Title: Exotic Intruders

Author: Joan Druett

Publication details: Heinemann, 1983, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Joan Druett

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Exotic Intruders

Chapter Ten — Turning a profit

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Chapter Ten
Turning a profit

If you want to see how opossums and fruit trees thrive together, take a run down to Motutapu. Opossums you will see, but you will need a guide to show you where the fruit trees were planted. I have several acres in orchard, which today is free from Opossums, and needs only the regular care to combat moth, scale, scab, mildew, blight, dieback, fungus, leech, collar rot, birds, rabbits, picnickers and small boys. These I can manage to fix during the daylight, but cannot see why a set of cranks, who have nothing of their own to destroy, should compel me to sit up at night to shoot further vermin.

—from a letter to an Auckland paper, 1919

The lighthearted scattering of plant and animal species by nineteenth century settlers stemmed from all sorts of motives, some unbelievably trivial. A case in point was the sentimental gentleman who imported the destructive gum-emperor moth because he thought the caterpillars so pretty. It is surprising that so few introductions, other than agricultural plants and animals, were due to hardheaded seeking after financial gain. The only two outstanding examples of importation for neither sport nor sentimentality—or in a hurried effort to control earlier blunders— were the opossum and Pinus radiata.

The acclimatisation of the opossum was firmly based on the expectations of a profitable fur industry. Some opossums were introduced as cuddly, if thorny, pets, but this was of minor significance.

The opossum was imported from Australia, and is therefore not the true opossum, which comes from the Americas. It is, in fact, wrongly named, being more correctly called the phalanger. There were two species imported, the sooty and the grey, the sooty, or 'Tasmanian black', being preferred by trappers and the fur industry. The animal thrives in New Zealand forests, both native and exotic, feeding mainly on shoots and young leaves, with a preference for mahoe and five-finger. One young is page 188 produced annually, and this is carried in the pouch for six months, and then on the mother's back until it is able to face life alone and forage for itself. The prehensile tail, curling to grip branches, and the long strong claws give the animal a firm hold as it scurries about the treetops. The fur is valued for its tough, hard wearing qualities.

Opossum at the Orongorongo River Research Station. The animals are kept for research in breeding and gestation.

Opossum at the Orongorongo River Research Station. The animals are kept for research in breeding and gestation.

The first opossums were released in the forests around Riverton, near Invercargill. Captain Howell may have released some prior to 1840, but Mr C. Basstian has been credited with the first successful liberation, in 1858. The peak time for liberating introduced Australian opossums was between 1890 and 1898, and at the same time acclimatisation societies were breeding, and releasing, their own stock. The government, scenting a profitable trade, became keenly interested, taking an active part in the importation of the animal from 1895 to 1906. The Right Hon. Dick Seddon was extremely enthusiastic, which is probably why most of the government liberations were in the Westland, Grey and Buller districts, which just happened to be within, or near, the Honourable Member's own constituency.

The acclimatisation societies were just as keen, the Auckland society rhapsodising, in its 1917 annual report, that 'we shall be doing a great service to the country in stocking these large areas with this valuable and harmless animal.' The only cautionary note arrived in an article in the journal, Nature, as early as 1872, trying to administer a dash of cold water by sermonising about 'the silly mania for page 189 acclimatisation' and 'the well-meaning but ill-advised persons' who dealt in the introduction of 'animals of extremely doubtful advantage.'

The article went on to discuss, in a surprisingly modern fashion, the inbuilt checks in a natural ecosystem and the upsetting of the balance of nature. However it went largely ignored, with the acclimatisation societies and the New Zealand government throwing itself into the project with unimpaired enthusiasm. In 1900 the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts become involved, liberating opossums in the Rotorua district.

In 1910 controversy began to arise. The trouble, from the point of view of the acclimatisation societies and other bodies that had made the liberations (not an inexpensive business) was that the fur of the opossum was proving just too popular. As more and more opossums were killed, the societies became more agitated, and petitioned for a ban on the hunting of the animal. The farmers and fruit growers, who were beginning to regard the opossum with deep suspicion, petitioned for even larger-scale killing. The trappers, who did not want to wipe out the goose that laid the golden eggs, did not know what side to be on, until in 1911 the acclimatisation societies won, and an Order in Council was gazetted declaring the opossum protected game under the Animals Protection Act, and the trapping and hunting of the animal became illegal. This brought the trappers in firmly on the side of the farmers and fruitgrowers. Flustered by the uproar, the Government removed its protection in 1912.

