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Settlers and Pioneers


The region extending from Wairau in Marlborough and the Kaikoura Mountains to the Waitaki River, South Canterbury, was the great sheep country of the native-grass plains and downs that first engaged the South Island settlers. It was the ground of the men with large ideas who took by preference to the lordly pastoral life. Otago, more arduous, followed. It was hard, rough, dangerous work in the beginning. There were almost as many deaths from accident, mostly drowning in the great snow-fed torrents, as there were a few years later on the Central Otago and West Coast goldfields. Snow blizzards caused heavy losses of stock. But there were the compensations of becoming the chief of tens of thousands of acres, hundreds of thousands, the glorious freedom of the tussock prairie, the rauhea grass waved by the mountain wind, and the desire for exploration that life on the uplands stimulated. It was a life for the young and the adventurous. There was always the growling page 102ominous undertone of the river. It was the sheepfarmer's nightmare in the South Island. Everyone who has travelled much on the eastern watershed or the torrent-split west has that note at the back of Ins mind.

Sheepfarming on the high Canterbury and Marlborough country would have been immensely simplified could some kind power have been persuaded to run all those torrents into great settling tanks like Pukaki and give the harassed sheepowner moderate-paced rivers, gentle streams and limpid lakes.

The pioneer runholders from Nelson and Marlborough southward to Otago had no previous knowledge of such country. They began by setting fire to the whole countryside, to clear it of the high coarse growth of tussock and the manuka and matakauri and mikimiki bushes to prepare the way for the new clean growth of prairie grass, before it could be stocked with sheep. Their methods were rough and ready—they did not improve them. To-day in many places they are burning the tussock as they did in the fifties. For many years this seasonal procedure brought fresh toothsome grass, on which the most favoured breed, the merino, and its successors flourished. The deterioration of high country pastures at last became apparent. The roots of the grass suffered, died in patches, and the soil, having little to hold it, became eroded wherever water and page 103wind could attack it. Large areas of sub-alpine country, as for example the highlands in the interior of Marlborough, cannot carry sheep any longer with profit. Worse still is the condition of Central Otago. The damage to the country is so great that the only course is to withdraw from attempts to run sheep on land that should never have been grazed at all. Wherever there was an original clothing of bush and thick scrub, it should have been saved as a climatic reserve, a perpetual timber supply, and a protective shield for watersheds.

We do not need to read of the disastrous results of erosion caused by over-grazing and other errors of farming in the United States. We have here sufficiently troublesome examples of destruction of vegetation on high steep country and along river-banks and watersheds.

Canterbury residents have for years accepted as a necessary affliction the summer dust-laden nor'-westers blowing across the plains. There were no such dust plagues until the large pastoralists created them with their tussock-burning and their excessive depasturing of flocks.

That much being said, the pioneering merit, the resourcefulness under primitive conditions and the pluck of the first big sheep-graziers call for admiration. The first pastoralists drove and coaxed their bullock-teams across wide affrighting rivers and braved storms that were all the more to be dreaded page 104in the vast open. They had to cart or pack every article and every bit of material and machinery that they needed from the Canterbury towns over a roadless, bridgeless land. For many a year wool was the only product that could be marketed, and it was often a most difficult task to transport it with the bullock-teams to the far-away town. Until the process of refrigeration was applied to mutton, the only sixpence that could be earned apart from the wool was the tallow boiled down from the carcases. The only wonder is that the heroically toiling far-out sheep-men were able to make tolerable livings out of their holdings, vast as they were. Yet the dilettante Samuel Butler in only four years made a little fortune out of the Mesopotamia run. He, however, had exceptional good luck in favourable seasons and good prices.