now reached the Lindis Pass and it won’t be long before they extend into Central Otago or Mt Aspiring National Park, unless they are controlled, he says.

Because seeds survive for at least 20 years, it means that even if all lupins were removed today, two more decades of control work would remain. If nothing is done, the bill for the taxpayer will increase dramatically. 

While wilding pines are now recognised as a significant environmental threat in the Mackenzie Basin, Nelson believes lupins are actually a bigger problem, especially when it comes to their effect on endangered river birds. These birds – kaki, wrybill, black-billed gulls, back-fronted terns, banded dotterels and the like – nest in the open riverbed so they can see what is around them and avoid predators. Lupins give protection to predators, such as cats, stoats, ferrets and hedgehogs, which puts already threatened species further at risk.

Like broom and gorse, lupins also stabilise islands in braided rivers, changing their flow, making channels deeper, and affecting the feeding areas for birds and the insects they rely on.

“If you let it alter the habitat that much, you might as well walk away from all the predator control we’re doing as well, because it becomes less effective.”

But surely Nelson can see the attraction of lupins in full flourish? “Because I’ve been battling them for so long now, to me, they’re an ugly eyesore. They’re bright and colourful and everything else, but they’re not a colour that’s part of this landscape. This landscape is about muted browns and greens. Native vegetation is not showy – and then you’ve got the bright purple and pink and yellow flowers in amongst it. They look out of place to me.”

Nelson admits there’s little middle ground at the moment between farmers and conservationists when it comes to debating lupins, but realises some will have to be found. And that’s the view of DoC tenure review manager Jeremy Severinsen, who has dealt with many of the Mackenzie’s high-country farmers. However, before the conflict can be transformed into some sort of compromise, Severinsen says much more research is needed.

Such things might include finding out how lupins are spreading – are they transferred by wind, or in sheep’s wool; how much of a buffer zone is needed to prevent lupins invading riverbeds; is it possible to breed a lupin that’s more palatable to sheep, so they eat them before they flower and release their seeds; or can researchers breed a sterile variety?

Nobody knows how bad the lupin threat could get, says Severinsen, so this fundamental research needs to be done now, before “we let the cat out of the bag”.

He says the Mackenzie Country is an “iconic landscape, but we’ve also got an iconic culture” within it – the southern man and high country farmer, which is equally part of New Zealand’s character. “And we’ve got to support those people to be able to remain prosperous. At the same time, the landscape is part of that identity too. The real critical challenge is how to balance those two things.”

Merino sheep graze on lupins at Glenmore Station.
One of the first places Connie Scott scattered lupin seed was south of Lake Tekapo, past Sawdon Station. Today, Snow and Sue Loxton farm the station and have become the biggest evangelists for the species after learning about David Scott’s work and planting 10ha in 2003.

They now have 200ha in lupins and reckon they’re so beneficial, more than 2000ha of Sawdon’s 7500ha could eventually be planted. Snow makes silage out of lupins for winter feed, wants them to be the Mackenzie Country’s Christmas plant, grows his spuds in their compost, and has spoken about them at conferences as far away as Milan.

“We’re losing our topsoil and it’s like death by a thousand blows when a wind blows, sneaking it away and exposing the rocks,” he says. “Once the rocks are exposed, it’s really hard to establish anything.”

Lambs on lupin country are double the weight of those grazing native species, and he can quadruple his stocking rate. They also help keep wilding pines in check: plant lupins on adjoining land and sheep will eat the spreading pine seedlings as well as lupins.

“So I can solve the invasion of the tree problem; I can solve the soil problem; I can solve the economic problem from the lack of returns from the land. It’s far more economic than chucking fertiliser and water on.”

Snow grew up on a Pukekohe dairy farm and has no desire to return to that kind of farming. Lupins allow him to keep the farm viable without having to consider irrigation.

With David Scott, he’s running more trials to breed a low-alkaloid version that will be even more palatable for sheep. They’ve also recently worked out how to get lupins to germinate more quickly, by putting the seeds in sulphuric acid to soften their coating.

Snow is a bit bemused by the opposition to lupins and admits he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about DoC’s concerns. “Containment in the Mackenzie Basin – it’s probably passed. They’re already extensively throughout our river system. The horse has bolted, a long time ago.”

Lupins are no more a weed than other legumes, like lucerne, he insists, and “it’s not in any weeds book or list”.

“We didn’t choose to plant lupins because they’re a controversial species and we’re wanting to upset everybody – we’re doing it because it’s successful. And we’ve been short on successful species.”

Just whether lupins are deemed a weed or not will be clarified some time in 2017. The regional council, Environment Canterbury (Ecan), is reviewing its pest management strategy. It could deem lupins a weed and ban their cultivation. Or it could continue the present approach with no restrictions on them. Ecan says it’s seeking some kind of balance – allowing farmers to plant them as a fodder crop as long as they don’t spread into sensitive areas. Exactly what controls would be imposed is unclear, but things like a 100m buffer between lupins and rivers have been suggested.

A protocol to control lupins was being prepared by the New Zealand Merino Company, but has been put on ice while Ecan reviews pest species.

West of Lake Tekapo, Andrew Simpson has planted lupins on Balmoral Station for 20 years, halting erosion on rabbit-ravaged land where nothing else will grow. He’ll be hugely concerned if Ecan classes lupins as prohibited weeds, robbing him of a valuable crop, because he says there are simple ways to control lupin spread. He is happy to sign a code of conduct regarding lupins on farms, and already allows DoC onto his land each year to spray them along riverbanks.

“It’s not the Department of Conservation that’s creating the issue – it’s the ill-informed general public, mostly from outside the area. It’s unfortunate they choose not to learn the benefits that lupins bring to the Mackenzie Basin. They don’t have to live with this problem.”

Back at the Church of the Good Shepherd, more tourists stream down from the carpark, and coo and crouch among the lupins.

They are such triumphant plants, rising above the dull and ground-hugging native species, with gaudiness and height. While others scrabble and struggle, they thrive and rise. The sun goes. The tourists disappear. The rancour and debate is all that lingers.


This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
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