The acclimatisation societies were furious. Panicking badly, the Government tried to please both sides, by declaring the opossums to be protected in certain areas. These areas turned out to be all the native bush, which was precisely where the trappers did their trapping. Such was the commotion that the Government did what governments tend to do in such situations: stall. A circular was sent out to all the acclimatisation societies, the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, and the Department of Agriculture.

Department of Internal Affairs,
25 August 1916
Circular No. 152


I have the honour, by direction of the Minister for Internal Affairs, to inform you that the question of the desirability of distributing opossums in the native bush of both islands has been brought prominently before me, with a view to obtaining the fullest information on the subject. I have to request you to be good enough to furnish me with the views of your Society thereon, more especially on the following points, namely:

  • 1. Is it desirable that opossums should be liberated in other parts of the Dominion
  • 2. If so what localities are considered most suitablepage 190
  • 3. From what part or parts should opossums be taken for liberation in other parts
  • 4. Do the skins deteriorate if the opossums be taken from a colder and placed in a warmer part of New Zealand
  • 5. Do the skins improve if taken from a warmer and placed in a colder part of the Dominion
  • 6. Evidence, if any, as to the destruction caused by opossums a) to orchards b) to other property
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant,
(sgd) J. HISLOP
Under Secretary

The tone of the letter itself was pro-opossum, and it was greeted with a flood of communications from the majority of the acclimatisation societies, urging further liberations, and also favourable reaction from the government departments involved. This was all reported in the press, and was received with an equal flood of protests, from the New Zealand Fruitgrowers Federation, county and borough councils, the New Zealand Farmers Union, the Department of Lands and Survey, and private individuals. Faced with this continuing furore, the Department of Internal Affairs became very cagey about the whole issue, being very loath to commit itself to liberations from 1917 onwards.

In 1919 the Government requested Professor H. B. Kirk to investigate the two following matters:

  • 1. Whether the damage to forests is likely to outweigh advantages to settlers in being able to earn a revenue by trapping or taking opossums; and
  • 2. In what areas these animals could be liberated with reasonable security against their over-running and damaging State forests.

Kirk was an outstanding biologist and an extremely popular and charismatic teacher, and, as it turned out, a staunch devotee of the establishment of the opossum in New Zealand. In making this choice, the Government was adopting an attitude of placating the acclimatisation societies. Kirk's reply was prompt and forthright:

  • 1. The damage to New Zealand forests is negligible and is far outweighed by the advantages that already accrue to the community. That advantage might be enormously greater. On the other hand, the damage to orchards and gardens is indisputable; much annoyance and a loss statable at hundreds of pounds is caused. But the volume of the present trade in skins is in the thousands and the loss is borne by one section of the community while the gain from the skin trade is made by another section.
  • 2. Opossums may, in my opinion, with advantage be liberated in all forest districts except where the forest is fringed by orchards or has plantations of imported tree species in the neighbourhood.
Don McClunie of Te Awamutu, the New Zealand opossum-skinning champ of 1981.

Don McClunie of Te Awamutu, the New Zealand opossum-skinning champ of 1981.

This report led to a policy of a maintained level of protection and a relaxation of restrictions on liberation, a situation which continued until 1922, when the Department of Internal Affairs suddenly refused all further requests to liberate the animal. The lobbying of the farmers and orchardists had been just too much for the government. However no policy of reduction in opossum numbers was contemplated, due largely to the arguments of naturalists such as Kirk and Cockayne. In 1926 Cockayne published a monograph on New Zealand beech forests, for the State Forest Service, and he used this document as a vehicle for a persuasive argument against control of the opossum.

'These tree dwellers,' he wrote, 'stand, economically, in a class by themselves. At the present time there are those in favour of and those who decry these animals. As for myself, after a wide experience of New Zealand forests of all types—both prior to the coming of the opossum and at the present time—I certainly come into the first category.' His argument was that if the opossum was doing any damage to the forests, the harm would have soon showed up in the presence of dead trees and depleted forest floors. 'Leaving this matter of problematical damage out of the question, the point of moment is the great value of the skins. If, for instance, it can be shown that an acre of forest, at present bringing in no revenue, will yield, as the home of the opossums, a yearly income equalling that of even poor pasture, and that a constant revenue can be made by trapping opossums, these animals have come to stay.' He then proposed a wait-and-see policy, saying that if the opossum could be definitely proved to be a menace, then control and reduction of numbers would cost nothing, and could, indeed, result in a handsome profit, from revenue from the sale of the skins.

