Sharing a farm with the public
This whole concept of digital detox – I’m like, man, that’s me every day. People are like ‘I tried to ring you’ and I’m like ‘well…~!
Kate Scott is the owner of remote Rees Valley Station, near Glenorchy. Thousands of people visit her farm each year. Late last year she talked to us about why she and her family support public access and what it’s like to have a stream of tourists on their land.
Rees Valley Station
KS: We’re very traditional we farm merino sheep and hereford – old school.
Rees Valley is very mountainous. It’s a long narrow property. It's full of creeks and it has a lot of native bush areas on it. And it is, by many people’s standards, quite remote. Certainly, the far reaches of it are very remote. Pre COVID-19 it had a lot of visitors and international visitors on our roads, so it hasn’t felt remote to me for a long time.
A family tradition
KS: Most people are great. Most of the people we’ve ever met up the valley have been interested and wanting to know more. You know, it’s a beautiful valley and they are just there to look at the view and admire the scenery. Looking at the birdlife and they might be fishing, or they might be mountain biking down the road or whatever. When you have a negative experience, you have to take a deep breath and remember all the good people you meet who are doing the right thing. Keep it all in perspective.
For nearly everything that people want to do [on the farm] there’s no reason they can’t do it. We like to be part of people’s positive experience in the backcountry. It’s quite cool that people want to do this stuff and get out in the hills. It’s a bit of family tradition, in a way, to be supportive of people wanting to do genuine backcountry stuff. Climbing, tramping, whatever.
I see it as a positive that people want to do it. The negativity comes when people don’t ask and feel resentful that you might want them to ask. That’s the bit that gets my hackles up. 99 per cent of the time we are going to say yes.
Neighbouring conservation land
KS: Most of the people who are on our place are following the Rees-Dart [Department of Conservation (DOC) track]. That runs all the way up the valley floor. Eventually, it ends up in Mt Aspiring National Park. The trampers are crossing our place – theoretically on the marginal strip but in practice, like a lot of backcountry areas, you have to kind of roll with what the topography deals you. So, there are places where the track is quite a long way away from the marginal strip.
We also have an easement to the Invincible Mine reserve – a little island of DOC land. That’s a goldfields reserve.
Trampers and sheep sharing the land
KS: We’re currently trying to fence all our river flats. Obviously, it makes more sense for the track to be outside the fence. We are planning our line so that it still allows public access, but it divides the stock from the people. If one person walks through a mob of sheep a day, it’s not a big issue. But if 40 people walk through it is a bit of an issue because every time somebody goes past, they all gather up and move around. They should be heads down munching, not having a panic attack because 4 people are walking through them. In our case, where there is significant public access up the marginal strip, it makes sense to put up a visual cue showing 'here’s the bit where the farming happens and here’s the bit where the walking happens'.
KS: We get lots of people who want to do other stuff – climbing is big, and heli-ski tourists. Some local guys are parapenters who are always looking for a hill to jump off. Canyoners – all our creeks go through a little gorgy-canyon before they hit the main river valley. So, there are all sorts of opportunities for getting wet and cold and climbing over boulders. I honestly can’t think of anything worse myself, but some people like it!
Access in the old days
KS: In the past, anybody that was heading into the backcountry was well versed in the etiquette. They had written ahead or perhaps called into the homestead on their way. They had a conversation with my dad or my granddad about where they were going what they were doing and was there anything they needed to know?
I think, for previous generations, it was unusual to see anybody up the valley that they didn’t know. And now, last summer if I were up the valley, I’d expect to see at least a dozen vehicles. You’d see those people all trooping up the valley in groups of 2, 3, 4 at a time. It would be noteworthy now, in this era, to go up the valley and not see somebody.
Wandering around without asking
KS: The biggest issue for us is people who have not asked to be there and who we then encounter unexpectedly. It's particularly an issue with stock. If you’ve got a mob of sheep and you’re going through some narrow space or a steep place, and somebody pops up in front of them that you did not know was going to be there, that genuinely has the potential to cause a bit of a mega-disaster! If the sheep all throw themselves off some bluff because somebody is coming the other way that the person behind the sheep doesn’t even know about that’s the nightmare scenario.
Campfires, toilets and poaching
KS: Fire lighting is a big problem. People camp somewhere and have a wee fire. Everybody thinks they’re good at it but, the potential for…. we have quite a lot of native bush on our property. We had a dry summer last year and we are looking at another one.
