Waikato: from dairy capital to wetland capital of the world?

The Waikato was one of the original dairy farming regions of New Zealand, and its transformation from forested hills and swampy valleys to productive farmscapes was well underway by the late 19th century. So it would be ironic, but a satisfying example of the circular route environmental history often takes, if the region was one day to become known more for its wetlands than its “smiling farms”. However, if a proposal to site a national wetland centre in Waikato succeeds, then this may indeed eventuate.

Wetlands were once a widespread feature of the landscape within the lower Waikato Basin and Hauraki Plains, through which the Waikato, Waihou and Piako Rivers run. In pre-European times, the extensive swamps of the Waikato basin were an important resource base for Māori. Many pā (fortified settlements) were sited adjacent to the swamps or in the swamps themselves, utilising the swamp for its defensive effect – making palisades less necessary.

The region was one of the first to be “discovered” by Cook’s expedition in 1769, and judged as “in every respect the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a Colony” (see: The conquest of the “noble” forest of Waihou). However, it was not until the 1860s that the settlement of the region began in earnest, following the confiscation of large tracts of  Māori-owned land in western and central Waikato under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863. Large areas of forest were soon cleared for farms raising cattle and sheep, and root and grain crops. Then, with the advent of refrigerated shipping in 1882, Waikato became one of the most productive regions for dairy products. It was ideal country for dairy farms –  flat or rolling topography, with high rainfall and sunshine hours, and mild winter temperatures, allowing grass to grow most of the year. In the process of converting forested areas to farms, many swamps were drained on a large scale by commercial land companies in the 1800s, but drainage schemes continued into the 1900s. Today, only 20 percent of the original extent of wetlands in the region remain; two of these – Whangamarino and Kopuatai Peat Dome – are freshwater wetlands of international significance.

In some areas, however, drainage was incomplete, perhaps because the land was too marginal or difficult given the technology at the time. The Serpentine Peat Lakes (or Rotopiko) was one such area [click here to view location]. While these wetlands have been inexorably altered by surrounding land use, they nevertheless remain intact – if not in their original form. Evidence of attempted drainage and clearance can be seen in the stand of large kahikatea next to the peat lake; not tall enough to be original; they are likely to have regenerated decades ago from kahikatea swamp forest that was cleared but remained unsuitable for stock owing to its sogginess underfoot.

It is here that the National Wetland Trust aims to establish a national wetlands centre, with a visitors centre, a network of original and recreated wetlands, and interactive educational displays and resources for visitors (and especially children) to learn about, and experience first-hand, the diverse array of wetlands found in New Zealand. Cook would not necessarily approve, but ship’s botanist Joseph Banks would have surely taken at least an academic interest in the unique plants and other “curiosities” that wetlands have to offer.

For more information about the proposed centre see the National Wetland Trust website. Note that the Trust is currently seeking funding for the project.

See also: From “swamps” to “wetlands”; The conquest of the “noble” forest of Waihou

Photo top: An example of wetland drainage (though not in Waikato). Maori men digging a drainage ditch in the Kaitaia swamp. Photograph probably taken by Arthur James Northwood between circa 1910 and circa 1939. Not to be reproduced with permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID 1/1-010668-G. Above centre: Serpentine Lakes today. Lake Ngaroto in the background. Photo: Waipa District Council and John Greenwood. Above left: A view of the lake from a makeshift boardwalk. Above right: one of the interpretative signs at the site.

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