Exotic pines, willows, poplars and cypresses are now common in rural New Zealand. However, if you fly over farmed hill country, much of it has the appearance of a giant golf-course – an expanse of rolling green dotted here and there with just a few trees.
Trees are more in evidence in the broad valleys and plains, with willows lining the banks of waterways, and pines, poplars and cypress forming tall shelterbelts that criss-cross the landscape.
In the early 20th century an Englishman who owned a hill country block near Te Kūiti decided to plant a large number of trees every year to beautify the property. One year planting was delayed and the farm manager sent a telegraph to England to advise that ‘[P]lanting would not be completed because of the onset of lambing’. Back came the reply: ‘Delay lambing!’
The first farmers to arrive on the treeless plains of Canterbury and Wairarapa quickly planted exotic trees for shelter around their homesteads and stockyards. Later they planted shelterbelts to protect their crops and fields.
In other parts of New Zealand, settlers were busy burning and cutting down native trees to clear land for pasture and settlements. However, they soon learned that shelter was needed to protect their crops and orchards once native forest was cleared.
Over the years there have been differing views among farmers about growing trees on their land.
Those in favour of trees on farms argue that they:
Other farmers consider the time and costs associated with planting and managing trees outweigh their benefits. They can make more money from raising stock on good pasture than they can from raising trees, and so are reluctant to sacrifice part of a field to a tree. Similarly, while it may be more profitable in the long term to convert poor-quality land to forestry, they are unwilling to risk the short-term profit from running stock on the land.
Radiata pine (Pinus radiata) is the most common tree planted on farmland. It gained popularity as a windbreak tree because it grows fast and can survive on a range of soil types. Its useful life as a shelterbelt tree is around 50 years.
The timber qualities of radiata pine (formerly known as insignis pine) were not appreciated in the first decades of settlement. J. Baber wrote in 1886: ‘[T]he Insignis, so much planted for its beauty and quick growth is useless, save for firewood.’ 1
If left untended, old radiata develop into 50-metre-tall, multi-branched giants, and can be hazardous to stock and farm property during storms.
Radiata pine is the most popular tree in farm forests in New Zealand. Farm forestry spans a continuum of land uses, including:
Although some farmers had grown woodlots of radiata pine since the 1860s, it was not until the 1960s, following the formation of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association, that radiata was seriously promoted as a timber crop for farmers. Through the 1960s and 1970s members of the association investigated combining pine forestry with their farming operations. Well-managed plantations proved economic on marginal hill country land.
There was significant planting of pines on steep hill country farmland in the early 1990s, but this planting boom was short-lived as log prices dropped soon after.
In the early 2000s farmers responded to the dramatic increase in dairy product prices by converting forestry blocks on gently sloping land to dairy pasture. By 2007, thousands of hectares of radiata farm forest in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Southland and Canterbury were back in pasture.
Agroforestry became popular in the 1970s. In theory, growing a tree crop on land that is also grazed by stock seems to be an efficient way to use land. In practice, agroforestry with radiata pine proved uneconomic. To make sure there is enough good-quality pasture for stock, agroforestry sites need to be moderately fertile and trees need to be widely spaced. Under these conditions radiata pine grows fast, but not tall. Its timber is of a lower density than plantation-grown radiata, and therefore is worth less.
Radiata pine has been the preferred species planted on steep eroding hill country.
Large spreading macrocarpas (Cupressus macrocarpa) are a common sight in rural New Zealand, usually growing alongside homesteads and farm buildings. Macrocarpa (also known as Monterey cypress) was brought to New Zealand in the 1860s, and planted for shelter.
It grew well throughout lowland New Zealand on fertile and moderately fertile sites. However, since the 1970s new plantings have been attacked by cypress canker – a devastating fungal disease.
Macrocarpa is more tolerant of wind and salt spray than radiata pine, and was the preferred shelter tree for coastal farms.
It has spreading branches with dense foliage, so stock can shelter and remain dry under a macrocarpa hedge. For this reason one or more macrocarpa were often planted near shearing sheds.
Macrocarpa is toxic to pregnant cows and they can abort after browsing its foliage.
Macrocarpa is highly sought after as a decorative and building timber. It is durable outdoors and can be used without any preservative treatment.
Most macrocarpa timber in New Zealand has come from old, untended woodlots and shelterbelts. Some plantations were established by farm foresters during the 1970s and 1980s, but, as trees succumbed to canker, the species has fallen out of favour with growers.
There are about 18 species of cypress in New Zealand. Mexican or lusitanica cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) is fairly resistant to cypress canker and is now the preferred cypress for plantation forestry. Hybrid cypresses show some resistance too, and Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii) – a hybrid between macrocarpa and Chamaecyparis nookatensis – is also grown in farm forests.
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is the second-most common plantation tree in New Zealand. Its timber is highly regarded for building and construction work. A very hardy tree, it is the preferred species for farm forestry in the foothills of the Southern Alps and upland Southland – regions that are too cold for radiata pine.
