Southland farmers eye TB-free future
Bovine TB eradication progress in the southern South Island has a spiritual home in the Hokonui Hills.
The forested outcrop of hills in central Southland lie within a triangle formed by the towns of Gore to the east, Lumsden to the north, and Winton to the southwest, rise to about 600m and cover approximately 1200 square kilometres. The Hokonui is a ‘proof-of-freedom’ site for eradicating bovine TB from wildlife, the result of years of intensive ground-based possum control supported by two aerial operations.
Before the TBfree programme took aim at the Hokonui, the area was a TB hotspot.
TBfree champion Peter Grant has seen history made. Twenty years ago, Peter had the worst infected herd in Southland. “We’d be testing anywhere from 1800 to 2000 cattle a year, and we’d get two or three reactors. Percentage-wise it was low, but it was enough to keep us as an infected herd under movement control.”
“To my way of thinking, there was nothing else but possums bringing TB into the herd because they were a closed herd, and the only movements were animals going to slaughter,” says Peter. That’s when he got involved as a staunch supporter of the TBfree programme and the TB committee chair for Southland.
“We never really got anywhere with stemming the rate of infection until we spent some money ourselves and brought in some people to do some vector control work for us. The place was crawling with possums; they were everywhere. The dogs were catching them every gully we went past.
“About that same time, the TBfree movement came to life and decided to have a major push on possum control. It’s has been hugely effective in reducing possum numbers and bringing infected herd numbers down to zero.
“We’ve been clear since 2001,” Peter says. “but we’re wary about being vigilant for infection through regular testing, and through keeping possum numbers low.”
The Disease Control Area regime for the Hokonui Hills area is changing from annual to biennial on 1 March, which reflects the lower risk following the area being declared Vector Free in July 2017. Reductions across 27,000 hectares of the Hokonui area affect 40 herds and mean 2800 fewer tests.
TBfree needs support to finish the eradication programme. “It’s hard to muster support from young farmers who have no experience of how bad a TB infection can be – for your life and your business,” he says. “Compliance with the rules is the main thing. NAIT can make things a lot more transparent than they have been, and that would be a good thing.”
Peter calls for sticking with the programme. “We’re so close to finishing the TB battle, we don’t want to give up now. That’s for sure.” And for rallying the younger generation of farmers.
Peter Grant’s neighbour Nick Wadworth, is a young farmer, in the Otapiri Gorge, half an hour north of Winton. It’s rolling-to-steep country, a mixture of pasture and tussocky native bush.
“I’m 30, and pretty young to the committee, but the thing I always have in the back of my mind is people who aren’t involved in farming bagging the need for pest control without much knowledge of what we’re facing or the effects of TB. I’m always ready to go along and defend farming,” says Nick.
“I haven’t encountered TB on our property. Dad’s semi-retired, but I do remember him having it when I was a wee nipper. It was probably the biggest issue for him over the years, but the herd has been C10 for years, and I haven’t had any reactors since I came home about four years ago.”
Nick sees a bright future as the 2026 TB freedom in livestock goal gets closer.
“We’ve got a few possums around, but not an overpopulation. I enjoy hunting, and a lot of hunters who come on to the property. We know what TB looks like, so we keep an eye out for anything suspicious-looking.”