Chapter XIX. — Fern-Crushing
Perhaps the chapter may possess another interest. During its perusal no great stretch of fancy will be required to note in our little world of plants a process not altogether unlike that now taking page 163 place amongst classes and individual members of the species homo sapiens. Armageddon, in truth, has been raging as fiercely in the Rocky Staircase as in the Old World. The ancient régime in both has been overthrown. The good things of life have been opened to all capable of taking them; the selfish sway of capitalism and land-lordism—call them brackenism and tutuism—has been broken. There has occurred a revolution which, however personally distasteful to Pteris aquilina and Coriaria ruscifolia, has proved quite delightful, I should imagine, to humbler members of the community who had hitherto been half-starved in breathless slums and barren crofts—bog brims, arid tops, and precipices—and who now for the first time could breathe fresh air and state their appetites. The reader will see in Chapter XIX. the Rocky Staircase “made safe for democracy.”
Allusions have been made from time to time to fern-crushing, to the ebb and flow of sheep-feed, to the contraction and expansion of feeding areas; they will now be fully explained. Pteris aquilina, var. esculenta, is a form or sub-species of the British bracken. Its roots were in ancient times of a certain value to the Maoris for food; at a later date its circinate fronds were moderately palatable to stock. The normal growth of the plant is that of its English relative, a single even crop of fronds in spring-time. Unlike the bracken of England, however, which rapidly withers and disappears, the fronds of the New Zealand pteris endure for years.
Briefly described, the science of fern-crushing on rich stiff land is as follows. A section rough enough to carry a fire is selected proportionate to the number of sheep forthcoming to crush it, the tangle of fern is burnt off in autumn, whilst immediately afterwards the land is surface-sown with grass and clover seed. A week or fortnight after destruction of the old stalks and stems young fronds begin to appear. Sheep are then poured into the paddock, the number required per acre varying with the fertility of the land, and, equally important, with the weather conditions. Drought means cessation of growth; sharp frost, temporary destruction; heavy warm rain, stimulation of the rhizomes. The stock used has also to be carefully shepherded. Sheep “hanging” in corners, or against fence lines barring them from the paddocks where they have been bred, have to be driven elsewhere or skimmed off. Feed, and sheep to eat that feed, should be exactly balanced. Without a big enough mob, the bracken fronds uncurl and page 164 become uneatable; on ground too heavily stocked, sheep fall away in condition. At the end of the second season, if all has gone well, if the sown grasses have sprung up dense enough to cover every bit of open ground where otherwise there might have been germination of undesirable weeds, if the land has been rich enough to support a heavy head of stock which will have trampled down unwanted plants, or devoured them unnoticed in mouthfuls of grass, then the work has been permanently done,—grass has taken the place of fern. On first-rate land these results are obtainable without injury to stock; on first-rate land the work is permanent.
The soils of Tutira, except for a few hundred acres, were, however, not first-class; they were not, except perhaps for a couple of thousand acres, even second-class. The great trough of the run—the vast bulk of the station—was third-class.
Fern-crushing on Tutira was accomplished on its few acres of first-class land as described—that is, with a minimum of trouble to man and beast; on the few hundred acres of second-class land, with rather less good results and a considerably greater output of labour to shepherds and injury to stock. On eighteen out of its twenty thousand acres, it is no exaggeration to say that the surface had to be stamped, jammed, hauled, murdered into grass. It was only the low price of sheep that made such procedure possible, for the stars in their courses fought against the station. The rainfall, double that of southern Hawke's Bay, stimulated this terrible growth of fern against which we warred. Weather conditions militated against the station in another way too—they immensely prolonged our shearings. Not infrequently a break in the weather would occur immediately after the gathering in of sheep from a block in process of crushing. These sheep, having once been mustered, could not be put back; in the first place, because the weather might have cleared at any time, and the fleeces become dry and fit for shearing; in the second place, because sheep dogged overmuch grow callous and sulky; they will not run well and give a second clean muster. I have known stock in this way kept for a fortnight or three weeks away from a paddock, where every day the fern-stems were lengthening, where every day the fronds were uncurling.
