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Settlers and Pioneers

14 — Tussock Plain and Mountain Pasture

page 101

Tussock Plain and Mountain Pasture

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.

Before the Canterbury pioneering era came Marlborough. Frederick A. Weld and Charles Clifford (later both carried Sir before their names) were two of the first runholders in the Wellington country and later in Marlborough. Weld was Premier in the early sixties, under Governor Sir Thomas Gore Brown, and enunciated the principle of military self-reliance, instead of continuing to ask the parent land for help in the wars. Later he held several governorships. He went first with Charles Clifford page 105and Vavasour to South Wairarapa, where they occupied the Wharekaka Station, on the shores of Palliser Bay. In 1845 Weld and Clifford had 900 ewes and agreed to winter sheep for a newcomer at is. 6d. per head. Writing in that year, Weld said he was completely confident as to the results of his undertaking, the only fear being a Maori war. The hardships of the road and boat work round the cliffs of Pencarrow from Wellington to Palliser, along the southern coast of the North Island (now the Riddi-fords' sheep-country), were too severe for Weld, so he made a tour of the Wairau Valley in Marlborough, and the country south of the present site of Blenheim. He presently decided to settle at Flaxbourne, where 'I shall, with my yacht, be much nearer the town [Wellington] than I am now. I shall have no rivers to ford, sometimes breast-high, no rocks to climb at high tide on the beach, or to sleep out in the rain all night. Nor shall I have any more anchoring off lee shores in open boats, or swamping in the surf, of which I have had enough to last me for years.'*

The country at Flaxbourne (where the township of Seddon is now situated) he likened, in his letters to England, to the Dorsetshire Downs. 'I have not a neighbour, Native or European, for 40 miles, so I am monarch of all I survey. It is a fine, healthy page 106country, with neither swamps nor forest. We have five horses, some cows, and a bull. The sheep, which are far the best ever imported into the colony, are as follows: 2000 Clifford's and mine, and 500 on a third-of-increase and half-of-wool arrangement. I shall make Flaxbourne my headquarters, as this will be the most important station. I intend having a garden and vinery in a deep glen behind the house.'

Three years later the partners had 11,000 sheep and were selling rams at £20 apiece. When they first brought the sheep they drove them over in two lots— Weld's one day, and Clifford's a day later. Crossing the Bluff River they had to throw all the sheep into the water—'a day and a half's hard work.'

The partners built a boat for their own use, thirty-six feet over all, rigged like a cutter, with a little mizzen. Weld wrote that one day he sailed halfway across Cook Strait, 'but a shift of wind contrary to tide, with a very heavy sea, drove us into port again. In going out we beat the Eagle , a large brigantine, that ought to have been able to take us on her deck and beat us, and in returning we licked a little schooner that had the impudence to come out of one of the bays and challenge us.'

Large sheep stations, with their beautiful homesteads, are still the dominant feature of the South Marlborough landscape. But great areas of excellent agricultural land have been subdivided into dairy farms and cropping lands, and stock-fattening farms, page break


page 107and the process of cutting up into moderate-sized farms will no doubt be intensified, in common with like districts in other parts, as the demand for land increases with time. The great sheep-kings of the early days were a class powerful in their generation, but refrigeration came, and dairying, and they were bound most of them to pass away.

* This and other letters are quoted by Alice, Lady Lovat, in her Life of Sir Frederick Weld.