So sincerely did the acclimatisation societies agree with Kirk and Cockayne, that many adopted a policy of illegal liberation, and this situation continued until 1940, secretly supported by the Forest Service, which was greatly in favour of a major fur industry. Public opposition increased. Opossums, people argued, eat garden produce and fruits. They spoil the growth of young pines by nipping off leading shoots. They have a habit of shorting out power lines. They destroy young trees planted out to check erosion.

Despite all the public argument, the Government did not allow unlimited trapping until 1949. In 1950 a bounty system was set up, paying 2/6d for each animal killed. In 1956 control of, and research on, the opossum was initiated, and it was classified as a noxious animal.

Ironically enough, this task was allotted to the New Zealand Forest Service. The bounty system continued until 1961, and in the decade up to that date an average of one million skins was taken every year, with no appreciable effect on the opossum population. Since then a vigorous programme of systematic culling has been organised. However, popular or not, this exotic intruder appears to be here to stay.

Thus runs the chequered tale of New Zealand's fur industry, initiated with great energy and high hopes, and doomed to inertia in a flood of controversy.

We foresters maintain that there is no such thing as an inexhaustible supply so long as the forest is under no control.

Captain Inches Campbell Walker, New Zealand's first conservator of forests

The other profit-making non-agricultural industry was founded, not on high expectations, but on the need to replace a native resource that had been exploited to near-extinction.

The radiata pine had been introduced at the whim of many anonymous settlers and transients, merely for firewood and shelter, and acclimatisation occurred because of the strong adventive qualities of the plant itself: the report of the Royal Commission on Forestry (1913) stated that pines were seeding freely and spreading, especially on

page 192

Opossums and red deer in combination

During the controversy over the opossum and its effect on the native forests apiarists took a small part, complaining as early as 1942 that opossums were damaging the nectar-bearing plants of rata and kamahi. Suspecting that the damage was not due to opossums alone, L. T. Pracy, for the Forest Service, built enclosures to keep out deer and goats but not opossums, in some badly damaged forest areas. He found that palatable plants regenerated freely, suggesting that it was deer, not opossums, that are the cause of irremediable damage. It appears that it is a combination of deer and opossum, not the animals singly, that cause so much damage. The removal of undergrowth by deer opens up the way for opossums, while the damage of canopy trees by opossums exposes glades for the deer.

page 193page 194page 197page 198

manuka country; and Cockayne in 1922 wrote that Pinus radiata was spreading naturally on pumice land around Taupo.

It was a long time before the commercial possibilities of exotic timber trees were fully realised, and yet radiata had many obvious advantages. It grows straight, grows rapidly, is easy to handle, grows well in plantations, is adaptable to most New Zealand conditions, and produces a wood that is remarkably versatile.

The New Zealand timber industry was, of course, firmly based on the kauri tree, right from the time in 1772 when du Fresne's men laboriously hauled one huge tree-trunk out of the Bay of Islands bush. Cook wrote glowing reports about the great length of the trees, growing ' . . . straight as an arrow and taper'd very little in proportion to length . . . ,' so that when Britain lost its main source of timber for shipbuilding—its American colonies—Cook's reports came immediately to the minds at the Admiralty. A proposal was submitted to the British Government in August 1783, saying,'... It may be seen by Captain Cook's voyage that New Zealand is covered with timber of size and every quality that indicates long duration; it grows close to the water's edge and may be easily obtained.'

The first shipment of timber from New Zealand was collected by the brig Nancy in October 1794. The ship brought in a good supply of saws, both crosscut and pitsaws, and future expeditions found that Maori labour could readily be hired for the promise of a few axes. In fact Maori appreciation of this European tool was so great that tree-felling gangs had to have bodyguards, as Maoris would rush at them from the undergrowth, knock them all over, and rush off with their axes. In the end one of the captains, Captain Wilson of the Royal Admiral, held two local chiefs hostage, guarded by a band of 30 men armed with muskets and cutlasses, until most of the stolen implements had been returned.

Driving wedges after cross-cutting.

Driving wedges after cross-cutting.

Captain Cruise wrote in 1823 that of the Maori people he saw, there wasn't'... an axeman in the ship who could rival them ...' in the felling of a tree. In 1832, another writer of the time, Earle, commented on the keen interest the Maoris took in the budding timber industry. It is interesting to note that this was the first major activity where Maori and pakeha worked side by side in amity, a situation that continues in the timber industry to this day.