The soil of the trough of the run has been described. It was spongy, porous, and relatively unfertile, as well fitted to the requirements of bracken as unsuitable for grass. The alien fodder plants sown, nowhere page 165 amalgamated into anything that could be termed a sward. Between the isolated plants of the miserable “take” of seed there was ample space left for the germination of undesirables. We shall see, in fact, that as the station began to get the better of bracken, its place was taken by another and a worse plant. The grassing of nine-tenths of Tutira has not been—it could not be—a fine art run on scientific lines of husbandry. It has been accomplished by brute force at the expense of owners and stock.
Between '82 and 1917 the story of this paddock will divide itself naturally into seven distinct periods, each prefaced by a fire, each showing a maximum and minimum of carrying capacity, each demonstrating the ebb and flow of sheep-feed, the contraction and expansion of land over which stock was able to graze.
In the spring of '82, when I first saw the paddock, it lay a blackened waste, strewn with a tangle of tough stems—the ropy, parboiled stalks of the latest, greenest, and therefore least combustible of the many layers of fern that had covered the ground. On the damper aspects—the southern and eastern slopes—stood extensive groves of tutu, black, stiff and stark. Mustering this block a few weeks after arrival, I remember my astonishment at these miles of desolation unrelieved by a single green blade. I had seen nothing like it before. Of manuka, excepting a compact fire-swept patch of ten yards square on the main top, there was none. The rood or so of sheep camp on the main range had been ploughed and reploughed by pig in search of grubs and roots. Immediately beneath the great conglomerate cliff from which the paddock takes its name, also beneath lesser lines of cliff, lay narrow ribbons of open land, also uprooted and grubbed and regrubbed by pig. These strips of overturned sods contained survivors of such plants, native and alien, as Microlæna stipoides, Danthonia semiannularis, ryegrass (Lolium perenne), white clover (Trifolium repens), suckling (Trifolium dubium), Cape-weed (Hypochœris radicata), Geranium sessiliflorum, Pelargonium australe, &c. On the very edge and rim of the cliffs hung scant tufts of Poa anceps, and of Deyeuxia quadriseta, a species which even to this day on Tutira seems terrified to venture into the open. Here and there, too, on the rocks grew plants of blue grass (Agropyrum scabrum). Except for these pig-ploughed shreds and these rock surfaces the Rocky Staircase was in October of '82 a blanket of blackness. Save in the immediate vicinity of these strips of page 166 uprooted turf there had been no germination of any seed whatsoever. The paddock had nevertheless then attained its zenith of food supply, its maximum of expansion. Certainly there was no grass in it, but the tutu groves sprouting again from their burnt stools were open. Sheep running in the paddock could at least wander over every acre of it. With the advance of the year the initial stage of contraction began; by November millions of brown circinate fronds had appeared; they grew tall and strong, their pinnæ expanding until the ground was once again overspread with fresh crops of bracken, which season after season lay thicker on the ground. On this abomination of desolation some 300 merino wethers managed to survive, their fleeces black with dust from bracken and tutu thickets, their wool stripped from belly and side through constant contact with scrub and fern.
In the autumn of ‘89 began the second period. By that date the bracken, which had been until then carefully conserved from fire in accordance with the general plan of fern-crushing, was again fit to burn. The paddock became for the second time in our story a wilderness of charred stalks and stems. Now, however, on its surface for the first time began to appear cotyledons of certain aliens. They were sprung from plants which had by this time obtained a firm hold on the grassed lands of eastern Tutira and had begun to move inland. Some like the Prickly thistle (Cnicus lanceolatus) and the Cape-weed (Hypochœris radicata) had taken advantage of the wind to extend their range and to increase their numbers; others like Mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium glomeratum), Silene (Silene gallica), and the native Houtawai (Acœna australis), had by different contrivances fastened their seeds to the legs and fleeces of sheep. Seedlings were still, however, rare compared with later germinations, the more so that winds blowing from the south and east, from the sea, over the grassed lands damped the feathery pappus of winged seeds. Their appearance was in any case of relatively trifling import, for the hand of man was about to interfere on a great scale with natural conditions. It had been, in fact, determined that the block should be crushed, sown, and stocked. Instead, therefore, of a few score of sheep running, as formerly, haphazard, many thousands were decanted into the paddock. Many hundred bags of grass seed were also sown. The first result of this stocking was the annihilation of every tutu thicket throughout the block. The bracken also was severely checked both by hoof and tooth, especially on the tops and along the page 167 upper portions of the slopes, positions dear to all sheep and especially to the timorous merino.
