Extensive mountains, forest cover and lowland wetlands made Hauraki generally unsuitable for farming in its natural state. The draining of the Hauraki Plains after 1908 enabled great expansion in dairying.
Felling the kahikatea
Kahikatea stood supreme in the vast wetland covering the Hauraki Plains. Though unsuitable for construction, it was ideal for making butter boxes.
In 1869 the Hauraki Sawmilling Company established a mill at Tūrua on the Waihou River. It was at the forest’s edge and had a deep anchorage for ocean-going ships. Bagnall Bros bought the mill in 1877 and developed it into one of the largest in the country’s history.
Tramlines radiated from Tūrua and logs were floated down the Waihou River to the mill.
In 1913 Bagnalls began winding down their operation, the kahikatea of the plains now all but exhausted like the kauri of the peninsula.
Land drainage and river control
In the early 20th century the Crown took over many local drainage schemes because of the vast sums of money needed. A government officer envisaged ‘that vast plain covered with smiling homesteads instead of being inhabited by wild duck and such game’.1
The Crown’s Hauraki Plains drainage scheme had two dimensions: flood control of the Waihou River and draining of the swamps of the Hauraki Plains.
The Hauraki Plains Act 1908 and the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Act 1910 provided the necessary legal machinery.
The scheme was colossal in both scale and scope. Work included the building of:
- stopbanks along rivers and the foreshore
- Maukoro canal on the western margin
- a network of internal canals and drains
- pumping stations
- roads, bridges and wharves.
Strong hard-working men were needed for this work: Dalmatians drawn from the gum-digging fields, Australians based in camps at Tūrua and Ngātea, and local Māori who excelled at river clearance. There was much back-breaking manual work, often conducted under wet conditions, despite the extensive use of heavy machinery such as dredges.
As land was reclaimed, it was made available to settlers through ballot. In one of the largest and most successful land development schemes in the country, more than 15,000 hectares was distributed to 270 settlers between 1910 and 1914.
Improved transport and land consolidation saw farmers change from beef cattle to dairying. Each dairying district acquired its own small dairy factory. Dairying on the plains came in the nick of time to offset the downturn in the gold industry at Thames.
A cow’s warm breath
Historian A. M. Isdale wrote of Thames: ‘It lay sleeping, awaiting the magic kiss of a golden prince. It awoke to the warm breath of a cow licking its face.’2
Little did the farmers taking up 50-acre (20-hectare) blocks on the plains realise the struggles that lay ahead – fescue infestation of pasture and resulting stock losses, land turned rock-hard by summer drought and waterlogged by winter rains, endless demands on limited capital.
Dairying is king
In 2007 there were 180,000 dairy cows in Hauraki–Coromandel – about 20% of them on the peninsula and 80% on the plains. All other types of farming trailed far behind.
Although dairying has brought wealth to the region, cow effluent and fertiliser runoff pose threats to water quality if not carefully managed.