Died in the wool, John Horrocks

Making Sheep Country: Mt Peel Station and the Transformation of the Tussock Lands
Robert Peden
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869404857


The early pastoralists of the South Island, with their huge, remote holdings, their substantial homesteads, and their apparent wealth, seemed a class apart. This impression of their domains survived long after most of the great stations had been broken up. Ngaio Marsh, a friend of the Acland family at Mt Peel, made her own contribution to this mystique by her portrayal of a similar high country run, the Mount Moon of her 1945 novel Died in the Wool. The isolated property was a fitting substitute for the enclosed settings of the typical murder mystery, such as the parsonage or the country house. When Marsh’s Detective Inspector Alleyn approached the station across a plateau, he saw the tussock covering the foothills as far as the snow. It was like entering a new world. The air itself was so clear that it seemed that it had been “newly poured out of the blue chalice of the sky”. This perfect world had, regrettably, been marred by the discovery of a body pressed in a bale of wool.

Alleyn was an outsider, an Englishman, conveniently trapped for fictional purposes in New Zealand by the war. The men who actually developed the sheep runs in the mid-19th century were usually less focused on the scenery and more concerned with the land’s potential for carrying stock. As Samuel Butler found when he arrived in Lyttelton in 1860, the all-engrossing topics of conversation were “sheep, horses, dogs, cattle, English grasses, paddocks, bush, and so forth”. The plains themselves were often described as monotonous and were difficult to cross even on horseback. The tall tussock was likely to be interspersed with woody plants, bush lawyer, and large thorny bushes of matagouri. Some of the country, however, provoked responses like Alleyn’s. Colonel Alexander Lean, for instance, admired the romantic beauty and the mountain air of the area around the Rakaia Gorge and subsequently bought the runs of the existing leaseholder. For the most part, however, the concerns of the pastoralists were matters like finance, scab, rabbits, burn-offs, the establishment of new pasture, the price of wool, and the choice of sheep breeds that suited their particular country.

Having left Cambridge only a year earlier, Butler acquired 8000 acres up the Rangitata River. He lasted there long enough, beside the foothills of the Southern Alps, to have a piano brought from Christchurch and built a small stone cottage, some remnants of which can still be seen. Apart from providing inspiration for his novel Erewhon, the run, which he called Mesopotamia, was able to be sold for £4000 when he returned to England four years later. This represented a doubling of his capital. Not all settlers, however, were set on making a quick profit and returning to England. Further down the valley was Mt Peel station, which has remained in the hands of the Acland family since 1856, when John Barton Acland, like Butler, an Oxbridge graduate with a small sum of capital, first took up the property. Robert Peden, in Making Sheep Country, describes many of the pioneering runholders but, by returning throughout to the history of this particular station, he skilfully holds together a complex story of leases, land development, market collapses, and the recurrent search for money to keep operations going. He also questions some of the mythologies about the environmental impact of these runs, such as the effects of overstocking and the introduction of rabbits.

Peden is unusually well-qualified to write about the transformation of the tussock lands, having spent 25 years shepherding and managing sheep stations in the South Island. As a result, he has a feel for the physical achievements of the early runholders, as well as the periods of despair they experienced after storms, collapses in the wool market, and the plagues of rabbits. Even Acland, who had arrived in the country with capital and used it to buy a well-balanced property, was heavily in debt when he died in 1904. His position was never as secure as that of the great landowner, “Ready-Money” Robinson, who was able to buy 40,000 acres in North Canterbury with the proceeds of a successful career in Australia. After Robinson’s death, the Government bought his Cheviot estate in 1893, by which time it had grown to 84,000 acres. This was the most significant initial step in Liberal politician James McKenzie’s move to break up the largest landholdings by a repurchase programme. By 1894, no fewer than 178 families had been settled on this one property. Mt Peel, on the other hand, has remained in the possession of the Aclands, though its future was doubtful at times. One early crisis followed losses from heavy snows and flooding, compounded by the fall in wool prices in the late 1860s. Acland was saved on this occasion by a loan of £21,000 from relatives in England. Among those not so lucky were Lady Barker and her husband Frederick Broome, who were ruined by the snows of 1867.

Making Sheep Country is a handsome production from Auckland University Press, illustrated with historic photographs and paintings. It grew from a highly regarded PhD thesis at Otago University, and the research that supports Peden’s arguments marks it out from the typical narratives about the early runs. Perhaps the most serious accusation against the early runholders was that they overstocked their properties and sheep numbers eventually declined as the result of lowered soil fertility and the loss of vegetation. This was too simple a picture, based on sheep numbers alone rather than on other indices, such as improved wool weight per head, lambing percentages, and improvement in sheep breeds. Mt Peel, for example, was less affected by the curse of rabbits because of its elevation and wetter climate. It was able to make productivity gains while still maintaining a consistent flock number of around 40,000 between 1875 and 1910.

Damage from indiscriminate burning of the tall tussock was another criticism and probably the worst-founded. Peden attacks the view that pastoralists were pyromaniacs, “addicted to arson” as historian James Belich put it. The supposed effects of burning, such as soil loss and the creation of shingle slopes in the higher country, are not well supported by historical photographs of the landscape, which in some cases date back as far as 1882. There are many instances in which previous opinions about the effects of burning have become accepted as evidence, whereas it appears to have been a relatively selective management practice.

The farmers did more damage with the introduction of rabbits, which permanently lowered the productivity of the drier stony areas that suited them. Plants were also destructive. Within a few years of their introduction, gorse, broom and sweet briar came to be regarded as pests, rather than alternatives to labour-intensive fencing options such as walls of sods or wide ditches and walls made from the spoil.

Despite these setbacks, Peden thinks that the pioneers of the tussock lands deserve to be seen as improvers. Like Acland, many had the courage to continue to develop their properties even in difficult times. Well-informed about changes in agricultural practice in England, they also applied energy and ingenuity to dealing with local problems. From 1882, it was possible to send frozen meat to Europe, and the gruesome practice of rendering down millions of surplus sheep into fertiliser was largely replaced by the possibility of export. This required, in its turn, the development of new crossbreds rather than the merinos that had been the mainstay of the wool trade. At the same time, the better land was used for crops for fattening stock or turned into permanent pasture, while vast drainage schemes turned swamplands into highly productive land.

In the 1870s, there was a mania to get more and more land, culminating in an inevitable crash at the end of the decade, when New Zealand entered a long period of economic stagnation. The greatest transformation of South Island agriculture since the farming of the tussock lands, the dairy conversions of the past 20 years, may yet recapitulate the same issues that Peden details so well – the speculation, the rush to modify the environment, the political power of the new farming elite, and the uncertainty that all farmers never resolve – the behaviour of the market.


John Horrocks is a Wellington poet and former sheep farmer.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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