As might have been anticipated from what the reader has already been told,—a knowledge, however, then unattained by the writer and his partner,—this attempt to grass the Rocky Staircase was a comparative failure. On the worst portion of the paddock the seed failed to germinate; on rather better soils it held out feebly for one or two seasons, but everywhere its grip weakened with lapse of time. It was discovered, too, that on large areas of the paddock, sheep would starve rather than eat the fern fronds. On other portions, only with difficulty could they be forced to crop the shoots.
1 The continued enrichment of these camps month after month, year after year, decade after decade, where night by night thousands of sheep concentrate on small areas, has been for forty seasons very distressing to Harry Young and myself, constantly scheming as overseer and owner how to provide more grass for our sheep. The waste of ammonia on soil already enriched beyond all reason has been the more vexatious in view of the glaring needs of the arid areas around. Picturing the surrounding land as it might have been but for the conservative habits of stock, almost involuntarily have the words rushed to my lips, “I say, Harry, wouldn't it be grand if sheep only wouldn't always pee on the same place?” and often have I heard his responsive sympathetic sigh, “Ah, sir, Tutira would be like heaven then.”
The thickets of tutu had been annihilated, whilst here and there could be seen isolated manuka plants—forerunners of the coming invasion. The bracken itself had suffered in the long engagement with man and beast; its exuberance of vitality was gone. The treading of the lands for several years with thousands of sheep had given it a preliminary shock; nor, from the point of view of the station, had the crushing operation been an entire failure. Though it had not realised our hopes, yet there had taken place a substantial increase in the number of sheep carried—even though that number had been wintered but for a couple or three seasons. During the maximum period of expansion the Rocky Staircase had wintered 1900 head, a total, however, diminishing, with the increase of bracken growth, to 300.
The third period in the annals of the Rocky Staircase began in '96. When in the autumn of that year the paddock was again fired, it was found that progressive movements had taken place along each of the lines noted formerly. The surface no longer remained altogether void and black; hundreds of thousands of cotyledons opened fresh and green in the vicinity of the heavily manured, densely grassed sheep-camps, on slopes beneath the narrow strips of native turf, and along the winding stock-tracks. Especially had Thistles, Suckling clover, Cape-weed, Mouse-ear chickweed, Houtawai, and Manuka multiplied themselves. There was an increase, moreover, in species as well as in numbers of individual plants. This great multiplication of other vegetative life than bracken was owing partly to the less fierce fire consequent on the less thick growth of fern. Seeds lying on the surface had not been wholly destroyed by heat and flames. Winged seeds, moreover, had been blown in greater profusion from a larger area of handled land on eastern Tutira. Lastly, pig had been destroyed; the camps were no longer wastes of over-turned sod.
During this third period there began, in fact, an insurrection of aliens and natives alike against bracken, their ancient oppressor and tyrant. Among the insurgents, manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) was not the least forward. Its seed-capsules mature when the plant is but three or four years old; they are produced in enormous profusion; the seeds germinate freely; the plant is able to draw nourishment from the most arid of soils. Often it is rather scorched than utterly destroyed by fires that consume the bracken. If it be not true that its capsules, like those of some of the eucalypts, open only after fire, it is at any rate noticeable that they expand then most freely. The plant's rapid growth offers this further advantage,—no small benefit either,—that seed is blown abroad or shaken out from an elevation of six or eight feet. Manuka is, in a word, a plant preeminently fitted to survive on lands such as those of the trough of the run. It now began to colonise the paddock, straying from its original sites, appearing about pig-rootings, along sheep-tracks, but especially taking possession of open ridges and peaks now clear of bracken. Other less rapacious settlers also appeared. A small densely rooting heath, patotara (Leucopogon Frazeri), during this third period began to colonise suitable localities. A native Carrot (Daucus brachiatus), a little Chickweed (Stellaria media), and a low-growing Michaelmas Daisy (Vittadinia australis), stepped down from their banishment on the cliffs. The Fern-flower or Sundew (Drosera binata), the little orchid (Microtis porrifolia), vacated the barren ridges on which perforce they had been confined. Other species like the native Thyme (Pimelea lœvigata) and the alien Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) selected small holdings about the camps. A Broom (Carmichœlia odorata) made a brave bid too for certain special sites. Rat's-tail (Sporobolus indica) proved itself able to thrive on a light diet. Hare's-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) appeared here and there. A species of Groundsel (Senecio page 170 canadensis) also temporarily overran the Rocky Staircase in vast profusion.