Douglas firs are massive trees, growing to a height of 50 metres in sheltered fertile sites, although they can take 80–100 years to reach this height. Douglas fir forestry involves a long-term commitment as the tree is grown on a 50–60 year rotation, twice that of radiata pine.
Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) is a fast-growing, slender conifer, which is sometimes used for shelter, especially in northern New Zealand.
Poplars were first grown in New Zealand in the 1830s. They were brought in as ornamental trees and for shelter. Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), eastern cottonwood (P. deltoides) and silver poplar (P. alba) were among the early introductions. Lombardy poplar, with its column-like form, was especially favoured – it was often planted to mark boundaries and river fords as it could be seen from a distance.
In the 1930s the New Zealand Forest Service imported more poplar species to investigate their timber potential.
During the latter half of the 19th century, Lombardy poplars were often planted near central North Island Māori villages (pā) associated with the prophet Te Kooti. In about 1880 he planted a poplar stem at Tamatea pā to symbolise his life taking a new pathway – away from war and towards peace. Members of the Ringatū church, which he founded, likened the upright branches of this poplar to the uplifted hand – the central symbol of their faith.
From the 1950s onwards, poplars, along with willows, were increasingly used to stabilise slopes in the central North Island. They are fast growing on moist, fertile sites, and are easily grown from stem cuttings. Trees are planted at wide spacings (25–150 stems per hectare), so pasture can continue growing between them.
Between 1950 and the late 1970s soil conservation scientists imported about 200 poplar varieties from Europe, America and Asia for research and breeding. This research stock proved invaluable in the mid-1970s, when two virulent poplar rusts devastated mature stands of poplar throughout the country. Resistant strains, selected from plants held at the Soil Conservation Centre in Aokautere, near Palmerston North, were distributed through the country to replace diseased poplars. The poplars that now grace erosion-prone hillsides are most likely to be hybrid clones of various parentages or the Chinese poplar (P opulus yunnanensis).
Willows were also an early import. Weeping willow (Salix babylonica) cuttings, reputed to be from alongside Napoleon’s grave on St Helena, were planted at Akaroa in 1839. Other early introductions included S. fragilis, S.alba, S. cinerea and S. viminalis.
Willows have been extensively used for river control, and crack willow was the main species used for nearly 100 years. At first, little attention was given to the problems that could occur as the willows grew. Branches readily break off in storms and floods and float downstream. If they take root on sandbars and banks they can soon choke the waterway. When willow growth becomes too dense in river channels, it needs to be cleared to prevent flooding.
There are a few willow clones that do not have brittle branches, and are more suitable for stabilising river and stream banks. Willow hybrids and hybrid poplars are used for river control work, as well as for soil conservation on hill slopes.
Selected poplars and willows are also used for fast-growing shelter belts, especially around orchards and market gardens. The main species used are Salix matsudana and its alba hybrid, and black poplar (P. nigra) hybrids are also common.
Willows and poplar foliage can provide nutritional fodder for stock during droughts.
Gums have been grown in New Zealand since the mid-1880s. There are about 160 species in New Zealand, but only a few have shown real promise as timber trees suitable for farm woodlots.
Many early plantings of gums in New Zealand were on unsuitable soils or in districts that were too windy or cold for them – most of the gums planted in Canterbury by the first settlers died during the cold winters of 1886 and 1899. Some gums have proved particularly vulnerable to attack from both native and introduced insects, and farm foresters have become wary of investing too much effort in these trees.
Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna) was widely planted in the upper North Island during the 1970s. It grows up to 50 metres tall. Mountain ash (E. regnans) – one of the tallest trees in the world – was planted in cooler areas around the central North Island in the 1970s and 1980s. Alpine ash (E. delegatensis) is also grown in cold districts. Its timber is suitable for joinery and construction work, but much of it is chipped and sold to Japan for making paper.
Since the late 1990s brown barrel (E. fastigiata) has been the preferred gum species, as it has been least attacked by pests and is tolerant of cold conditions.
Various tree wattles (Acacia species) are grown in New Zealand. On farms, most were originally planted for firewood or quick-growing shelter.
Black wattle (A. mearnsii) was originally introduced for the tannin its bark produces. However, it was attacked by a fungus that causes brown galls to develop on its branches and it became uneconomic to grow for the tanning industry. Black wattle seeds survive in the soil for more than 50 years, and in parts of the northern North Island it has become a weed as it regularly germinates following soil disturbance.
Blackwood (A. melanoxylon) produces one of the finest woods for cabinet and furniture making, and is increasingly planted in farm woodlots. It needs shelter from strong winds and year-round moisture. It is suitable for planting in gullies and beside streams, and can be planted in light scrub.
Gums and wattles are also used for soil conservation on unstable east coast hills, where summer droughts make poplars or willows unsuitable.
‘New Zealand farms are, in general, so bereft of ornamental trees that it could be suitable to start by planting as much as possible for as long as possible,’ 1 wrote George Stockley in 1973, lamenting the bleak landscape in much of rural New Zealand. Although few farmers plant trees all over their property solely for aesthetic reasons, most have a few ornamental trees around their homesteads and farm entrances.
