In the South Island, as European settlers arrived from the early 1840s on, burning played an important part in the establishment and expansion of large-scale sheep farming.
Opening up the country
At the time of European settlement, the open country of the South Island was in places ‘an impenetrable growth of tussocks, woody shrubs, and small trees’. 1 Faced with this tangle, exploring pastoralists (those who grazed sheep or cattle) burned it to make travel easier, and to open up the country for sheep. In March 1852 Edward Lee and Edward Jollie drove the first mob of sheep from Nelson to Canterbury. On reaching the area now known as Jollies Pass they were unable to push through the dense growth of matagouri and speargrass, so they set it alight. The fire burned for several days, forcing the men to sit tight until it died out.
Managing the land
Farmers continued to burn ‘run’ country (tracts of tussock grassland), for a number of reasons.
- Burning stopped native and exotic woody plants invading grasslands.
- Sheep stayed on certain parts of a run, leaving other parts to grow rank. Burning encouraged stock onto the less favoured parts, making greater use of the land.
- Burning rank (overgrown) pasture reduced the fire risk – if a neighbour’s fire got out of control, it would not sweep over the property and kill the sheep.
The writer and explorer Samuel Butler, who farmed Mesopotamia Station from 1860 to 1864, claimed that burning off the rank vegetation made for contented and healthy sheep – but emphasised that it should be done with care.
The land ablaze
It was not uncommon for tussock fires to get out of control and burn many acres of countryside, killing livestock and destroying farm buildings. One of the biggest tussock fires in Canterbury began accidentally on Cracroft Station in 1863. It spread 35 kilometres to the coast at Coldstream and 25 kilometres inland to the Rangitātā Gorge, where it burned for six weeks.
The art of tussock burning
L. R. C. Macfarlane, of Kaiwara Station in North Canterbury, thought that burning was necessary where giant tussocks smothered the plants that sheep fed on. He described the art of burning:
The secret in burning is to select a time when the spring of the year is just appearing, and sap is rising; then make sure, very sure, that the base, the heart of the tussock, is moist enough not to burn. Then if possible burn in the afternoon, when there is every chance of a heavy dew that night. Avoid nor’west weather, but seek a breeze as fire will then run across the land and do less intensive burning. The real art is to just scorch the tops and open out the land between the individual tussocks so that the other plants can see the sun and receive the life it gives. 2