It is not again necessary to describe the processes of stocking and crushing. Suffice it to say that once more the old operations were re-enacted, once more a certain number of bags of ryegrass and cock's-foot were sown, once more the worst parts of the block relapsed into bracken, until at last stocking of the paddock was altogether discontinued. The sheep were wanted elsewhere, for as one block began to fail, station policy arranged that another should come into use. After the third or fourth season it was in fact an advantage to allow a paddock to become again overrun with fern-growth, to become again fit for firing. The maximum number wintered during the maximum expansion of the third period was about eighteen hundred. Except over an insignificant area of camping ground, English grasses and white clover had disappeared. Sheep were chiefly, if not altogether, wintered on suckling clover, an invaluable plant which from this date became our mainstay on the pumiceous area of the station. The minimum number carried dropped back as usual to about a couple or three hundred.
The fourth period in the history of the Rocky Staircase was particularly marked by the failure of fern to maintain its ancient sovereignty. The plant was weakening under the long warfare waged against it; although it covered the ground still, the covering was less dense and matted. The “burn” of 1902, consequently, was not what is technically known as a “clean” fire. Unlike previous conflagrations that had swept the Staircase from stem to stern, this fire left unburnt the ridge-caps, the tops, sometimes even the upper slopes. There had been a lack of herbage to carry the flames; they had died down for want of material. On these localities manuka had already made a lodgment. On all of them it remained now in the fourth period, green, flourishing, unburnt, five or seven feet high, its infinitesimally minute seed shaken abroad in every breeze, spread by the hoofs of stock, in wet weather sticking to every dislodged pebble, washed downhill in every sheep-path runnel. Otherwise, as before, save on unburnt portions and on the bright green sheep-camps, the paddock was a blackened tangle of fern stems inter-mixed with scorched manuka growing singly or in twos or threes.
During this fourth period, however, it remained a blackened tangle only for a few weeks. Seedlings which had appeared, so to speak, singly after the first fire, in hundreds after the second fire, in hundreds page 171 of thousands after the third fire, now during the fourth period germinated in hundreds of millions. As before, but in far larger numbers, they had self-sown themselves or been blown from other parts of the run or carried in by stock. Thus in one way or another enormous numbers of Cape-weed, Suckling clover, and Mouse-ear chickweed seedlings appeared on the freshly-burnt surface. There was the usual though diminishing recrudescence of the Thistle (Cnicus lanceolatus); certain tracks were more thickly overrun by Leucopogon Frazeri, the prickly heath already mentioned; Houtawai (Acœna australis) obtained, too, its share of the fern-vacated ground. Fresh arrivals also, such as Pomaderris phylicæfolia and a couple more heaths—Cyathodes acerosa and Leucopogon fasciculatus—took up permanent quarters in a small way. Rat's-tail, though increasing slowly, occupied the spaces overrun with a hirsute mat, ousting all other growth. Lastly appeared Clustered clover (Trifolium glomeratum) and Suffocated clover (T. suffocatum). From this time forward, in fact, wherever conditions were favourable, aliens and natives alike struggled with the moribund bracken and with one another for possession of the soil.
As before, the Rocky Staircase was at first heavily stocked and the failing fern again heavily punished by sheep. As before, too, a certain number of bags of English grass were scattered abroad, but in this fourth period seed was scattered only on the steepest, best parts of the paddock. Even on them it made so poor a show that English grasses, such as ryegrass and cock's-foot, have never again been surface-sown on this type of land—such elements of virtue as may have been in the soil had been used up.
