Don’t turn back the clock on our high country heritage

Leonard Cockayne, Thomas Cheeseman and Arnold Wall were three of New Zealand’s great pioneering botanists and discovered many of our native plants. Their names now grace peaks along the Craigieburn Range, 100 kilometres west of Christchurch.

Craigieburn Range

Craigieburn Range

If these pioneering plantsmen were still with us today, they would no doubt be delighted by the extraordinary recovery of native plants below these peaks which has taken place in the last five years, following the end of 150 years of pastoral farming.

As part of the Castle Hill pastoral lease, sheep formerly grazed nearly to the summit of the Craigieburn Range, while cattle grazed the beech forest, tall tussock and short tussock further down the range. There was little beech regeneration and tall tussocks in particular were being grazed to extinction.

Then in 2004, the Crown, through the Nature Heritage Fund, purchased 8517 hectares, three quarters of the Castle Hill pastoral lease, for conservation and public recreation.

With the removal of domestic stock, beech forest regeneration is abundant, and tall tussock and wetland plants have made a strong recovery. Even on the shifting, seemingly inhospitable environment of the mountain scree slopes, native plant life flourishes, such as the cream-flowered penwiper plant, named after the similar felt “leaves” of penwipers used by early European settlers. Thanks also to the absence of stock, the streams and rivers that drain the range and feed into the Waimakariri River now flow clear and unpolluted.

Penwiper

Penwiper

The public, too, has gained with the opening of the land for recreation. The Department of Conservation has signposted the Mt Cheeseman skifield road from Highway 73 and opened it to the public. The road provides easy access to view amazing scree plants celebrated by the early botanists, such as the large, lumpen mounds of “vegetable sheep”, the dark cushion-shaped flowers of black cotula, and the bright yellow splashes of Haast’s buttercup.

It is not just botanists who enjoy enhanced access to the area. Club members from the Mt Cheeseman Skifield also now have year-round access to maintain the skifield - previously their access was restricted mostly to the ski season. Mountain bikes and walking are also very popular, and a new Waimakariri Basin community conservation group is helping to remove invasive pine trees and coordinating pest control to allow rare mistletoe and native birds to flourish.

School, polytechnic and university groups from throughout Canterbury now visit these new conservation lands, helping with control of invasive Contorta pines, embarking on mountain biking expeditions and other outdoor adventures.

Among the most popular attractions are the 362-metre-long cave at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, the limestone rock battlements of Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area and rock climbing and “bouldering” in the adjoining 52-hectare Spittle Hill block purchased for conservation earlier this year. These outdoor adventure playgrounds are visited by hundreds of tourists every day in summer who come to explore, picnic, climb or just relax amid the many wonders of this high country landscape.

Castle Hill is a great example of progress made over the last quarter century in protecting the special plants and animals of the high country, and bringing the people are now flocking to enjoy these special places.

In 1984, I first wrote about the need for recognition and legal protection for the diversity of native wildlife, plants and landscapes found throughout the high country. Since then, progress - albeit sometimes stumbling and from time-to-time taking the odd step backwards - has been made.

In 1986, government departments managing land were restructured into state corporations and the Department of Conservation. The resulting land carve-up protected some special high country lands such as the Eyre Creek and Cainard Landcorp blocks in Southland. Public protests also stopped the iconic Molesworth Station passing to Landcorp and the risk of later privatisation.

Further conservation gains in the high country were slow until the 1998 Crown Pastoral Land Act recognised both natural and farming values. The Government’s tenure review process divided pastoral lease land into
freehold farmland and conservation land.

The resulting new conservation land was dominated by higher mountain land unsuited to farming, while lower altitude tussock and valley floor vegetation was rarely protected under early tenure reviews. The mountain lands were not under any immediate threat of development and were already well represented in the existing reserves - tenure review has only recently started to protect lower altitude natural vegetation. The government has also recently purchased all or part of some high country properties with the aim of protecting conservation and recreation values.

In 2001, Conservation Minister Sandra Lee opened the 22,000 hectare Korowai-Torlesse Tussockland Park. This was a quantum leap forward in high country conservation. An hour’s drive from Christchurch, it includes beech forest, lower altitude shrubland and tall tussock. DOC immediately began weed control on the block and has developed walking tracks and bike trails. Every weekend people tramp, hunt and mountain bike here. Freed from cattle and sheep grazing, the park’s beech forest, red tussock and rare plants are now regenerating.

Further high country parks followed: Te Papanui in Otago and Taka Ra Haka/Eyre Mountains in Southland. Hakatere Conservation Park, established with strong support from surrounding farmers, protects the Ashburton Basin and Lake Heron wetlands. The Seaward Kaikoura Range became a conservation park in 2008 and Te Kahui Kaupeka Park on Canterbury’s Two Thumb Range was opened in April 2009.

The Ahuriri Conservation Park in the Mackenzie Country sweeps west from Tarnbrae’s red tussock wetlands to the upper Ahuriri valley. Walkers, mountain bikers and fishermen now rub shoulders here, while beyond the park’s boundaries the iconic Mackenzie tussock landscape is steadily being transformed into dairy farms.

Throughout the high country, tens of thousands of visitors now enjoy wild places that formerly were largely the preserve of sheep, cattle and a handful of people. New visitors have grown the high country economy and transformed towns such as Hanmer, Springfield, Lake Tekapo and Wanaka.

High country farming has also changed. Farmers are both guardians of their lands and aim to run a profitable business. But even for those of us who supply our finest merino wool to Icebreaker and the Italian fashion industry, the wool price has not kept pace with soaring high country land and farm input costs.

Diversification away from merinos into meat lamb production, dairying, deer and grapes has been essential for farming survival. This results in greater development of the lower altitude parts of the high country that in turn has put pressure on the remaining wetlands and valley floor tussock grasslands.

Many high country farmers have also diversified into tourism and recreation. The new high country parks encourage visitors to stay longer so that they make greater use of the tourism facilities provided by high country residents - including some farmers. Tenure review and the new parks have guaranteed open public walking access to many formerly inaccessible parts of the high country, and created many new walking and mountain bike trails and preserved historic sites.

The Government should embrace this change, but instead it is under pressure to turn back the clock. Some high country landowners are lobbying ministers to allow grazing of new high country conservation land and want to stifle further high country conservation initiatives.

To restrict public access and the creation of more conservation land, they argue that new conservation land is a tinderbox at risk of being set alight by recreational visitors. However, fire statistics show that most high country fires are caused by land managers, including farmers and foresters, and by transport services such as railways, and most occur on land that is already being grazed.

In the last 25 years I (and others) have championed a partnership that allows for both high country economic production and for nature protection. These two land uses are not mutually exclusive. The partnership between high country farmers and the rest of the community has been successful for many years. It is visible in the groups of volunteers who come into the high country each year to help control wilding pines. When high country fires break out, townspeople, DOC staff and high country people all work together.

In the same spirit of cooperation, high country farmers, nature lovers and recreational users have worked in close partnership towards a shared vision of benefit to all through the creation of high country conservation parks such as Hakatere. We urgently need greater cooperation like this between all those people that own, manage, visit, share and love this special part of New Zealand.

• Dr Gerry McSweeney is a member of Forest & Bird’s national executive, is a high country pastoral lease-holder and nature tourism operator