New Zealand timber came into demand for more than shipbuilding. Whalers and sealers, and then early settlers, wanted it for the building of their houses. With the large number of pigs, from the animals originally released by Captain Cook, being killed for food, timber was needed for the making of pork chests for the salt meat. The missionaries also had a part to play in the establishment of the timber industry. The expenses of travel had to be recouped in some way, so ships carrying missionaries from Australia to the Bay of Islands returned with cargoes of wood. Indeed, the first missionary settlement at Rangihoua included as its members two sawyers and a smith. The cattle that the missionaries brought with them were also important, as they were the pioneers of the many hundreds of bullock teams used for hauling timber out of the bush.

The first bullocks brought out specifically for timber hauling were carried in crates on the deck of the Dromedary in 1820. The animals embarked at Port Jackson and were fed with hay on the way over; they were put ashore at Kerikeri while the crew of the ship looked for a suitable logging site. The bullocks must have relished the blissful weeks of grazing after the voyage, for when they had to be ferried back to their
Bush mill.

Bush mill.

page 195 pens on the ship they created a great deal of trouble. However the job of rounding up and transfer of the animals was eventually over, and the Dromedary sailed for Whangaroa, where the base camp was made. From then on bullock teams, straining at gargantuan loads, were a common sight in New Zealand. As well as hauling logs and sawn timber, these animals provided the brute labour for road-making and all cartage. It was bullock teams that hauled hay from one farm area to another, wool to the wool sales, and provisions all around the countryside. Later, when deer and other large game animals were being carried from collection to liberation points, it was bullock teams that pulled the wagons with the pens on top.

The timber industry was also responsible for the acclimatisation of some north European settlers. Scandinavians, coming from a background of generations of utilising timber and working in the silent Baltic forests, came to the new country and applied their skills with determination. In 1905 there were almost 30 mills around Dannevirke ('Dane' town), and Norsewood was also the centre of considerable milling activity. A group of Norwegians who were probably the first of their nationality in this country settled at Awapuni, near Palmerston North. They landed at Foxton, and the men walked all the way to their bush sections. Later they built a bush tramway, which, in 1876, became the railway connecting Palmerston North and Foxton.

Bush tramways were a common sight in the stands of native timber. Bullock teams were used to haul bogies of logs along the rails. Otherwise logs were transported by water, tied into rough rafts and then drifting to their destination. In less rapidly flowing rivers kauri dams were built, and held back the water until the rafts were ready, the water then being released to give the timber its first impetus and send it on its way.

On downhill slopes the shifting of the logs was much easier than either of these methods. A path, or 'chute'; was cleared, so that the logs would slide down under their own steam, so to speak. Some of these chutes were a mile long, and streams were diverted so that they were kept greasy. Thomas Simpson, in his authoritative book Kauri to Radiata, describes with gusto the opening of a 1.2 kilometre chute at Foster Bros Mill at Kaitaia. The christening log was poised at the top, while a photographer waited crouched over his camera at the bottom, ready to record the historic occasion. The whistle blew, the log was launched—and immediately gathered an astounding momentum, blasting down the hill with a great rooster-tail of mud and water spraying up behind it. Down it roared, gathering speed even on the easy grades, until near the bottom it fairly launched itself into the air. The photographer abandoned his camera and fled, and the log zoomed on, right through the mill, and thudded out the other side.

Primitive all these methods of harvesting might seem today, but the timber was being used up at an alarming rate. After 40 years of unremitting labour by bullock and horse teams, the building of bush tramways and log chutes, and the flotation of vast numbers of logs, the indigenous timber had disappeared altogether in many areas and had become seriously depleted in others. The goose that laid the golden eggs was expiring rapidly.

In 1870 James Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum, made the following statement in reply to a question from the Government:'... The rapid destruction of page 196 the native forests I consider to be most wasteful, and as having the effect of rapidly reducing the natural resources of the country . . .' Scholefield, in his book Evolution in New Zealand (1909) wrote:'... The haste to get a few million feet of timber down to the plains or on the overseas steamer was feverish ... In 1871 three million feet of timber were exported. By 1891 the figure was 42 millions. There were 250 mills killing, and slaying, and burning and wasting . . .'

Chute cutting.

Chute cutting.

Loco pulling loaded bogies along a bush tramline.

Loco pulling loaded bogies along a bush tramline.