A conspicuous feature of the fourth period was the multiplication of manuka, its rise illustrating the law of progressive increase of new plants in units, hundreds, hundreds of thousands, and millions. The spread of this plant now began to cause serious uneasiness. On the upper portions of the hill-slopes from which fern had been worn out by the trampling and nibbling of sheep, manuka during this fourth period increased year by year. On the middle slopes where the fern-growth was becoming thin and short in stalk, single manuka plants or little groups were also to be found not far apart from one another. Even where slopes merged into flattish land, individual specimens appeared. It dispossessed danthonia and micrœlena from the hard bare tops where they had seemingly established themselves; practically these grasses disappeared. If not wholly page 172 destroyed, so weakened were they by shade that only sparse spindly blades showed life was not quite extinct.
The threatened seizure of the whole paddock by Leptospermum scoparium now modified our policy in regard to the bracken. For the first time we were careful in our stocking not to overweaken it. Our ancient foe, now humbled and subdued, had become an ally in the war to be waged with the rising power—manuka. Sheep, therefore, were run more lightly on the land. The Rocky Staircase was allowed almost without let or hindrance to clothe itself once more in fern; its growth hastened the date when fire could again be run over the ground, when the manuka could be destroyed once more. The small amount of sheep carried augmented another change: it allowed other invading weeds to sow themselves more freely. This was the more important, because one of them, Suckling (Trifolium dubium), had become a fodder-plant of prime importance. Its spread had more than compensated for the loss of ryegrass, cock's-foot, and white clover, grasses which had been sown and failed. Weeds of low growth, foreign or native, were indeed during this period rather hidden than obliterated by the bracken growth. On the ridge-tops it had almost disappeared, on the uppermost portions of steep slopes, especially on the warm west and north aspects, it had retreated far down the hillsides. All these spots, nearly bare or sparsely covered with dwarfed, depauperated fronds, were now at the end of the fourth period of the paddock heavily sprinkled, some of them packed, with manuka bushes. Even in parts where the fern-growth still retained something of its pristine vigour, scattered plants of manuka topped the fronds. The reign of bracken—a sovereignty of centuries—was in truth passing away; the day of manuka had dawned. Alien grasses, except on the camps, had completely disappeared; native grasses, light and air denied to them, barely evaded death; on the other hand, an enormous spread of suckling clover had compensated for their loss. The maximum head of stock carried during the maximum expansion of the paddock was again about 1700 sheep; the minimum again about 200.
The fifth chapter in the history of the Rocky Staircase included the years between 1907 and 1913. As related, our paddock had been swept bare by fires of the first, second, and third periods; after the fourth fire small portions only of top remained unburnt. Now, after the fifth fire, the Rocky Staircase was parti-coloured, striped and patched like Joseph's coat. Where fern had predominated it was as of yore, black; in other areas the page 173 prevalence of scorched manuka produced from a distance a grey, sere hue. The tops, peaks, and ridge-caps, clothed in the same growth, remained green. The autumn of 1907 had been wet and cold, the admixture of growing manuka amongst the fern had furthermore acted as a damper. The accumulated growths of bracken were lesser in bulk, they were no longer capable of producing the raging, roaring conflagrations of early days.
On the blackened portions of the paddock conditions likewise had altered. Seedlings germinated in millions on the dark ground; there was the usual reappearance of Cape-weed, Mouse-ear chickweed, Houtawai, Groundsel (Senecio canadensis), and Pelargonium australe. There was the customary waning recrudescence of the “Scotsman” (Cnicus lanceolatus), a plant which, whatever its name might seem to infer, does not thrive, and eventually ceases to germinate on hungry soils. The three heaths named had extended their range, especially Leucopogon Frazeri. Pomaderris phylicæfolia had settled in small dense colonies on suitable localities. Besides this vast general increase in seedlings, there was also a vast increase in the numbers of the plants themselves that had survived the fire. In many parts the last crop of bracken-growth had not been dense enough to smother the established roots of Cape-weed and Houtawai (Acœna australis), Leucopogon Frazeri, and other plants. Amongst the manuka, by some miracle, danthonia and micrœlena still survived, each etiolated plant still throwing forth a few meagre green blades. Though always apparently on the verge of extinction, these species just managed to exist. Their growth was sparse and meagre; to be seen they had to be searched for. Nor, as we shall see afterwards, did these invaluable species—invaluable at this period—content themselves with passivity.
