Vanishing forests: pre-European transformation of the South Island

When we encounter the extensive tussocklands of the eastern South Island [see below right], it is hard to imagine any other landscape in that place – so much a part of the “natural” New Zealand landscape have they become. Yet, as explored in a previous post What is natural? The tussocklands of Lindis Pass, this is in fact a human-induced landscape; the tussocklands have replaced podocarp and beech forest [see left] that once covered the South Island. However, this occurred long before any written history was established, and this environmental history has had to be pieced together through painstaking paleoenvironmental research.

New ground-breaking research, undertaken by an team of both New Zealand and international scientists, has determined how, to what extent, and over what time-frame large tracts of South Island forest were destroyed. Continue reading

Forest clearance in 1880s New Zealand – the views of Mrs Robert Wilson

In 1962, A.G.S. Bradfield published “The Precious Years”, a sequel to his earlier book “Forgotten Days”; both books recounting stories of the “pioneering days of Palmerston North and Districts in the Manawatu”. These are charming little books, in which Bradfield draws on first-hand memories of older Manawatu residents, giving it an authenticity and poignancy that would not be achievable today, nearly half a century on. Continue reading

The history of a little fish – whitebait decline in New Zealand

The front-page article in yesterday’s Kapiti Observer, showing a photo of a local man peering glumly into the his near-empty whitebait net at the mouth of the Waikanae River, prompted me to think about whitebait decline and its historical causes.

But first of all, what are whitebait? Many New Zealanders (including myself, until embarrassingly recently) may vaguely assume that it is a type of small fish – but in fact it is the juvenile form of five species of the fish family Galaxiidae (the most common being inanga). Continue reading

Halting the great sand-drift: the “exoticisation” of our coast

Growing up in the Manawatu, I took for granted the largely homogeneous dune landscape of Himatangi, Foxton and other west-coast beaches – oblivious to the fact that this was a primarily man-made landscape. As Raewyn Peart explains in “Castles in the Sand”, the appearance of sand dunes have been extensively modified, firstly through deforestation, and then through intensive re-stabilisation efforts from the 1930s onwards. Continue reading

The abandonment of Palliser Bay – a prehistoric case of environmental degradation?

Archaeological evidence shows that Maori occupied the south-east coast of the North Island, including Palliser Bay, by the 14th century. Research in the 1970s by Foss and Helen Leach of Otago University showed that people lived in small settlements at stream and river mouths. The people were both gardeners and hunters and gatherers, reliant on what they could take from the forest, rivers, streams, coastal lagoons and the sea – the main sources of food were likely to have been small birds, fish, seals and kūmara (sweet potato). There is evidence of about 300 people in six separate communities on the eastern side of the Palliser Bay. Yet by the 1600s these settlements had gone. Continue reading

“This sacrifice will bring retribution” – deforestation and its consequences

The following excerpts about deforestation  in New Zealand are from the Evening Post, 29 March 1910. They are just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago.

“This sacrifice will bring retribution,” was a recent comment of The Times in relation to the shortsighted Australasian practice of “improving” forest land by wholesale destruction of the native woods. The process is so gradual that it does not impress as it should the resident who sees it year after year going on before his eyes; but there are those who can look back forty or fifty years and recall the aspect of wooded hills, vocal with the song of native birds, now waste and barren, scarred with landslips, not even affording pasture — an eyesore instead of a beauty… Continue reading

The ultimate paradox?

Children at Toko Primary School, Taranaki, planting trees on Arbor Day 1900. In the fields around them, the devastating effects of the milling and burning of forest that was occurring throughout the country can clearly be seen. [Photo not to be reproduced without the permission of Alexander Turnbull Library, ref 1/2-003378-F. Acknowledgments to David Young for sharing this poignant photo in Our Islands Our Selves.]

Forest degradation and bears

In New Zealand, deforestation has led to chronic erosion, loss of soil fertility and serious floods. However, in other countries, deforestation – or afforestation with plantation species – can lead to a quite different set of problems. Such as bears!

A recent Japan Times article, “Bearing the Brunt”, outlines the problem of increasing human-bear conflict in Japan. The primary author of envirohistory NZ, Catherine Knight, examined the human relationship with bears in Japan through history for her doctoral thesis, and is quoted in this article. She believes that degradation of the bears’ forest habitat is the key factor in the bears’ increasing tendency to encroach into human realms for food. Extreme weather, as a possible result of climate change, is likely to have exacerbated this problem, providing a potential explanation for the recent spikes in bear incidents.

Destruction of our forests over time

Prior to human colonisation, it is thought that the New Zealand landmass was almost entirely covered in forest, apart from alpine areas. Between the beginning of Polynesian settlement in New Zealand around the fourteenth century and the beginning of organised European colonisation in the nineteenth century, it is estimated that forest cover was reduced by about half, largely through fire. When the European settlement of New Zealand began in earnest in the 1840s, it is estimated that forest, or ‘bush’ in the vernacular, covered about two thirds of the North Island and about 25 to 30 per cent of the South Island. In the decades that followed, bush was destroyed through milling and fire to make way for settlements and farms. By 1900, forest cover had been reduced by half again, to about 25 per cent.

Figure (below): Forest cover AD 1000, 1840, 2001 (Source: Kiwi Conservation Club)

The Evils of Deforestation

“Evil” is a strong word – but when he wrote “The Evils of Deforestation” in 1909, J.P. Grossmann obviously felt strongly about the issue. He wrote: “Foremost among the inevitable effects of deforestation we must, therefore, rank floods and landslips.” He was not the first – nor the last – to express his concerns about deforestation in New Zealand. In 1877, Campbell Walker, the Conservator of State Forests had warned:

“I should view with very greatest anxiety any clearing of the hills which form the dividing range or back-bone of the island, and am convinced that it would be followed sooner or later, by the most disastrous results, both in the shape of deterioration of the climate, dangerous floods and drying up of sprints and sources of rivers.”

And in his book “New Zealand in Evolution” (1909), Scholefield states:

“In this period the denudation of the forest already had some detrimental effect on the climate here and there, and the severity of floods in the rivers was marked. With the hillsides and the upper reaches bare to the elements, the snow or rain-water passed off rapidly. The streams rose without the slightest warning, tearing down through gorges, eroding the banks, overflowing farms, and devastating the lower alluvial flats with silt and boulders. It was a very disastrous retribution for the recklessness of white man.

In this age of heightened environmental awareness, we tend to assume that our understanding of our impact on the environment has increased. These statements by our forebears a century or more ago show this is not the case – we would do well to take heed of their long-forgotten warnings…

[Photo: A late 19 century forest burn-off in Manawatu; Source: Palmerston North City Library]