In 1884 the Government was alarmed enough to turn for advice to a favourite expert: Professor Thomas Kirk, the father of the Professor Harry Kirk who later produced advice on the depredations of the opossum. Professor Thomas submitted a report, 'Native Timbers and the State of the Timber Trade', in 1885. It turned out to be a very pessimistic document indeed, prophesying that at the current rate of depletion all kauri in the Auckland province would have been taken and sold—at an average price of 10s per 100 feet—by the year 1900. As it happened, the peak of kauri logging was yet to come. The Timber and Forestry Report of 1906-07 stated: The output of the ... mills (in the Auckland district)... totalled 190 543 000 feet and comprised the following kinds of timber: 105 999 000 feet kauri, 19 610 000 feet rimu, 37 542 000 feet kahikitea, 4 600 000 feet matai, 21 626 000 totara, and 1 166 000 feet miscellaneous.' [1 foot equals 0.3 metres.]

But the message was becoming clearer and clearer. A very profitable industry was doomed to disappear. Additionally it was evident that the population of New Zealand could only rise, and local consumption of timber was going to soar. Another source of timber had to be created.

At this time, in 1907, a small proportion of all sawn timber—less than half a million feet out of a national total of 432 000 000 feet—was cut from exotic trees. This was mostly radiata, from the poorly regarded tree known as Monterey pine, or Pinus insignis. Duncan Rutherford, of Culverdon, Canterbury, wrote to the Royal Commission on Foresty in 1913, reporting that'... insignis was first planted here in

1871 or 1872 and in 1893 I had a few thousand feet sawn ... and used it in several sheds. This timber was used under cover and now appears 25 percent harder than when it was first sawn.'

Sawmill at Ongarue.

Sawmill at Ongarue.

page 199

The unthinking harvest

The New Zealand timber industry was firmly based on the fine huge trees of the forests as they were when the Europeans first arrived—the massive rimu, totara and kahikitea, and the invaluable kauri tree. The first timber was cut by hand. The chopping used to be done in relays, and with each cut of the axe the resinous gum dripped down the handles onto the men's hands, raising blisters and biting deep into raw flesh.

Once the news about the fine native timbers of New Zealand got back, expeditions made sure to bring in handsaws and pitsaws to cope with the forest giants. Cook, on his second voyage to New Zealand, had a tree cut down and sawn into manageable planks. This was probably the first instance of pitsawing to be carried out in this country. As New Zealand timber came to be more and more in demand for ship building, these contrivances were set up everywhere in the bush, and all settlements had their sawyers and smiths.

The problem then arose of how to transport the newly felled logs to the mills for sawing. Bullocks were imported to do this job, and often little bush tramways were built to make the job easier. On downhill slopes log chutes were cleared, so that the logs could slide down easily without using animal labour. These chutes were made greasy by having small streams diverted onto them, which kept the floor of the chute muddy. Digging the chutes and diverting the streams entailed much labour, but once the job was done it was usually found to be well worth the trouble.

Bush tramways, long disused and green with fern and moss, are a common sight in the depths of remaining native forests. At first teams of bullocks or horses were used to haul the bogies of logs, but later steam took over the job. The first steam operated tramway was used in Marlborough in 1870. The loco was powered by waste wood from the cuttings, so was self-sustaining fuelwise, but the fire risk from the impressive gusts of smoke and cinders was high, especially as the timber became thin from logging out, and dried.

Primitive all these methods of cutting and hauling might seem today, but so many people were working industriously at timber harvesting, that vast amounts of wood were being removed from the landscape. Stand after stand of ancient trees disappeared on lines of bogies to the increasingly distant busy mills. Whole towns were built on the basis of New Zealand timber: Oxford, near Rangiora, was one example of the hundreds of these timber-based settlements. The first settlers in Oxford began to cut timber in 1851, and in 1860 the first mill arrived, carried 32 kilometres by bullock wagon. By 1876 there were eleven sawmills working in the settlement, some of them a great distance from the town, following the receding timberline. Throughout New Zealand this situation repeated itself again and again: mills were set up in the forest; the timber surrounding them became thinner and thinner until by the end of the 1880s the trees were gone. The mills were surrounded by bare, denuded slopes and valleys.

The harvest had been completed and the crop had disappeared. Today there is nothing to show that Oxford was, for almost forty years, a booming timber town.

page 200
Bush mill.

Bush mill.

. . . and the crop was gone.

. . . and the crop was gone.

It is significant that the first milling of radiata was reported by a Canterbury man. In the South Island the treeless plains prompted afforestation long before the concept of exotic timber. The first significant tree-planters there were the goldminers, who planted pines, probably brought as seed from the Californian goldmines, for shelter from the north-west winds, bitter or scorching according to season, and for fuel for their fires. The seeds they most often planted were of the two Monterey conifers—radiata and macrocarpa.