Stock debarred by reason of manuka-growth from the crests and crowns of the paddock had developed on the upper slopes new series of traffic lines, parallel below parallel. Along these, native grasses now also lodged precariously, inconspicuously, breathlessly.
The increase in the number of other plants and seedlings was, however, as nothing compared to the increase of manuka. The heights everywhere were now crowned and crested with its dense thickets and winding shrubberies. Seedlings appeared in millions of millions of millions. After the heat of a fire which had rather scalded and withered than burnt the shrub, its berries opened fully and shook forth their page 174 innumerable tiny brown seeds. On the dry surface, in company with charred morsels of stick and stem, mingled with dust hardly more minute than itself, manuka seed was whirled downwards in nor'-west gales and eddying whirlwinds. In wet weather it was everywhere transported in sheeps' hoofs. In deluges and tropic showers it was poured downwards along the hard stamped tracks. On every wet pebble that rolled from the conglomerate slopes the little seeds clung fast. Plants did not appear one here and another there as in former periods; they germinated, sometimes in tens, sometimes in hundreds, sometimes in thousands, on every acre of burnt ground. Over certain portions of the paddock they sprung up like hay-seed round the edges of a stack. The bracken, crippled and weak, now endured the sufferings it had formerly inflicted on other plants; in the company of this virile newcomer it was squeezed to death, throttled, denied the right to air and light. So completely, during the last years of the fifth period in the history of the Rocky Staircase, had manuka dominated bracken that in spring-time great sections of the paddock, areas of hundreds of acres, appeared at a distance of miles as if sprinkled, appeared even as if laden with snow, the snow of manuka petals. It looked as triumphant in 1912 as tutu and bracken had looked in '82. The paddock had changed between these dates from fern to manuka—Pteris aquilina had fallen before Leptospermum scoparium. Throughout this fifth period in the history of our paddock no attempt was made to crush fern. From a foe it had, in fact, become a friend and ally. Without intermixture of its fronds further fires would have been unobtainable. Our paddock would have become a vast manuka thicket with a permanent carrying capacity of nothing at all.
There was again during this fifth period but little change in the maximum and minimum of sheep carried. On parts where native grasses had formerly thrown a certain amount of feed, green growing manuka now held sway. This loss of feed was, however, more than made up by the wonderful spread of suckling clover; stock carried during the fifth period subsisted, in fact, wholly on this invaluable annual.
During the sixth period of the paddock an extraneous factor for the first time came into operation. It was this, that after a quarter of a century the writer had been granted a sound little to his holding. page 175 Work which could not formerly have been undertaken with any hope of return, now became at least worth the risk inseparable from any improvement. The crests and crowns of the paddock were cleared of manuka by axe-work; several hundred acres of manuka were also felled on certain slopes and valleys. Another innovation, now also for the first time determined upon, was an alteration in the date of firing the paddock. Until this sixth period fires had been lighted in autumn, weather permitting, late in February. This custom had been followed for two good reasons: to provide autumn food whilst another block elsewhere was “spelling,” and to break the exuberance of frond-growth during the following spring. Now, however, that manuka had overrun the paddock to such a dangerous degree, a clean burn had become all important. Vegetation, such as fern and scrub, is never so dry as in late spring, when fresh fronds of bracken, new shoots of manuka, that damp the matted mass with sappy growth, have not appeared, when the rays of the sun have once again grown fierce. It was determined that the paddock should be burnt out in spring.
Partly owing to an extraordinary dry day in an abnormally dry spring, partly owing to the extra heat of many hundred acres of fallen scrub, the Rocky Staircase was swept as bare of green stuff as in the early 'eighties. There was this difference though, that the paddock then had been black; now it took its colour from the fire-swept manuka. In spite of the extra heat of the spring fire, wide areas of the paddock had been rather scorched and scalded than burnt. The harsh small leaves of the manuka had fallen, the bark hung in grey frayed tatters. The plant had so increased during the preceding six-year period that the general colour of the paddock was greyish, not black as in '82.
