15 November 2018

Weston woman holds out on grazing block after licence terminated

| Ian Bushnell
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Celia Kneen – with Belle, Snowball and Petunia – talks to a Holder mother and her son who dropped by for pat. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

A Weston woman faces having to shut the gate on more than two decades’ connection with a piece of land in Holder where her horses and ponies have been grazing and giving pleasure to the local community.

Celia Kneen, 69, has been given until 31 December to remove her animals from the land on Dixon Drive after she was given notice earlier in the year that her grazing lease was being terminated. Negotiations with Parks and Conservation and the planning authority since then have proved fruitless, but she is holding out in the hope that her horse Belle and ponies Snowball and Petunia can stay on compassionate and community grounds.

The original letter from the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate giving notice says Parks and Conservation had advised that the licensed area was no longer required to be grazed ‘for the management of fire fuel hazards or conservation purposes’. But there has been no word about what the land will be specifically used for.

It appears other such grazing licences may have been terminated in a general sweep of properties in the ACT, with a horseowner seeking homes for six horses on Gumtree last month because the ‘lease’ had been terminated after 20 years.

Ms Kneen, who has raised a severely disabled daughter and is ironically a former Parks and Conservation employee with an Agricultural Science degree, argued to Planning Minister Mick Gentleman back in April that the land, the animals and community had sustained her in life’s difficulties for the past 25 years.

“The land associated with residential areas is not just there to be managed for fire fuel hazards or conservation purposes. It is something that has strong social significance,” she said.

Her most recent letter to Mr Gentleman in October said that she had not received any formal advice of how the determination was made and that she was considering action through the administrative appeals process.

“For me to feel fairly treated, I would need to be satisfied that this decision, which will cause me a lot of hardship, is one that is necessary and is reasonable in the circumstances. I don’t think it meets either of those criteria,” she said.

Ms Kneen says the authorities have said the land is not required yet for another use and there have not been any complaints about her use of the site, which is not connected to water and has no infrastructure.

She says she cannot afford to move her animals, which are being hand-fed, to an agistment paddock, but even if she could none are taking stock in the current drought conditions. She has a property in Captain’s Flat but that would mean little interaction with the animals which have been part of her life for so long.

Ms Kneen, who lost a horse in the 2003 bushfires, says the grazing block has been a part of the local community and her animals have brought much pleasure to families over the years.

She also does conservation work on the block, recently rescuing a clutch of baby eastern long-necked turtles and watching over a plover family on the land.

Ms Kneen says that whether people support her or not, they should be concerned about the loss of open space in the suburbs, saying it has been made clear that the Holder block is a potential site for future development.

“This is likely the position for all the open buffer space on the northern boundary of Weston Creek, adjoining Holder and Duffy,” she says.

An Directorate spokesperson said ACT Parks and Conservation was reviewing grazing licences as part of routine business to ensure they were used for their intended purpose, such as fuel reduction, drought relief or, in this rare case, horse agistment.

“They are not lease agreements and are only short-term occupancy agreements to manage vegetation on unleased Territory land,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that stocking on the Holder of land exceeded best practice and was 400 per cent above that stated in the licence, and staff had advised Ms Kneen of this.

“The licence holder was first notified in April and their licence has been extended twice while talks have continued. The current termination date of 31 December 2018 gives the licence holder time to consider their options,” the spokesperson said.

“The licence holder has indicated that they understand that they are exceeding the approved stocking rate/carrying capacity. The licence holder has also advised that that they have a property in NSW to which they could move the animals.”

The removal of stock would allow the land to regenerate and ACT Parks and Conservation would monitor it and undertake further work as necessary.

Mr Gentleman has responded to Ms Kneen confirming the termination of the licence and repeating the overstocking claim, which she contests.

He says that it is unfortunate that previous ‘unacceptable management practices’ has given her the expectation of continued occupation of the land.

But Ms Kneen said this was a slur on the person from ACT Forests who originally allowed her to put a pony for her daughter on the land. “It was an act of grace and generosity, not ‘unacceptable
management’,” she said.

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