What is the high country?
The high country stretches from Marlborough in the top of the South Island to southern Otago in the south, and includes a range of landforms and ecosystems, from alpine tussockland and herbfields, to rocky screes, glaciers, lakes, snow-topped mountain ranges and montane basins.
New Zealand’s most dramatic landscapes are the wide spaces of the high country tussock and mountains.
The high country is home to many native plants and animals, such as native tussock, rare native brooms, mountain grasshoppers, scree skinks, kea, rock wrens, and the alpine weta - which can withstand freezing into a solid block during winter!
What are some of the threats?
Introduced mammals threaten our high country’s native plants and animals.
Rabbits were introduced for hunting in the 1860s and quickly over-ran large areas of the high country, wiping out native plant life. Stoats, weasels and ferrets, introduced to combat the rabbit menace, had an even worse impact on vulnerable native animal species.
Burning and clearing of native vegetation, and competition from exotic grasses, has also dramatically changed much of the natural vegetation of the high country. Grazing cattle and sheep, and game animals such as deer and thar, also destroy native vegetation.
More recently inappropriate land use such as subdivision, and expansion of dairy farms fed by irrigation, are also threatening high country habitat and landscapes.The high country and its native species are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Who owns the high country?
Much of the high country is public land that is leased in perpetuity to farmers under pastoral leases. Farmers pay a rental for the right to farm and occupy the land, and may restrict public access. They can only use the land for pastoral farming – they can’t sell, subdivide or develop the land for other purposes.
Under a process of land reform called tenure review, the government has offered freehold ownership of parts of high country properties to leaseholders in return for other parts of the properties becoming part of the conservation estate.
Forest & Bird was concerned that the balance of tenure review was favouring leaseholders and was not protecting some of the most important conservation values of the high country. Changes to tenure review in 2007 have resulted in lakeside properties and land with high biodiversity values being better protected.
What Forest & Bird is doing
Together with Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ, Forest & Bird is advocating for the establishment of high country conservation and recreation parks so that our high country’s landscapes, native plants and animals can be protected and can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.
Our advocacy has already led to the establishment of several parks, but we would like to see more high country land added to form a network of parks that protects a variety of landscapes, plants and animals for everyone to enjoy.
We also continue to monitor tenure reviews of high country properties to ensure that conservation values are adequately protected.