When Europeans began arriving in the Canterbury region in the early 1800s, most of the swamp forest – dominated by matai, totara and kahikatea (white pine) – that covered much of the Canterbury Plains in previous centuries was gone. It is thought that it had been destroyed by a great fire that swept across the plains during the moa hunter period, leaving only a scattered bush remnants. Of these, the only that remains in the Christchurch area today is Deans Bush – or Pūtaringamotu to the Ngāi Tahu iwi (Ngāi Tūāhuriri) that lived in this area. Pūtaringamotu was a valuable source of food for the local people – with an abundance of birds, eels fish and freshwater crayfish. The name has two possible meanings:  ‘the place of an echo’, or ‘the severed ear’ – the latter referring to it being ‘bush isolated from the rest’. At the time of settlement, the only other substantial bush remnant was located at Papanui on the present day Sawyers Arms Road. That bush was milled by the settlers in the 1850s.

The bush remnant at Pūtaringamotu too may have suffered the same fate had it not been for a long-sighted Scottish family who became Christchurch’s first permanent settlers: brothers William and John Deans, and John’s wife, Jane. It is said that it was the attractiveness of the bush itself that drew William to the site in the first place: when he spotted it in 1842 after a lengthy search along the east coast of the South Island for suitable land. The Dean’s brothers established a substantial farm and sheep run around Pūtaringamotu even before securing ownership – instead they arranged to lease the land from the Maori owners. In 1848, the New Zealand Company and the New Zealand government bought an extensive area of land from Ngāi Tahu, encompassing what was to become Christchurch, and organised settlement began, ending the Deans’ isolation.

In 1848, Scots brothers John and William Deans signed an agreement with the New Zealand Company to protect what was originally about 22 hectares of the kahikatea forest at Pūtaringamotu. This was in keeping with the conservationist heritage of the Deans family, which was known for extensive tree-planting activities and reafforestation in Scotland.  Tragically, William Deans died only 3 years later in 1851, while his brother John, who had contracted tuberculosis, died 3 years later, at the age of 34. It is said that on his deathbed, John requested that every effort should be made to preserve the Bush from destruction, and the stewardship passed to his young wife Jane, who carried out this wish implicitly.

In 1914, the 6.4 hectares that remained of Deans Bush was formally protected, spearheaded by prominent citizens of Christchurch, including Harry Ell and botanist Dr. Leonard Cockayne. Since its formal protection, its management has varied in its effectiveness, with some of the management practices somewhat dubious by today’s standards; for instance, until 1974, grass clearing in the forest and the forest floor were mowed and any forest debris, such as dead trees or tree limbs, collected and burnt. Since then, more ecologically-informed management approaches have been adopted, including weed eradication, removal of introduced species and pest control. However, no amount of effort is likely to be able to resolve the issue that affects the health of most remnant wetland forests in New Zealand – the fact that these isolated patches are no longer in wetland environments, and therefore surviving in much drier conditions than is optimal for swamp forests. Nevertheless, Deans Bush is an ecological treasure in the heart of New Zealand’s second largest city – and it is only through good fortune and good foresight that it survives at all.

UPDATE (6 September 2010): In a sad epilogue to this story, the historic Deans Homestead at Homebush was damaged so badly in the September 4 earthquake (centred in nearby Darfield, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale), that it is likely to have to be demolished. Click here to see it in its pre-earthquake glory. Click here to see it as it precariously stands today. Deans Homestead should not be confused with Riccarton House, which still stands next to the Deans Bush, the subject of this story.

Related post: Were the Scottish really greener?

Photo top: Deans Bush/Pūtaringamotu from the sky. The sea can be seen in the background (Riccarton Bush Trust). Above left: John Dean, who died at the age of 34. Bottom right: Towering kahikatea in Deans Bush. The oldest kahikatea within Deans Bush are estimated to be 550 years old. (Photo: Stephen Tweedy. Click here for larger photo. Not to be reproduced without copyright owner’s permission).

Sources/further reading: Christchurch Changing – An illustrated history (1999), by Geoffrey W. Rice; Our Islands, Our Selves (2004), by David Young; Pūtaringamotu (Christchurch City Library) ; William Deans, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography ; History and management of Riccarton Bush, by Brian Molloy.