The wealth of Canterbury lies in the plains; the mountains and the foothills have the scenery, the romance, and the problems, for there the older extensive farming systems have persisted almost unchanged and in an environment which is marginal. The high country extends in a sweep of broken and steep country along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps from Otago through Canterbury to Nelson and Marlborough. The soils are thin and poor, often infertile, and usually unstable under excessive stocking and burning. Tussock grassland (Festuca and the grasses of the Danthonia genus predominating) is the principal vegetation below 5,000 ft and forms the basis for the extensive runs of 50,000 and more acres with their fine-wool Merino and half-bred flocks. Some of the land is freehold, but most of it is held under Crown lease, the lessees often owning the land in the immediate vicinity of the homesteads or near fords. A critical factor in the management and the stocking of the runs is the apportionment of the land between the high summer pastures and the important winter holding pastures, which are not covered by snow for long periods. Cropping is rare and is limited to small patches of valley bottom land; hence the farmer is overwhelmingly dependent upon pasture growth for his feed, and this he has sought to encourage by constant burning to produce fresh green shoots palatable to the sheep. The consequence has been invasion by less palatable species like scabweed, fennel, and thistle, and accelerated erosion; reaching extreme proportions in some areas, as, for example, at Mount Peel, the upper Rangitata, and the upper Ashburton areas.
The environmental problems of the high country have received much and often overdramatised publicity, whilst the institutional framework which has committed the runholders to a continuance of these harmful practices and made alternative systems impracticable has largely been ignored. Properly organised and financed research into the ecology of the region commenced only this decade, 40 years after A. H. Cockayne underlined the need to discover palatable grass species with which to regenerate the pastures, and 40 years after he had established trial blocks which later fell into disuse. The Soils Conservation and Rivers Control Act of 1941 gave the necessary legal framework for legislative action and, in the post-war period, the Tussock Grasslands Research Committee was established in 1952 and the Tussock Grasslands and Mountains Institute in 1960. An important contribution to maintaining production has been made by aerial topdressing and oversowing, so that in recent years the Land Settlement Board has acceded to many requests by the runholders to increase their stocking.
The power of the Land Board to intervene in the management of the runs stems from the legislation contained in the 1924 and 1948 Land Acts, the latter Act being the more important, for it abolished finally the auctioning of pastoral leases and extended the period of the lease from 21 to 33 years, granting the occupying leaseholder preference in renewing. Thus two of the most iniquitous features of high-country tenures were removed. From the period when the runs were first established, the practice of auctioning pastoral leases had led to inflated land prices, speculation, and the mining of the soil's fertility. Absentee ownership, and subletting, and the mortgaging of land acted as a further discouragement to good farming. Furthermore, the licensee has never been able upon quittance to claim from the Crown compensation for improvements. The most recent legislation has made no significant change in this respect. But the Marginal Lands Act has provided a welcome source of development finance and the Land Board is permitted to finance improvements which are considered necessary or justified. Nevertheless, throughout almost the whole of its history, the high country has been worked under the most disadvantageous of tenurial practices and with a minimum of scientific knowledge. The results are apparent in the landscape even to the undiscerning traveller.