It cannot be maintained that Tutira generally has been helped by its weather; on the contrary, climatic conditions have been malignantly unkind. The summer of 1912 was an exception to the rule. Had it been wet, had even a fair proportion of rain fallen, huge areas of the block must have permanently reverted to manuka; instead, the summer proved to be a long series of terrific gales interspersed with half-inch showers. These rains, falling from time to time on the baking surface, temporarily made the ground a hotbed. Seeds germinated as if forced under glass. Renewed gales then blew from the hot nor'-west and scorched the tender cotyledons. Weed seeds, grass seeds, manuka seed, page 176 and suckling clover seed, that summer, shared a like fate. Each time Harry Young and myself rode through the paddock, we searched on hands and knees for the well-known and dreaded manuka seedlings. There were none to be seen; they were destroyed that summer by alternate warm rains and arid gales. That otherwise hundreds of millions of cotyledons must have germinated on every rood of the paddock we were assured of, for about the rims of damp spots on the hills, along the edges of the winding oozy creeks, they sprang up like grass on a wet seed-bag.
The fern, no longer a necessary ally, once more became an undesirable, and now for the first time Micrœlena stipoides and Danthonia semiannularis leaped on to the vacated stage. In descriptions of former periods I have been cautious to show that though these hardy grasses had been reduced to a fraction of their proper growth, and that although they were an inconspicuous factor in the herbage of the paddock, yet they had not been utterly destroyed.
Period after period in the progress of the paddock they had survived under cruel deprivations; now, stimulated by freedom to breathe, their recuperation was a marvel. On every ridge and spur cleared by the axe, appeared a broad band of native grass. In other localities where dead thickets of unfallen manuka stood stiffly impenetrable to stock, danthonia and micrœlena, guarded by dead lateral branches, rushed into being and seeded freely. What had appeared formerly to be moribund stools on the sides of paths and about pig-rootings, as if by magic multiplied themselves. The magic was but light and air; there had in truth been, at the termination of the fifth period, more native grass than had been reckoned; stunted, dwarfed, depauperated, throttled, only a few spindly blades showing from every crown, it had been passed over. During this first season of its triumph on the Rocky Staircase, I feel positive that no grass seedlings appeared. Conditions that had withered the manuka cotyledons had also destroyed all other germination; the sudden show of native grass was altogether from old plants rejuvenated by light and air.
After this first season of the sixth period these hardy natives continued rapidly to increase. The seed-stems of both species grow with uncommon rapidity, and attain maturity even in heavily-stocked paddocks. From the hill-tops and ridge-caps their seed was blown by the wind, poured page 177 down during summer thunder-showers in short-lived rivulets of grit and sand, or glued by wet to pebbles displaced by stock. Both species, moreover, when close cropped, possess the remarkable habit of sending forth culms perfectly flat to the earth. The caul of grass originally confined to the tops spreads each season like a mantle lower down the slopes.
The second winter after the fire the paddock was carrying 2500 sheep. It was not until the third season that manuka, reintroduced on the feet and wool of sheep, again began to show itself. By this time, however, all danger had permanently passed away. Time only now was requisite for the establishment of a turf, over which fires could be run every two or three years, fires that would scorch the low bracken fronds and short manuka. The Rocky Staircase had been grassed.
Of the several points to be noted in the annals of our paddock, one is the failure of some and the success of other aliens. Three times—other seed was in early times practically unprocurable—ryegrass, cock's-foot and white clover have been surface-sown: the first time with a certain temporary success; the second with less benefit to the paddock; the third with no satisfactory results whatsoever. In spite of three sowings, therefore, after thirty-five years' work, only the highly-manured sheep-camps grow a turf of English grass. On the other hand, chance comers such as suckling (Trifolium dubium), and in a less degree clustered clover (Trifolium glomeratum), and now, last of all, Trifolium arvense,—in books dealing with fodder - plants passed over or classed as worthless,—have each and all done yeoman service on the Rocky Staircase. All these plants have a certain future on this type of land. On the whole, however, the aliens so far have failed, the natives succeeded. To the latter, bar ploughing and manuring with fertilisers, a great proportion of the trough of the run will always belong. Each time a plant has overrun central Tutira it has been a native. Thus bracken has in my time reigned on the Rocky Staircase for twenty - five years, manuka twelve, danthonia two. Tutira plants have competed for Tutira soil; two species, Pteris aquilina and Coriaria ruscifolia, did hold the station; others, Danthonia semiannularis, D. pilosa, and Microlœna stipoides, do hold it.