The early settlers brought northern hemisphere trees with them to enhance their surroundings and remind them of their homelands. They particularly planted broadleaved deciduous trees such as oaks, elms, birches, poplars and willows for their autumn and spring displays of foliage. These trees were in contrast to the evergreen appearance of the native forests or the tawny tussock. Deciduous plantings around the lakes and townships of Central Otago are well-known, as their intense leaf colours in autumn are a photographer’s delight.
English oaks (Quercus robur) were first planted in the 1820s in the Bay of Islands, and have been grown throughout the country. They thrive in fertile soils with year-round moisture, but do not grow well in windy environments. Although occasionally grown as shade trees in paddocks, they are more commonly planted along farm driveways.
Trees feature strongly on the small rural holdings that have sprung up on the edges of towns and cities since the 1980s. Known as lifestyle blocks, these properties are owned by people who do not derive their main income from farm activities. Many grow timber trees, or various types of tree crop such as walnuts, chestnuts, hazels, figs or olives, to supplement their income. Others have been active in protecting and restoring stands of native vegetation on their block.
Some of the country’s largest collections of trees are found on farms. The standout collection is at Eastwoodhill, Ngatapa, north-east of Gisborne. It contains the largest collection of northern hemisphere trees in the southern hemisphere, and was started in 1918 by Douglas Cook – a farmer more interested in growing trees than raising sheep. The 150 hectares of tree plantings are now managed by a charitable trust. New Zealand’s largest collection of oak species is nearby at Hackfall’s arboretum, on a sheep station at Tinorito.
Over 300 conifer species grow on the steep hillsides near Rangiwāhia, north of Palmerston North. Planted by farmer Ian McKean, the collection has been covenanted to the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust. Another collection of over 300 types of conifers is found in the Harry Hart Arboretum on the slopes above Lake Coleridge, in the Canterbury high country.
Jolendale Park Woodland arboretum on the outskirts of Alexandra, Central Otago, showcases tree species that are adapted to semi-arid conditions.
For much of the 20th century there was a widespread assumption in New Zealand farming circles that agriculture and native plants do not mix. In part, this assumption stemmed from times when farmers needed to clear native forest to develop their farms, and from the belief that native trees grew too slowly to be of value.
Some farmers protected stands of native trees on their land by fencing them off from stock, but for most farmers fencing was too expensive and stock had access into the native vegetation. Over time, unprotected stands of native trees succumb to wind damage and animal browsing, and die off. Islands of dying forests surrounded by a sea of grass were common sights throughout New Zealand for most of the 20th century.
Cabbage trees are hardy survivors and one of the few native trees that can resprout after fires and browsing by animals. It was common to see one or more cabbage trees standing in a paddock of sheep or cattle. In the 1980s many rural cabbage trees began to die – at first only those near Auckland, but within 10 years trees all over the North Island and the top of the South Island were affected. They were victims of deadly bacteria carried by a sap-sucking insect.
In the 1970s and 1980s, following recognition that much of New Zealand’s biodiversity was being lost from its lowlands, farmers and conservations began to recommend protection for remnant stands of forest on farmland. In 1977 the government set up the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, which protects natural and cultural features on private land through binding agreements with landowners. By 2008 there were 3,388 covenants covering a total of 105,282 hectares. The majority of covenanted land (85%) contains native trees – usually in a forest remnant or a stand of regenerating growth, but sometimes isolated trees in a dryland habitat.
Since the 1970s many hill country farmers have planted trees to control erosion, and have profited from having well-managed woodlots or forestry blocks on some of their land. Their successes have encouraged neighbouring farmers to adopt similar practices.
With the removal of government subsidies to farmers in the 1980s, many gave up developing the steeper and less-productive areas of their farm. Some discovered they could manage their stock better and reduce their overall costs by fencing off steep land and letting it revert to bush.
The majority of farms have waterways within or at the boundaries of their properties. Since the 1990s regional councils have encouraged farmers to prevent stock from damaging the banks of waterways and polluting streams with effluent. They recommend fencing off waterways and planting the margins to a width of 5 metres or more with trees and shrubs.
Willows or poplars along waterways can cause problems because they grow into large, unwieldy trees that become expensive to maintain and remove. Native trees and shrubs provide more manageable alternatives, especially alongside farm creeks and ponds. Flax, cabbage trees and native shrubs are initially planted to provide a quick cover, then slower-growing trees such as kahikatea and ribbonwood are introduced to provide long-term protection for the waterway.
Bell, Don C. Trees for New Zealand town and country. Auckland: David Bateman, 2001.
Charlton, J. F. L., ed. Using trees on farms. Wellington: New Zealand Grassland Association, 2003.
Dodd, Mike, and Helen Ritchie, eds. Farming with native trees: a guide for farmers from Northland to Waikato. Rotorua: Ensis, 2007.
Mortimer, John, and Bunny Mortimer. Trees for the New Zealand countryside: a planter’s guide. Wellington: Butterworths, 1987.
Stockley, George. Trees, farms and the New Zealand landscape. Dipton: Northern Southland Farm Forestry Association, 1973.