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

Runholder districts

page 167

Runholder districts

For the runholders we will concern ourselves mainly with changes occurring in the 1880s, and with correcting biases of earlier treatments. Some of the most important changes of the 1880s are well illustrated in a column ‘Notes by a Vagrant / A Tramp from Maraekakaho to Kaikora [i.e Otane]’ published in the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier of 25 June 1886.

Leaving the Maraekakaho lodgintg houe you cross the creek of the same name, having on your left the Ngaruro and on your right the station at the foot of the limestone range, with the manager's house prettily situated on a knoll which gives a most commanding view of the surrounding country. You also pass the woolshed, one of the finest in the province, as it is fitted up with the latest improvements and conveniences for the working of the place. Then you travel on down a level plain, which takes one past the Maori pah, and on to a wider expanse of plain and which is spoken of as not very good land, but I have no hesitation in saying that it will be found a better grain-growing land than the rich plain nearer Hastings. After leaving the station about five miles you turn across the country, leaving the main road at what is called the Washpool creek, it having been used for that purpose in the early days and here one meets a pleasant sight in these ‘hard times’ and that is a fine double furrow plough at work turning over the hill sides. I hear that the contract is for a thousand acres, and with power to the contractors to greatly extend the quantity if they see their way to it. Here you cross a low spur of hills, taking one into the valley that forms the boundary between this and Mr Campbell's, and on the road to Raukawa. After getting on to this road and travelling about a mile one comes on four of the station teams at work showing the fatness of the land where formerly only a little native grass was to be found amongst the fern, and giving a very small carrying power in comparison with what it will be in the immediate future. Further up where the hills are steeper, they have disc-harrowed and surface sown which is doing well. On the opposite side of the valley some contract ploughmen are turning over a large area, and further up the station some teams have put down a large field in rape and turnips…. Lower down this valley, there are hills which have been laid down with the plough in previous years, and the quantity of sheep and cattle carried in high class condition is strong evidence of what is to be gained by the use of the plough.

The major activity which our ‘Tramp’ found to report on was what J.D. Gould has called ‘the formation of sown pasture … the one great contribution to improved productivity in New Zealand pastoral farming before World War I’.15 Right across the New Zealand feldon this process was in full swing in the mid 1880s. The 1881 census showed 3.6 million acres of sown pastures page 168 but by 1891 this had risen to 9 million acres. J.D. Gould summarises what happened thus:

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century lowland tussock was brought under the plough and the land laid down in English grasses. Sowing rarely followed ploughing immediately, for cultivating the land for a few years improved the chances of preventing the recolonisation of pastures by native vegetation and forming a good weed-free sward. Further, the building of railways and the possibility of exporting wheat and other grains to European markets in the 1870s and 1880s made cultivating the ploughed-up tussock financially attractive by laying land to a crop of wheat or oats for a few successive years. The soil was rich in nitrogen from the droppings of stock which had been pastured on the unploughed tussock for several decades, and for a few years excellent yields could be obtained. Specialist firms contracted to plough the tussock, sow and harvest a grain crop for a specified number of years, and then leave the land in English grasses…. Indeed, the South Island ‘wheat bonanza’ of the 1870s and 1880s represented largely an intermediate phase in the transition from native tussock to sown English pasture, and was carried out, not on an unchanging area, but successionally on land in process of conversion from time to time.16

Our ‘Vagrant's' report shows that even on the Hawke's Bay northern fringe of runholder New Zealand this process was in full swing in 1886. Some stations were using their own plough teams, but the contractor had also appeared. The cropping here seems to have been mainly for winter feed though ‘Vagrant’ suggests that there was a likelihood of the flat land near Maraekakaho being sown in grain. On the steep hill slopes further back, where the plough teams could not go, the land was being broken up by disc harrows and surface-sown.

This pasture improvement right across the broad acres of runholder New Zealand involved a massive capital investment. Underlying the change was the fact that the carrying capacity of the native vegetation was steadily declining. If they did nothing the runholders could expect an inexorable decline in their flocks. J.D. Gould's investigations suggest that the sowing of English grasses increased the carrying capacity by a factor of something between four and nine times.17 This change did not come cheap, for besides the expense of ploughing and sowing, new fences were needed in most cases to protect the crop from stock. B.R. Patterson has found that surviving station records for the southern North Island indicate an expenditure of up to £5 per acre.18 The improved pastures and associated internal fencing of the runs encouraged runholders to undertake breed improvement, which was a further expense. Others had first to freehold their land before there was any point in undertaking these improvements. For many this meant page 169 divesting themselves of part of their holding to obtain the capital to improve the rest.

The absence of primogeniture was another continuing influence in encouraging smaller holdings. So, well before the Liberal land policies of the 1890s aimed at ‘bursting up’ the big estates, and the full impact of refrigeration working in the same direction, runs tended to become smaller, and because their husbandry became more diverse, to become more like farms than runs. Table 12.4 illustrates this from the landholding returns of the 1881 and 1886 censuses, showing that in the largely pastoral, squatter dominated province of Canterbury the number of large runs was practically static, whereas the number of smaller runs and large farms was growing. As the Canterbury provincial figures will reflect landholding changes in both runholder and feldon yeoman districts, we have given the Ashley County figures separately. Here, where there was very little feldon yeoman settlement, the number of larger runs has increased by 3, but the smaller runs have increased by 21.

Table 12.5 shows that these landholding changes were reflected in the census ‘Occupations’ returns. Clearly significantly more landholders were seeing themselves as yeoman farmers, and fewer were seeing themselves as runholders.

Table 12.4. Size of holdings, Canterbury Province and Ashley County, 1881 1886
Canterbury Province Ashley County
Size of Holdings (Acres) No. 1881 No. 1886 Increase % 1881–6 No. 1881 No. 1886 Increase % 1881–6
1–50 3346 4183 25.0 736 761 3.4
51–100 1056 1064 0.8 287 259 -9.8
101–1000 2357 2467 3.4 467 508 8.8
1001–5000 272 359 32.0 52 73 40.4
5001+ 90 91 1.1 13 16 23.1
Table 12.5. Canterbury farmers and runholders, 1881 & 1886
1881 1886 Change % 1881–6
Farmer, market gardener 4459 4839 +7.8
Runholder, grazier, sheep or cattle farmer 169 155 -8.3