I totally get it; I mean having a little fire is comforting. Most people don’t really need it for cooking because they carry a wee stove. But there’s an old-world charm to having a little fire and toasting your marshmallow. But fires are really a bit scary.
Toileting, dare I say it, is also quite an issue. There’s nothing quite like having your dog team find somebody’s remains and having a nice roll in it and coming back to tell you how great they smell. It’s really a very nasty experience that I wouldn’t recommend to anybody.
One of the biggest issues over the years has been poaching – trespassing with a firearm – that’s a hair-raising sort of scenario. We have a story of a day that my mum and I were out mustering. And she came across a guy hiding, who obviously knew he wasn’t supposed to be where he was. He was trying to conceal himself – hat pulled down and zip right up so she couldn’t see who it was. And he had no idea where I was. And I didn’t even know he was there at all. And when she saw him, he was sighting the rifle across the valley where I was coming with a mob of sheep. That kind of stuff is a little bit scary. It makes you feel unsafe on your own property, which is not nice.
But that kind of scenario is a rare occurrence.
People are strange
KS: One of the biggest issues is that people will drive up a remote valley and they get out and there’s a few DOC signs around – so they assume that they are on DOC land, and they can just wander off and do whatever they feel like. It gives people a false sense of entitlement. They feel they are somewhere where they can be. They get quite miffed who you point out that they shouldn’t be there. Or, if they are going to be there, they really should have been in touch ahead of time.
Asking for access
KS: I wonder sometimes what the barrier is – why are people averse to asking? I get that it’s hard if you ring a phone number ten times and you don’t get an answer. That’s a problem. But in our case, we’ve got the website. We’ve got the contact form. Just send me an email and say ‘I want to do this thing and I’m thinking about this particular day or this range of dates’. And I can get back to you and say ‘great, that’s cool’. And I’ve got a little notebook that I write it down in.
It’s not that difficult to drop us a line and ask the question (rather than just telling). Here’s a hot tip for everybody: Don’t ring the farmer up and go ‘I’m going to do blah, blah, blah.’ Because, immediately we go ‘Oh, are you just?’ ‘I would like to do blah, blah, blah’ works much better.
That’s all it's about – I know who’s going to be where, when. So that if somebody else gets in touch and says 'I want to do this other thing in the same place on those same days' I can say 'there is this other group that has already asked. Do you want to pick a different day?' It’s making sure everybody has all the information about who is where and what is going on.
Sometimes people think it is just sheep and it doesn’t matter. But that’s not all that happens on our place. Some people have recreation permits to do other commercial stuff like heli-hiking or guiding hunting or pack rafting, horse trekking. If those guys don’t know they are going to see someone in an area that they are not expecting to see somebody that’s potentially an issue.
If they know people are passing through it keeps everybody on the same page and no surprises. No dramas where you pop out of the bush and the horse shies and the tourist falls off!
KS: I think a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I’ve had several people go, ‘I thought it wouldn’t be lambing so it would be fine to go’. In our case, all our lambing takes place in areas that are not sought after for public access, so that is not really an issue for us. But we graze our wethers on higher areas, and those guys are spread out over a large area. And if they see people they tend to mob up and gather together and that can result in them all hanging on the fence line. And if I don’t know that somebody else has been there, I don’t know to check that.
Just asking will net you a whole lot of information that you might not have otherwise got. Recently I had somebody email and say they wanted to go from the Invincible Mine area, further up the creek. That’s all fine. I explained to them the best route to take because it’s not obvious from the topo that there’s a big run of bluffs and there are only one or two places that you can get through. Those guys might have spent an hour poking around those bluffs if I hadn’t said. There are little snippets of local information that are valuable, and that people miss if they don’t make contact.
Being shy of gruff farmers
KS: I’ve encountered a few people recently who have a mental barrier about asking. I’m not sure what it is, whether it is onerous, or they are shy. Maybe they worry that they might strike somebody grumpy on the end of the phone or whatever, yeah? Most of the local landowners that I know are approachable, they wouldn’t be surly or gruff. They might say ‘no’ but if they do, they will have a good reason for it and they might be able to offer you an alternative suggestion. Don’t be scared, don’t be scared people!
I’ve grown up, all my life in a place where we are open to public access. So, I can’t imagine the point of view where you don’t want to call. I’ve struck this before: ‘We didn’t want to ring ahead because we thought you might say no’. And so I’m like ‘So you just went ahead anyway and did it, and now I’ve caught you. And now I’m really peeved. And if you’d just rung up and said can I do this thing I would have said ‘sure!’’
