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Tuatara: Volume 11, Issue 2, June 1963

The Vegetation of the Wairarapa in Mid-Nineteenth Century

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The Vegetation of the Wairarapa in Mid-Nineteenth Century

This paper is not only an attempt to reconstruct something of the vegetation pattern but also to draw the attention of botanists and others to the need for archival research required by a topic of this nature. Thanks are due to Miss A. Simpson for checking the botanical nomenclature.

The effects of the introduction into New Zealand of ‘European’ plants and animals have been described by a number of specialists in several fields notably Thomson, 1922, and Wodzicki, Others (Cumberland 1941 1961. 1962b; Holloway 1959; Johnston 1961) have attempted to reconstruct the pre-European vegetation on a New Zealand-wide basis. Clark (1949) notably, has shown in some detail, the successive impact of man and his plant and animal domesticates on a land that lacked indigenous grazing mammals. Clark, discussing the initiation of large-scale settlement in the South Island during the 1850's, rightly draws attention to the damage done to the vegetation by cutting, burning and the proliferating sheep. However, it is often not realised that a similar process was initiated in the Wairarapa district, almost a decade before settlement in the South Island began.

This paper is an attempt to describe the vegetation pattern of the Wairarapa on the eve of settlement in 1843, the manner in which the indigenous vegetation was attacked and the way in which new plants and animals were introduced.

The research on which the paper is based was predominantly archival and no attempt will be made to link present-day survivals with past conditions.

The vegetation of the Wairarapa in early European times was characterised by variety. The whole area was a patchwork of grass, swamp, scrub and forest mingled in varying proportions. This is well illustrated by Bidwill's description of the area adjoining Bidwill's Ridge, which is located between Featherston and Martinborough, about two miles from the latter. The land along the Ruamahanga River was in dense bush and fringing the Ridge was a swamp containing Phormium tenax. ‘About a mile to the north were low-lying ridges on which grew manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) and a small variety of flax, interspersed with open page 84 spaces covered with grass and tall rushes’ (Bidwill and Woodhouse, 1927, p. 8), In describing the vegetation of the Wairarapa Valley, one observer noted that grassland covered about 200,000 acres, forest covered about 80,000 acres, while there were nearly 25,000 acres of fern and scrub and about 20,000 acres of swamp. (See Figure).

To the west of Lake Wairarapa, the mixed podocarp/broadleaf forest extended down from the Rimutaka Range to reach the lake margin and similar salients of bush extended into the valley at several points, notably in a 20,000 acre block between the Waingawa and Waiohine Rivers. At its northern end the valley was closed off by an area of bush-clad hills and down-land that extended with little break to a clearing in the vicinity of the Manawatu Gorge. Bush then continued as far as the margins of the tussock lands of the Ruataniwha/Takapau basin. There is no reason to suspect that the podocarp/broadleaf forest was in any way unlike that covering much of the remainder of the North Island, although Colenso considered the North Wairarapa forest the most primeval of any he had seen in New Zealand. ‘The soil for many feet was composed of vegetable matter … and the trees were of immense size. The birds were very few … and a death-like silence reigned’ (Colenso, Journal), The last was probably a localised phenomenon since another observer claimed that ‘the woods are alive with kakas and pigeons’ (Weld in Lovat. 1914. p. 50). Colenso also noted some of the forest-dwelling grasses such as Oplismenus undulatifolius, Poa imbecilla, P. anceps, Microlaena spp., herbs such as Craspedia sp., and several species of Cotula, Oxalis and Epilobium (Hooker, 1867, p. 320-327).

In the lowland short tussock, Poa anceps and Festuca rubra or F. littoralis (coastal) were probable co-dominants but Agrostis and Danthonia were also reported, particularly Agrostis parviflora, Deyeuxia quadriseta, Danthonia bromoides, D. semi-annularis, Agropyrum multiflorum and A. scabrum were also reported by Colenso as being abundant more especially on the hills and terraces above the actual valley floor (Hooker, 1867, p. 327). Mingled with the Graminae were Umbelliferae such as Angelica montana and A. geniculata, known to stockmen as ‘aniseed’ or ‘Maori anise’. and the formidable Aciphylla squarrosa (Hooker, 1867. p. 98) known as ‘porcupine grass’. Other plants of the grassland, reported as common in the vicinity of Maori villages were probable pre-1843 adventives such as Brassica oleracea, B. campestris and B. rapa (Weld, 1844), Tutu (Coriaria sarmentosa) also formed part of the grassland association and was something of a danger to cattle.

