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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Bush commons

Bush commons

Mick Reed comments on the assistance which England's 19th-century peasantry gained from common land which in many places survived the enclosures.54 In England and elsewhere forest land had often been the resort of the destitute. Fernand Braudel remarks on a typical French ordinance of page 157 1669 which ordered the demolition of ‘houses built on poles by vagabonds and useless members of society’ on the edges of forests.55 In 19th-century England, villagers living near forest land benefited from legal and illegal use of its resources, drawing on it for game, firewood, timber, and grazing for their animals.56 The unoccupied forests of colonial New Zealand had far greater resources, and not surprisingly the settlers drew on them liberally, again both legally and illegally. I have documented elsewhere the copious supplies of meat drawn from the bush in the 1870s.57 I will here give a few 1885–86 reports to show that the bounty was still there. In the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier of 26 February 1886 a correspondent reported the bush districts swarming with pigeons. Later in the year the Feilding Star reported an enormous slaughter of wild pigeons in that district.58 Parties passing through the bush to ascend the southern slopes of Mount Taranaki in April and June both bagged some of the large number of pigeons they came across on the way.59 The April party reported hearing wild cattle throughout their journey. These and wild pigs offered settlers a more substantial resource than the pigeons. In May surveyors preparing a Hawke's Bay bush block for a special settlement association found that wild cattle, pigs and pigeons were all plentiful. The Wanganui Yeoman of 30 October 1885 told of a J.R. Anderson making a living in the bush of the Pohangina district by shooting wild cattle for their hides. There was also profit to be made from the forests' wood. In his 1885–86 forest survey Thomas Kirk reported that in Southland much timber was ‘openly taken from Crown lands without leave or license’ for fencing, firewood, and special purposes.60 A Feilding Star editorial of 1 November 1883, entitled ‘Stealing Forest Timber’ shows that this was not merely a crown or Southland problem. The Star was concerned for folk who had been ‘Victims … of wholesale robbery for the last four or five years’ in consequence of persons who thought that they could ‘enter upon private lands and cut timber for their own use for purposes of sale, to make a profitable living, without in any way asking permission’. Unoccupied bush could also be used as supplementary grazing. This seems to be what Cardiff Road settler William Johnson did after the Stratford fire. With all his pasture ‘as black as a beaver hat’ he was sending his 20 cows two miles away each day for feed in an open place through the bush. The ‘long acre’—the use of roadsides as grazing—was another common expedient. Drovers taking mobs of cattle through the bush were frustrated by this practice as the local cattle often led the passing stock up their familiar tracks off the road.61 In townships in and near the bush large-scale farming of the ‘long acre’ became a community problem. In January 1886 the Normanby town board decided to limit residents to three animals roaming the streets, and so put a stop to ‘dairy farms on a large scale and horse breeding to a like extent on the vacant lots of the township’. One individual had 13 head of horses out,62 another a page 158 herd of 12 milch cows.63 The roadside crop of grass seed was another resource which sometimes caused problems.64 There were contemporary English parallels to these uses of land for which no right of common existed.65