Thursday, 25 January 2024 11:55

DairyNZ ecologist passionate about healthy waterways

Written by  Staff Reporters
DairyNZ ecologist Dr Belinda Margetts wants to contribute towards the health of our waterways. DairyNZ ecologist Dr Belinda Margetts wants to contribute towards the health of our waterways.

Thoughts of healthy waterways get Dr Belinda Margetts out of bed in the morning.

The passionate ecologist loves knowing she can contribute to improving the health of New Zealand’s waterways – and the flora and fauna they support. That love, she says, is a pre-requisite for her work.

Belinda, who started as a senior ecologist at DairyNZ in August, has 20 years’ experience in her field. Her role supports DairyNZ’s approach to improving waterways – considering the health of streams and rivers, the fish and macroinvertebrates (insects/animals that can be seen by the naked eye) that live in them and how that links to farmers’ continued work to improve and sustain these environments.

“My role is to help DairyNZ build on its longstanding work around water quality, helping the team and farmers better understand ecosystem health, and what can be done to improve waterways and their condition – so we know where we sit compared to where we need to be.

“We’re also looking at how best to measure waterway health and, from that, what our priorities should be to continue improving on the great work the sector and farmers have done to date.”

Dairy farmers have made significant progress over the past 20 years to support healthy waterways. For example, the Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord has seen 99.8% of waterways more than 1m wide fenced to exclude dairy cattle, and bridges and culverts installed at 100% of stock crossing points. Keeping cows out of waterways is a big part of protecting waterways.

Many dairy farmers are also restoring or constructing wetlands, which can treat contaminants before they enter waterways, significantly reducing nutrient and sediment losses on farms.

“It’s important to consider nitrogen and phosphorous, and to understand how to reduce those inputs,” Belinda says.

Nationwide, 77% of dairy farms have farm environment plans – which identify environmental risks on individual farms and address them through good farming practices – and 55% have greenhouse gas farm plans. All farmers are required to have a farm environment plan by 2025 and are progressing towards this goal.

Much of this work has happened well ahead of regulations. However, there is still work to be done and this will continue as regional councils progress with setting limits to meet National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) requirements.

The sector remains committed to improving waterway health and can deliver on that, thanks to the expertise of water quality scientists such as Belinda. Continued work includes DairyNZ-led water quality research, often in collaboration with other science organisations, to identify solutions for farmers at a farm and catchment level.

“This will ensure we prioritise actions in areas where they can make the most difference,” Belinda says.

She brings an in-depth understanding of farming to her role. She grew up on a sheep and crop farm in North Canterbury that has been in her family for almost 110 years. This background, she says, serves her well in her DairyNZ role.

“The understanding of how connected farmers are to the land helps – I’m aware of the challenges farmers face that are out of their control, such as droughts and floods, and the stress that can bring. I think that’s why my career has funnelled into pragmatic roles. I want to improve waterway health while considering farmers’ challenges.”

Love For The Environment

At high school, Belinda Margetts discovered she was good at biology, which, combined with her love of the environment, led her to ecology. “I followed what I loved – nature and the outdoors.”

She has an Honours degree in zoology from Canterbury and a PhD in ecology from Lincoln that focused on how possums move in their home ranges and how control operations to reduce populations change those movements. So, she knows ‘a bit’ about possums.

It’s a little bit funny, she says, that her work experience is predominately in the water space – since her degrees are land-based. “Though there are many things you can learn from both, so the two areas complement each other.”

Before starting at DairyNZ, Belinda worked for 10 years as a principal waterways ecologist at Christchurch City Council, a role that saw her running monitoring programmes and advising on what could and couldn’t be done around waterways, and how to improve waterway health.

“It’s important to bring people along on the journey, engaging them, helping them connect the dots, and understanding cultural and community values as well as Western science,” she says. “I believe scientists need to be able to communicate their work and relate to end users in simple ways. That’s a big way to keep people engaged.”

DairyNZ is focused on advocating for better policy and environmental outcomes for the dairy sector and supporting farmers through changing regulations. Its research, expertise and data, and its connection to the wider scientific community, support this work. Belinda is now a key part of that. She’ll help provide robust scientific data and understanding to ensure the rules work towards fair and practical outcomes for dairy farmers.

It’s a big role, she says, that will bring challenges she’s looking forward to. It also means she can keep thinking about healthy freshwater.

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