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Figure 1 Wairarapa vegetation c. 1853.

Figure 1
Wairarapa vegetation c. 1853.

page 86

The swampland was of two types, neither of which were described in detail by then contemporary observers. In the vicinity of the present Morrison Bush was the Kaitara ‘swamp forest’, vividly described by the missionary-botanist William Colenso who had the misfortune to stumble across it. ‘The bush concealed a swamp, a network of deep pools between which 10 or 12 feet high sedges luxuriantly grew, the whole intersected with rotten logs and prostrate trees’ (Colenso in Bagnall and Peterson, 1948). Little less forbidding to the traveller was the unforested swamp which occurred mainly adjacent to Lake Wairarapa. Here the vegetation was mainly grasses and sedges including toe-toe (Arundo conspicua), raupo (Typha angustifolia), Alxopecurus geniculatus, Hierochloe redolens, Zoysia pungens (especially near the sea), Glyceria stricta, as well as flax (Phormium tenax) and sow-thistle (Sonchus spp.). Herbs such as Epilobium nummularifolium, E. confertifolium, E. alsinoides, E. rotundifolium, Myriophyllum elatinoides, M. robustum, M. propinquum, Cardamine sp. (Colenso's ‘excellent cress’), Rorippa islandica, Ranunculus macropus and Cotula coronopifolia were also reported by Colenso.

The swamps and lake margins were the habitat of large numbers of ‘duck, widgeon and teal’ (Weld in Lovat, 1914, p. 50), probably pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), the bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) and ducks such as the paradise (Casarca variegata) and grey duck (Anas superciliosa). Wild pig, perhaps descendants of those released by Captain Cook at Cape Kidnappers in 1773, were reported as ‘extremely numerous’ (Brees, 1849, p. 31) not only in the swamp margins but also in the patches of scrub and fern within the valley.

In the hill country to the east of the Wairarapa Valley, the four major elements of forest, grassland, fern and scrub and swamp were repeated but with grassland and swamp being found only in small discontinuous patches. The Haurangi and Maungaraki Ranges were largely in mixed podocarp/broadleaf forest with some beech at around 2,500 feet. However, the hills, as distinct from the ranges, were largely fern-clad but with a good deal of Angelica spp. and grass among the fern. Weld noted that this was the case near Whareama (Weld, 1844). At Castlepoint the hills were mainly in grass with small quantities of toe-toe, manuka and fern, although the hills furthermost from the coast were in bush (D'Urville, 1826-27, p. 104), Although most of the valleys in the area are steep and narrow, some of the larger valleys were sufficiently broad to contain a good deal of swamp. The lower Whareama Valley, for instance, was ‘swampy and ankle-deep in water, full of pig ruts and covered in toe-toe’ (Weld, 1844). At Porangahau the valley was less swampy and contained about 3,000 or 4,000 acres of grass (Thomas and Harrison, 1845). Grass extended inland from Porangahau in a broad strip that reached the page 87 Ruataniwha basin (Colenso in Bagnall and Peterson, 1948, pp. 217, 268). Such was the lack of firewood here that Colenso's exploring party had to make do with tufts of grass for fuel.

Into this wilderness of bush and scrub, swamp fern and grass, came successive small groups of men, numbering perhaps 100 in all. With them came mobs of sheep laboriously ‘back-packed’ past the Muka Muka rocks which were then washed by the sea. With the ‘squatters’, so named because they occupied the land illegally, came also cattle, dogs, horses, guns, axes — all to radically modify the ecology of the area. As the squatters changed the overall macro-faunal pattern by introducing grazing mammals into a fauna singularly poor in mammals of any kind, the herbivores in turn added to and modified the overall micro-faunal and floral patterns.

Direct attack on the vegetation by fire did not greatly affect the forest, not only because healthy forest is fairly difficult to destroy by this means (Sage 1954, p. 58, and Cumberland 1961, p. 146), but also because it was not really necessary to attempt this as there was plenty of unforested land available (Hill, 1962, p. 41). This land either did not need to be burned before use or it burned much more readily than bush. Burning of scrub, fern and tussock to promote fresh growth for stock was regularly carried out and casual travellers also fired the fern (Bannister 194, p. 5, and Weld, 1844). Where, however, the forest was fired, tall Sonchus spp. immediately sprang up (Allom, 1849, p. 201).