Shortage of timber for housing and other uses was felt much more quickly in the Canterbury Plains than elsewhere in New Zealand. Kirk, in his 1885 Report, wrote: 'The proportion of forest land in the Provincial District (Canterbury) is less than in any part of the colony, large portions of the district being absolutely divested of trees, except where small plantations have been made by settlers.' Mr Travers, the Member for Christchurch City, said in 1868 that in the Province of Canterbury nearly the whole of the timber consumed was imported from Australia and America.

This situation led to the Canterbury Forest Trees Bill of 1871, following a debate in which the member for Mount Herbert, Mr Potts, moved that: 'It is desirable Government should take steps to ascertain the present condition of the forests of the colony, with a view to their better conservation.' From this beginning came the Forest Tree Planting Encouragement Bill, and the gradual formulation of a policy of supplementing New Zealand's indigenous timber resources by planting exotic trees.

The plan of the Forest Trees Planting Encouragements Act was that, if settlers planted 500 trees to an acre [1 250 trees per hectare] and the trees were grown to an average of two feet high, then those settlers could apply for extra land, at the rate of two acres for every acre of trees. Later, in 1872, provision was made for the payment of £4 an acre, rather than the land grant.

This scheme led to the establishment of beautiful groves of Douglas firs, giant Sequoia redwoods, Australian gums, European cedars and cypresses, beeches and poplars, and plantations of walnut trees that rivalled those planted by the French settlers at Akaroa. But, more than all the others, people planted the humble, hardy, fast-growing, sturdy Monterey conifers.

The first timber plantation grown by any local authority was that of the Selwyn Plantation Board, in mid-Canterbury, in 1879. The Railways Department followed suit, and in 1884 the central government began its own planting measures. And then, in 1896, a forest authority was set up, as a branch of the Lands and Survey Department. Professor Kirk's warnings about the future of the New Zealand timber industry had rung loud and clear. In that year the decision was made to establish exotic forests in the pumice wastelands of the Volcanic Plateau.

Under the supervision of this forest authority several experimental plots were planted with various introduced plant species. The Rotorua district seemed particularly encouraging, so that in 1898 a nursery for raising seedlings of likely-looking plants was established near Whakarewarewa. Henry Matthews, who had been a commercial nurseryman, was at this time chief forester, so he was in charge of the enterprise, even though he was personally very doubtful of the outcome—he went on record as saying that he regarded radiata as a timber fit only for firewood.

He did, however, have a very high opinion of the quality of labour that the local page 202 Maori girls provided in the nursery, saying that they were ' . . . exceptionally careful and industrious (in) weeding, sizing and counting' young trees.

Once the nursery was established, the Department of Lands and Survey began to consider the prospect of large-scale planting on the Kaingaroa Plains. This area consisted of many thousands of hectares of unproductive wasteland. It was gouged by creeks and gullies, covered in spindly scrub, uninhabited and useless for farming. In 1899 extensive planting began at Whakarewarewa, continued in 1901 at Waiotapu, and extended to the Plains proper in 1913. The programme, widespread as it was becoming, was still experimental and tentative in nature, so many species of trees were planted. Initially European larches and some gum trees were thought the most promising, but then the growth of these species was greatly outstripped by two firs, the Douglas and the radiata.

page 201

The Kirks

Professor Harry Borrer Kirk, of opossum fame, and his father, Professor Thomas Kirk, the chief Conservator of State Forests, were outstanding identities in the world of botany in New Zealand.

Thomas Kirk was born in Coventry in 1828, and showed an early enthusiasm for botany, taking work in a nursery garden and then in a sawmill. He was destined never to be prosperous, but was particularly poor when he decided in 1863 to emigrate with his wife and five children to New Zealand.

He was a while finding a steady job, trying out the occupations of timber merchant, surveyor and freeholder before settling down as curator of the Auckland Museum in 1868. However right from the time he landed he found opportunities to make numerous botanical explorations of the Auckland province, and send gifts of plant collections all over the world.

Later, in 1874, he became a lecturer in natural sciences at Wellington College, and then in 1881 became lecturer in biology and geology at Lincoln College. In 1885, with the growing national concern with the future of the New Zealand timber industry, he was appointed Chief Conservator of State Forests, and was the first to organise the branch of the Department of Lands and Survey that became the State Forest Service. In 1888, because of economic conditions, he was compulsorily retired.

