A Canterbury dairy farmer is defending the use of public land 50 metres from the Rakaia River, saying the regional council has let him farm it since 1990.
A report by the Canterbury Regional Council has detailed agricultural encroachment on nearly 12,000 hectares of land beside Canterbury's braided rivers, between 1990 and 2012.
Forest and Bird said the areas taken over for farming have effectively been stolen, and their environmental values were, in effect, gone for good.
Rakaia farmer Tony Thomas said the council offered him the lease of 150 hectares of land near the river on a five-year grazing license more than 20 years ago, in return for clearing the gorse and scrub off it.
He said his farm paid a grazing license on that ground to ECan ever since.
"They've signed off on everything we've done. I wouldn't have done it without them asking to do it. They originally asked us to clear the gorse off the land."
Mr Thomas told Checkpoint the land's proximity to the river was defined by the council and he had leased it legally ever since.
"When we were doing that development, we said to the catchment board, which is now ECan: 'Right-o, you've got to tell us where to make the boundary fence, we're not going to put a boundary fence up without your consent'.
"And their engineer came out and said 'yes, I can see where the logical place for a boundary fence would go, and if you put it there, we're quite happy for what you're proposing to do with the development'."
He said that when the fence was put in, it was no closer than 50m to the nearest water, although erosion had reduced that area to 10m in some places in the years since.
Mr Thomas said everything had been done with ECan's full consent, and some of it had been done with their encouragement.
In a statement this afternoon, ECan said it had about 350 leases with farmers across Canterbury.
"All have conditions to ensure the land use complies with environmental rules as well as the RMA."
It said all of the money collected from land leases was used in the local area to subsidise flood protection.
"Money for flood protection also comes from ECan targeted rates, general rates and contributions, as well as district council works and services rates."