The needs of household fuel, house-building and post-and-rail fencing led to limited felling of bush and manuka. The open country was cleared by hand in parts, Aciphylla especially being removed while common English pastures grasses such as sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum ordoratum), timothy (Phleum pratense), Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata) and couch (Poa spp.) were often sown. Other grasses, such as the Australian forms of Danthonia and Stipa undoubtedly entered adhering to the fleece of merino sheep imported from New South Wales. The Australian sheep burrs, Acaena ovina and Xanthium spinosum as well as the common thistle (Cnicus lanceolatus) and docks (Rumex spp.) must have been introduced in this manner and these were reported as particularly common along the coastal route between Wellington and the Wairarapa (Carter, 1875, p. 87). The escapes of pre-European adventive Brassica spp. have already been noted but the sheep station gardens, as well as the Maori gardens must have provided significant sources of escapes.

The macro-fauna was enriched by large numbers of sheep and cattle, about 40,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle by 1853, and to a lesser extent by horses, dogs and rabbits. Some cattle were driven page 88 off runs after the market for beef collapsed in the mid 1850's and these became feral (Carle, 1946, p. 59). Watarangi, a few miles east of Lake Ferry, was the site of the release of two does and a buck rabbit in 1847 (Pharazyn, 1840-50, p. 82). Although the micro-fauna was enriched by a number of semi-parasitic species such as the sheep tick (Melophagus ovinus), the golden-haired blowfly (Pollenia villosa) and the ‘scab’ mite (Psoroptes communis var. ovis), there were no indigenous hosts to these species (Thomson, 1922, pp. 321-324, 352-354).

Of considerably more significance were the effects of grazing and browsing by sheep and cattle. The broadleaf forest shrubs and juvenile trees were reported as being ‘eagerly devoured’ by cattle (Allom, 1849, p. 201), karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) being particularly favoured. Cattle thus had significant effects upon the species composition of all forest areas to which they had access, and in the absence of fences, these areas must have been quite extensive. The fern and scrub was also opened up by trampling and thus made available for sheep. ‘Cattle … speedily destroy the fern and grass takes its place … the fern has, in many parts, disappeared, and thousands of acres of the native rye-grass, and other grass are now to be found’ (Allom, 1849, p. 21). The grazing of sheep rapidly destroyed a number of species. Both Angelica and Aciphylla were eaten avidly by sheep, the latter in its flaccid, juvenile form. Other plants to suffer were the coastal fern (Anogramma leptophylla), the native carrot (Daucus brachiatus), Lepidium oleraceum and Senecio greyii (Thomson, 1922, pp. 517-518, 521-522).

Although the squatters ‘lived off the country’ to a considerable degree, it is doubtful if they made significant inroads on the large numbers of edible birds. However, wild pigs were valued not only as food for the squatters, but also as items of trade between the Maori and the squatters and ultimately the citizens of Wellington. Hence a considerable diminution of the number of pigs was probable.

The change in both the plant and animal geography of the Wairarapa between 1840 and the mid 1850's is significant for two main reasons. It was this area that first felt the impact of many thousands of livestock spread over several hundred thousand acres, and saw the beginnings of a process that had its ultimate reward in the man-made deserts of Central Otago. That the Wairarapa did not become a desert instead of being largely only a botanical desert (at least in terms of indigenous species) is a tribute not only to the climate but also to the perspicacity of the Wairarapa farmers. The second significant point is that it was rarely the established pastoralists who were responsible for a frontal attack on the forest. Rather it was the small farmer on his 30-100 acre plot hacked and burned out of the bush who sought to replace the forest with pasture.

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Allom, A. J., 1849, ‘Stock-farming in the Wairarapa’, New Zealand Journal, Vol. 9, pp. 199-202.

Bagnall, A. G., and Petersen, G. C., 1948. William Colenso, A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington, pp. 216-386.

Bannister, C., 1940, Early History of the Wairarapa, pp. 1-8.

Bidwill, W. E., and Woodhouse, A. E., 1927, Bidwill of Pihautea, Coulls, Somerville and Wilkie, Christchurch, pp. 1-18.

Brees, S. C., 1849, Guide and Description of the Panorama of New Zealand, Savill and Edwards, London.

Carle, C. J., 1946, Wairarapa, the First One Hundred Years of a Great District, pp. 58-121.

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