Burning New Zealand’s forests

Of all the photographs I have seen relating to New Zealand’s environmental history, this is one of the most powerful. It shows the beginnings of a bush burn off at Puketora Station on the East Coast of the North Island in the early 1900s. This fire destroyed the indigenous forest over 30,000 acres, to make way for farming (probably of sheep). The image’s power lies in the fact that it manages to give a sense of proximity, while at the same time demonstrating the sheer scale of these burn-offs. The vulnerability of the farmhouse in the foreground, on a clearing created by a previous bush burn, is palpable; the farmhouse and the all the farmer’s worldly possessions (including stock) would have been liable to incineration if the wind was to change direction at a critical time.

Because of its relative low cost and efficiency (when it went well), the burn off was a method favoured by settler farmers in the bush country all over the North Island – particularly in the south of the island. But it carried with it immense risks –  if a burn off went wrong, it could go terribly wrong, as was the case during the mid-1880s when thousands of acres of farmland, countless homes and buildings and stock were destroyed in Taranaki and the Hawkes’ Bay by fires that got out of control.

The destructive capacity of burn offs is evident in the rate of forest loss – some scholars claim that it ranks New Zealand highest in the world for rate of deforestation.

Photo: The beginning of a 30,000 acre fire at Pukatora Station, East Coast region, early 1900s. Frederick Ashby Hargreaves Collection (PAColl-3047). Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-032845; F

6 thoughts on “Burning New Zealand’s forests

  1. paulknight35 August 5, 2012 / 11:10 am

    Yes, indeed. A very powerful image but hard to accept the culture which could promote and justify such destruction.

    • Phil February 13, 2016 / 11:59 am

      Was the way over a hundred years ago.

  2. Alan August 5, 2012 / 8:58 pm

    It’s pretty disgusting really – when will we start to re-forest our lands in a committed way, and not with exotic monocultures?

  3. Jeff August 16, 2012 / 12:51 pm

    Here are some parts from a letter of my grandmother’s great grandfather in Hamama, Takaka dated 1 November 1893 where he writes to a long lost relative back home. He had 11 children. He was the first to drive over the Takaka hill.

    My little Estate is 110 acres my own freehold and all that is on it I have about 150 sheep 1 cow 2 horses pigs and poultry.

    As I reckon it is the greatest mistake for people to mortagage(sic) their property for the sake of doing things beyond their means. Hundreds are ruined by that in these Colonies I hold my own.

    No dread of workhouse here shall raise our anxious fears.
    But in our well earned home we’ll spend our latter years,

    Now for the weather we have had 21 months wet, wet, wet. It has put every one behind in their working operations we have not been able to burn the felled Bush what you would call the native forest. Black logs & lumber & tree stumps laying in the grass paddocks are wet and sodden we would all be glad with a spell of fine weather to burn up the lumber that is left after the first bush fires I have trunks of trees lying on my sheep run 4 to 5 feet diameter & 50 or 60 feet long these are the size of a good many of the trees we have to chop down their height is with their tops on will reach from 150 to 200 feet and the wood lying on the ground is in many places 12 feet thick and when you see from 50 to 100 acres on fire you can warm yourself without getting very close then we sow it down after the fire with English grasses which grow very quick this is how we have to get our sheep & cattle feed vegetables grows grand in new burnt bush land all among the logs, roots & stumps. We have had too much wet while you have it too dry before you get this letter we will have the sheep shorn and the wool on its way to the London Market it takes 6 or 7 months before we get our wool returns in cash. We send through the Agency of merchants in Nelson so that it gives no trouble it cost about 1½d per lb expenses. I will tell you now the accidents I have meet with. In July 1875 I was knocked over senseless in the bush while rolling logs the windlass chain broke I was picked up like a dead man it disorganized the digestive organs for 12 months I only stopped work a week that time. In 1876 the big bone was split in my left arm just above the wrist that was bad for some time in 1878 a peice(sic) of timber came over on my right leg it was 7 or 8 hundredweight I was on crutches then about 6 weeks from the crush. it was full 2 years before my leg got strong again. the next thing my right knee got a severe blow in the bush which crippled me a long time the same knee has been hit twice in the same place since then 12 months ago it was very bad it is alright now 2 years ago just now I had a very narrow escape of being drowned. I was crossing the river in half a flood. The mare I was riding at the time fell down in the middle of river & rolled over on me I don’t know how I got from under the mare but I was washed over a long fall for some distance down the river before I could get out of the heavy current that was running I managed to get out with a few bruises. had I have got frightened I must have drowned like many I have known drowned in the same way. In December 1891. My young horse got frightened by our dogs fighting close to him while Sidney and myself was putting him in the spring trap to go out for the day. In his fright he bolted. I was caught between the trap & the side wall of the trap-shed I got a severe crush through my chest & shoulders it give the Arterys(sic) a great shaking as it hurled me out of the shed and one wheel went over me Sidney thought I was killed on the spot until he saw I come(sic) to life again. You must need think I must be as hard as an iron pot. I have never ask the assistance of a doctor with all my rough ups & downs I can doctor myself by reading good books and get the very best known patent medicines. use common sense. With care & good nursing a docter(sic) is not much wanted. My motto is just this from Docters(sic) & Parsons & Law. Do all that you can. keep clear of their claw. The medicines I use Hollaways pills & Ointment. Mother Segiels Syrup & pills and other chemicals for illness in general for accidents. I use St Jacobs Oil Elliments Royal Embrocation. and a few other remedies. I had the middle finger torn half off one day among the logs Ellimans Embrocation cured it in about a week. I bought a new spring mattress last autumn it is wove steel wire made in New Zealand it is the most comfortable I ever slept on to rest on.

  4. Anonymous August 10, 2018 / 10:51 pm

    Very powerful image indeed! Any idea of the date or photographer?

    • envirohistorynz August 11, 2018 / 7:21 am

      Thank you for your comment – the information about the photograph is at the bottom of the post 🙂

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