He was the originator of schemes of protection for New Zealand's native forests, and during his term 320 000 hectares became forest reserves. From 1863 to the time of his death in 1898 he corresponded with botanists all over the world, promoting the unique qualities of the New Zealand bush. And yet, when his widow found herself in impoverished circumstances after his death, the New Zealand government refused to give her a pension.

His third son, Harry Borrer, followed in his father's footsteps, travelling far and wide through the native forests, collecting both plants and animals. In 1903 Harry was appointed to the newly established chair of biology at Victoria University of Wellington. A charismatic figure with his shock of silver hair, he founded the departments of zoology and botany, and became famous as an outstanding teacher. He died in Hamilton in 1948.

Professor Harry Borrer Kirk in 1930.

Professor Harry Borrer Kirk in 1930.

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From 1901 to 1920 most of the planting was carried out by good-conduct prisoners, who worked in gangs under the supervision of prison warders. They lived in wooden huts, four bunks to a hut, which were on skids so that they could be easily moved from one planting site to another.

In 1919 forestry became separated from the Departments of Lands and Survey, becoming the State Forest Service. The first director of this new Department was a young man with qualifications in forestry from Canada. His name was Leon Macintosh Ellis, and he was the father of the timber industry as we know it today.

The first thing he did was speed up the planting rate: 560 hectares in 1920-21 were planted and a further 1 360 were planted in 1922. This rate of increase continued each year from then on. The second was to set up a study of the possibilities of a pulp page 204 industry. The third was to invite an English expert in paper-making, Mr William Adamson, to make a study tour of New Zealand. Mr Adamson did this in 1925, and advocated the planting of the entire Kaingaroa Plains and the establishment of a pulp and paper-making plant within the next 15 years.

From then on planting went on at a tremendous rate. The Justice Department had removed its prison labour in 1920, so the work was taken over by relief and seasonal workers. In those early years of the depression, there was no shortage of men prepared to rough it out on the Plains. They lived in villages of tents with no amenities at all, sleeping in wooden tiers of bunks, and cooking over outdoor fires. By 1932 conditions improved to the extent that the tents were replaced with portable huts, similar to those the prisoners had used, and a move was being made to build permanent huts at fixed camps.

In 1935 the first plantings were reaching maturity and methods of milling the timber had to be devised. The saws used in the industry up until then were not really satisfactory, as exotic timber is softer, more resinous, and has more knotholes. To cope with these problems, and to demonstrate new techniques, a large new mill was built at Waipa, on the outskirts of Rotorua. It comprised the sawmill itself, drying and preserving machinery and a box-making plant. Its first commercial run was in June 1940.

Attending to the genesis of an industry, with concentration and care.

Attending to the genesis of an industry, with concentration and care.

Planting out seedlings in the Rotorua nursery, 1910.

Planting out seedlings in the Rotorua nursery, 1910.

Loading larch seedlings, 1910.

Loading larch seedlings, 1910.

With such large areas reaching maturity the Government decided that some of the burden of utilising the new timber could be taken over by private enterprise. Accordingly, the company of New Zealand Forest Products was formed, and at its inception in 1935, it inherited 70 400 hectares of the 150 400 established by the state. Since then the company has purchased, leased, or acquired planting rights on additional tracts of land in the area between Putaruru and Lake Taupo. It also owns 14 000 hectares of pine forest at Matahina. This makes the company the country's leading private forest owner, with nearly 120 000 hectares established in exotic timber forest. However its areas are by far outstripped by the state, as the Forest Service owns and administers 52 percent of the total exotic forest area in New Zealand. Thirty percent is owned by 18 companies, of which New Zealand Forest Products is the largest, and the remainder by owners of small-scale commercial plantations and woodlots.

From 1940 the New Zealand timber industry was on a brand-new, headlong course. It was entering an era where botanists, chemists, engineers and surveyors were just as important as sawyers and loggers. A research centre was necessary. Young people had to be trained and older timber workers, many just back from fighting a war, had to be retrained. The old nursery at Whakarewarewa was the ideal site: the Forest Research Institute was functioning by 1948. In 1949 an up-to-the-minute pulp and paper mill was designed: by 1955 the enormous concept was made concrete, with a new town to service it.

The first annual conference of the State Forest Service, 1921. Macintosh-Ellis, the father of the New Zealand exotic forest industry, is fourth from the left in the front row.

The first annual conference of the State Forest Service, 1921. Macintosh-Ellis, the father of the New Zealand exotic forest industry, is fourth from the left in the front row.

