The Prime Minister displayed a slightly more diplomatic approach than her environment minister when asked yesterday whether New Zealand had too many cows.

Sher dodged answering that directly at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference and simply said there was too much pollution in New Zealand.

“That is why we have to have a conversation around water quality and water pollution,” she said.

“We are not talking about a cap on cows.

“We are talking about restricting the amount of pollution we have in our waterways, and I think New Zealanders would agree with that approach.”

This contrasts with Environment Minister David Parker’s comments on “Q+A” at the weekend.

Asked if any plan to limit nitrogen runoff into waterways could force farmers to destock, he said: “Cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain.”

However, what is becoming clear is that his apparently simple proposal to impose nutrient limits on dairy farms to reduce waterways pollution is anything but straightforward.

Parker admitted as much himself on RNZ “Morning Report” yesterday when he singled out the question of allocation of limits to undeveloped Maori land as one major obstacle.

But the biggest problem may be that whatever he does is likely to attract complex litigation.


Already several nutrient limitation proposals in district plans round the country have been subject to appeals to the Environment Court.

For example, the Bay of Plenty plan was appealed by Federated  Farmers; the Manawatu plan by Fish and Game and the Environmental Defence Society.

Parker appears to be hoping that the promulgation of a national standard which details nutrient limits will end the possibility of legal action.

But he also faces potential Waitangi Tribunal claims if he does not manage to find a formula that deals with Maori claims to have a share of the nutrient limits.

This has already been an issue in Taupo and Rotorua.

Speaking on RNZ’s “Morning Report” yesterday he conceded that opening up the question of allocation of nutrient limits to Maori could also open up the allocation of water to Maori.

That has been something successive Government shave been anxious to avoid, and it is the reason why Labour is not going ahead with a universal “pollution” levy on water to clean up waterways.

However, he conceded yesterday that the two issues – nutrient limits and water allocation rights — might be linked.

Asked if it was possible to go ahead with nutrient limits without clarity on iwi rights and interests in water allocation, Parker said both had to be sorted out at the same time.

“Some of the water allocation rights can be progressed on a slightly lower scale,” he said.

Nevertheless, he runs extraordinary legal and political risks if he opens up the Pandora’s box which is Maori water rights.

In a paper last year, the Federation of Maori Authorities (FOMA), which represents iwi and authorities owning $9 billion worth of land linked the question of water quality and water allocation.

They said one of their goals was to ensure “rules do not reinforce the status quo where the lack of water/nutrient allocation to Maori hinders the ability to invest in further land development and to diversify into higher value (but more water intensive) land options such as horticulture or land-based aquaculture.”

FOMA advocates cleaning up waterways but it is anxious to ensure that any solution on water quality does not favour the grandfathering of nutrient allocations to existing water rights holders at the expense of Maori who may have either undeveloped land or may not have water rights.

If they were to develop their land or acquire more water rights, then they might find that nutrient limits allocated on a basis of historic performance (when they did not have water) meant they were effectively unable to use the newly acquired water.

Parker sympathises with FOMA’s position.

“People who have got less developed land need to be fairly catered for as well as people who have got extensive capital investment in land improvements.

“Because those unimproved lands are disproportionately Maori, their interests have to be sorted out at the same time.”

Parker has given the Land and Water Forum till the end of May to come up with a formula to use to get fairness between developed and undeveloped land.

“if they cannot achieve agreement by that time it sort of proves that some of these problems cannot be solved through collaborative processes.

“In the end Governments have to make a choice.”

Ironically the most recent Stats NZ figures show that there has been a slight decline in cow numbers.

Since the turn of the century dairy cows have jumped from 3.8 million to a peak in 2016 of 5.2 million but last year dropped back to five million.

That has been the base size of the national herd since 2012 — from what Parker is saying it may now be a ceiling.