A second point worth noting in this progress towards pastoral page 178 utility is the spread downhill of new species. Manuka, Danthonia, Microlœna, Leucopogon Fraseri, Suckling, Clustered, Suffocated, and Harefoot clovers, have each and all first appeared on tops and ridges. There was the bracken soonest cropped and killed, there was the surface of the soil first open to sunlight.
An important factor, too, in this settlement of the run by newcomers has been consolidation of the ground. There were localities on Tutira where no plant life has appeared, ground so porous and spongy that horses used to sink dry-bogged in it to their girths. Save for a sprinkling of stunted blue grass, such spots were bare of vegetation. It was sponginess rather than poverty, nevertheless, which had caused these bare patches. Consolidated in later times by the tread of heavy horse-teams and rollers, these spots have proved not less good but better than the average land. Perhaps, therefore, of all changes, consolidation by trampling and treading of stock has been the most vital to the needs of plant life other than bracken. Perhaps there has occurred a physical alteration in the nature of the soil unrecognisable save by vegetative results, marked only by the appearance of grass; certain it is that the presence of native grass was in the 'eighties an unfailing mark of old pa sites and Maori cultivation-grounds; where the land had been trodden hard, Microlœna and Danthonia had been able to root themselves in firm ground. Perhaps this process of consolidation on a huge scale accounts for their triumph in later days on the Rocky Staircase, and indeed generally throughout the whole trough of the station.
To reiterate: our paddock originally was a thicket of bracken, intermingled with vast groves of tutu; consequent on the first crushing by sheep, the latter plant was utterly destroyed; at that date manuka was unknown except for a single small patch; later, when the vigour of the bracken had been quelled, native grasses appeared sparsely, then seemed to die out, whilst manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) mastered the bracken and overran the paddock. Native grasses had, however, been rather dominated than utterly destroyed; at the first chance they reasserted themselves, and have now taken possession of the paddock.
Notwithstanding the efforts of man, the Rocky Staircase has grassed itself in its own way, selecting and rejecting, and clothing page 179 itself finally with the fodder-plants best suited to its particular requirements.1
1 The reader, however, must not cease the perusal of this chapter in the belief that the present plant-covering of the Rocky Staircase is to be its last. Danthonia semiannularis and Microlœna stipoides, natives as they are and fitted as they may be to the soils of the trough of the run, are less well adapted to them than an alien thrown by mere chance on to the shores of the Dominion. Chilian grass or Rat's-tail (Sporobolus indicus), according to the late Bishop Williams, “made its first appearance at the Bay of Islands in 1840, shortly after the arrival of a ship called the Surabayo, which, while on a voyage from Valparaiso to Sydney laden with horses and forage, put into the Bay of Islands in a disabled state, and was there condemned and her cargo sold.” From the Bay of Islands the plant spread south to Auckland. There, whilst on a holiday in the 'nineties, it was noticed by Harry Young flourishing on light sandy lands. He gathered a palmful, and upon his return scattered it on the Staircase. Later, when assured of its value and suitability to the local environment, thousands of pounds weight were purchased and sown broadcast. The plant, though a wretched germinator and therefore slow in taking possession, is proving on light lands fully exposed to the sun of incalculable value. Nothing at any rate is more certain than that on northern and western hillsides Rat's-tail will completely oust other grasses, and indeed all other growths, except perhaps temporarily after fires Suckling clover and possibly Trifolium glomeratum and T. Suffocatum; even these clovers, however, will be hard put to it in the company of this virile castaway. On southern and eastern slopes, however, Danthonia semiannularis, D. pilosa, and Microlœna stipoides will maintain themselves, though they too are sun-lovers. There will be found on these colder, damper aspects, besides weeds, some of no worth whatsoever and others affording an aromatic bite, several members of the clover family—grasses such as Sweet Vernal (Anthroxanthum odoratum), Fiorin (Agrostis alba), Fog (Holcus lanatus), Crested Dog's-tail (Cynosurus cristatus), Meadow Grass (Poa pratensis), and others of lesser value.