Since 1935 harvesting of timber from exotic pine forests has boomed at a staggering rate; new seedlings have to be grown in nurseries like this one at Rotorua, to replace the stands as they are logged out.

Since 1935 harvesting of timber from exotic pine forests has boomed at a staggering rate; new seedlings have to be grown in nurseries like this one at Rotorua, to replace the stands as they are logged out.

Logging truck: Pacific triple unit at the Murupara weighbridge.

Logging truck: Pacific triple unit at the Murupara weighbridge.

Mill at Kawerau.

Mill at Kawerau.

Tasman seed orchard.

Tasman seed orchard.

Young seedlings in rows.

Young seedlings in rows.

page 209

Why radiata?

Over ninety percent of plantation forests in New Zealand are Pinus radiata. And yet it is usual afforestation policy throughout the world to avoid placing complete reliance on one introduced species, as it may fall victim to a single virus, a single pest or a single genetic weakness. No one timber meets all needs, and no species flourishes in all situations. So why this single-minded reliance on radiata?

For a while it looked as if the Douglas fir would result in equal volume production, but it takes 70 to 80 years to reach maturity compared to 35 to 40 years for the radiata. However its timber, known as Oregon, is superior for some uses. Corsican pine takes up to 100 years to mature, but tolerates colder and dryer conditions. So why is radiata so very much preferred for the mass of plantation growing?

The answer is, simply, that it is ideal. Its seeds can be collected throughout the year. It transplants easily and needs very little care thereafter. It is resistant to disease and tolerates herbicides' so that weed-clearing underneath the tree is easily carried out. It grows vigorously on almost any soil and responds well to thinning and pruning. It makes an excellent timber to work with, is readily treated with preservative, dresses easily, seasons quickly, takes all paint finishes, makes a good veneer and produces a high-quality, long-fibred pulp.

Which, in a nutshell, is the success story of the radiata.

Black and white photograph of Pinus Radiata grove.
page 210

Today, on the Kaingaroa Plains, in towns such as Kawerau and Tokoroa, in the laboratories of the research institute, at the railway yards of Murupara, in the mill at Whakatane, and everywhere that timber, pulp and paper have their impact, thousands of people work and are prosperous, due entirely to the rapid-growing qualities and many uses of one exotic intruder: Pinus radiata.

The initial establishment of these forests was regarded with animosity by many people. It made less forest land available for native life, they said. Even after the first trees grew, they claimed the sight of lines of trees marching out of bare forest floor was unaesthetic. However, with time, felling and replanting, a humus layer has built up under the trees. There is now a great variety of under-storey plants, usually of native trees, many of which would not have been found in the previous landscape, and many animals are locating food sources in the plantations. Those in the older-established forests now include tui, bellbird, fantail and morepork. Not to mention, of course, that other exotic intruder, the ubiquitous, controversial opossum.

Mr David Beechcroft among Pinus radiata trees he planted 75 years previously, when he was a small boy. While radiata pine is not allowed to grow forthis time before harvesting, this picture shows what this remarkable tree is capable of, if allowed to reach full maturity.

Mr David Beechcroft among Pinus radiata trees he planted 75 years previously, when he was a small boy. While radiata pine is not allowed to grow forthis time before harvesting, this picture shows what this remarkable tree is capable of, if allowed to reach full maturity.

page 211

Pigs in modern forests

The damage caused by pigs is probably incalculable. Professor Kirk, in 1896, claimed that the pig was responsible for the eradication, in mainland New Zealand, of the tuatara. He also claimed that it nearly wiped out the native orchid Gastrodia, and Cockayne blamed it for the near-extermination of the Chatham Island lily. Pigs are also very fond of bracken fern. While this plant is obviously holding its own, their attentions delay regeneration of soil-eroded slopes. On the credit side, however, it has been suggested that the pig, through rooting of burrows, helped to keep down rabbit numbers.

The damage nowadays that is the most obvious is in the exotic forest plantations. Large numbers of pigs are destroyed every year by officers of the New Zealand Forest Service. The pigs have been known to systematically demolish acres of young trees, uprooting them and grubbing around in the soil. Many farmers swear that large sows and boars kill young jambs and eat them; it is interesting to note that the pigs that do this are suffering from a calcium deficiency—in fact, in the Kaingaroa forest pigs can be caught in traps baited with bones.

Wild pigs so far have very little economic value, providing little more than energetic and rather dangerous sport. However, with wild pork appearing on the menus of various enterprising restaurants, and considering the sudden profitability of the antlers and meat of deer, one never knows what the future of this exotic intruder holds in store.

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