KS: Maybe it’s yet another symptom of our rural-urban divide? The concept of having a conversation with a farmer is so daunting that people find it terrifying. Or they just feel they won’t gain any useful information from this peasant!
One thing I’ve noticed is that when I first finished university and went home to be a farmer, if I were driving stock on the road and somebody came up behind me they would always wind their window down and have a conversation. It would be like ‘where are you going, how far, should I wait or should I drive through?’ And I could give them an answer. ‘Well, I’m actually just going around the corner, if you want to give me 5 minutes I’ll be off the road.' Or ‘I’m actually going 5km up the road so if you want to drive through them then do’. Now a lot of people don’t even approach me. They’ll sit 100m behind me. I keep looking over my shoulder expecting they will come up and ask how long they will have to wait or whatever? But people don’t engage. It’s a bit of a mystery to me. If that were me and I met a mob of sheep on a road somewhere I would always wind my window down and have a yarn.
KS: Most of the people doing the Rees Dart are just passing through. Which is fine. Occasionally people get in touch to ask if they can do something which we have no issue with at all and would not even expect people to need to get permission. In our valley, the river meets the road at a certain point and if you intend to continue driving you need to do river crossings. But driving up the riverbed is no problem from our point of view. And the riverbed is not even our place – it is DOC. It’s nice that people ask but it’s not actually necessary. If everybody doing the Rees Dart or the Invincible Mine track felt like they had to get in touch then that would do our heads in – answering the phone. For those public walking tracks, our expectation is that if you stay on the track then there is no issue at all. You don’t expect to converse with everybody if they are just doing the bog-standard route. You expect to see those people passing by in the distance and just leave them to it.
So many of the issues are about numbers - they are about the volume of people. Where once upon a time you might get one party of trampers going up the valley, now you get ten parties of trampers. Once upon a time you would have wandered over and said hi and asked them where they were from. Now there is a constant stream of them so there is not the incentive to say hi to everybody. Just about all the problems that have arisen in our place are about numbers. If you get one person a year doing something stupid up the valley you shrug your shoulders and go ‘that’s just life’, you know. If you get 20,000 people a year up your valley and one per cent of them cause problems, that’s going to be an issue for you.
A lot of it comes done to sheer numbers. You can shrug off a small number of negative incidents if that’s all you’re dealing with. But the more the numbers increase, the higher the rate of negative stuff, and the harder it is to grin and bear it.
When I was a kid, and we were up the valley we’d often meet trampers and offer them a lift of something. Say ’chuck your pack on the back of the Land Rover, we’ll give you a ride down to carpark’. We very rarely do that now because you’re going to pass 3 or 4 other groups of people, going ‘why are they special!?'
KS: It will be interesting to see how this summer goes in the absence of international visitors. And the obvious keenness from domestic visitors wanting to get out and do stuff. It will be interesting to see whether that demographic change has any effect or not. I honestly thought we would notice a reduction in the number of people, even in the little village of Glenorchy. But it still seems surprisingly busy. I think lots of Kiwis are using it as an opportunity to reconnect with places they have not been for years and years.
The future for public access
KS: I feel like health and safety is an excuse that people use to avoid engaging at all. I think there has been a lot of scaremongering around that that often is not particularly valid. I don’t know, I haven’t been sued by Worksafe yet! But I like to think if somebody asks if they can do some activity and I say 'yes, but watch out for this and this', hopefully, that’s enough.
I do worry about activities where there is a level of skill required. Canyoning is a good example – somebody emails me and says can I go canyoning? and I think ‘How would I know if you have the skills to do this?’ I want to say, ‘Go for your life, but don’t die!’
You have to trust that people wouldn’t ask if they didn’t think they could handle it. If they get to a location and they find it is beyond their skill set, then they will gracefully withdraw rather than push on into the valley of death.
I hope that we can retain our openness. And I think particularly for Kiwis going somewhere knowing where they are unlikely to see anybody else. I think that’s a valuable thing for everybody. It’s worth cultivating a relationship with the landowner so that you can go somewhere that is more secluded than doing the Routeburn or walking the main Rees-Dart Track.
If you want to put your tent up and feel like you truly are in the middle of nowhere then having that option of accessing someone’s private property is a valuable one.