Taranaki consists in the main of the slopes of Mount Egmont and the undulating land that rings the extinct volcano and projects out to sea between the North and South Taranaki Bights on the western side of the North Island. The region at its greatest extent measures approximately 50 miles north-south and 50 miles east-west. Steeply dissected hill country, difficult of access, lies along the eastern boundary and, owing to the layout of the counties, which form the basic units for the collection of statistics, the statistical table includes some figures more relevant to the hill country. It is appropriate, however, because of the close affinities, to discuss the hill country as part of the King Country or Western Uplands. The counties of Taranaki, Inglewood, Egmont, and Waimate West are limited in extent to the plain; but Hawera and Eltham counties include the hill country in their eastern parts as does Stratford County, due to its incorporation of Whangamomona County which is wholly of the hill country. Figures for Whangamomona County are not shown separately having been included with Stratford County figures. In their coastal regions Clifton County, especially the part adjacent to Waitara, and Patea County continue the dairying country so typical of Taranaki. Both contain huge tracts of hill country in their backblocks. To aid exposition it has been decided to exclude Clifton County from the account and to include Patea County. Since neither county is sufficiently important to affect either the validity of the general account or the usefulness of the picture presented by the stauistics, the decision, while being disputable, remains unimportant. New Plymouth (urban area population, 1961, 32,387) is the principal town of the region, which, in 1961, registered a total population of 99,774 (4 per cent of the national total), some 7 per cent of whom were classified as Maoris.
Dominance of Mount Egmont
It is not surprising that Mount Egmont impresses itself upon the geography of the region or, for that matter, upon the popular imagination. It is, after all, a remarkable phenomenon, rising 7,000 ft above the surrounding landscape to a total height of 8,260 ft and revealing itself as a perfectly shaped cone when viewed from the southern quarter. The symmetry is disturbed by Fantham Peak (6,438 ft) when Egmont is viewed from the east and by the Kaitake (2,241 ft) and Pouakai (4,590 ft) Ranges when viewed from New Plymouth. The grip exerted upon the local imagination would never be so strong if the mountain failed to exert some marked influence on the economic life of the region. Realising this relationship, the subtle interplay of soil, climate, aspect, and economic life, the people of Taranaki have rightly chosen Mount Egmont as their emblem.
The lowland area, the most productive part of Taranaki, is floored by the ash deposits from Mount Egmont. They lie thickly above sedimentary rocks forming the basement of the whole region and appearing sharply in the eastern region as heavily dissected hill country. As one travels from Wanganui along the coast road, two changes in the physical landscape herald the approach to Taranaki. Broad “U”-shaped and flat-bottomed river valleys so characteristic of the Wanganui district are replaced by smaller and faster rivers and streams, their valleys more youthful in profile; whilst in the road cuttings layers of reddish ash overlie the yellow sedimentary rocks which are most conspicuous in the coastal cliffs.
A favourite halt for travellers is to the south of Stratford where, because the road rises in a hump above the railway line, one obtains a vantage point that brings most of the elements of the landscape into view. Above 4,800 ft the volcano lies bare of vegetation, except for some small alpine species, and it is clothed in snow during the winter months. Below 4,800 ft moor vegetation and tussock grass prevail with low bush and scrub at the lower limit. The upper limit of the bush line lies approximately at 3,300 ft above sea level, and from that altitude down to about 1,500 ft the mountain is covered with podocarp forest, the original vegetation of the whole lowland region. The lower limit of the bush line has been decided by the human occupation of the area, and it presents a ragged and broken landscape as suggestive of the original pioneer conditions as any other remote part of New Zealand. From this lowest limit the dairy pastures spread in an apron of greenery and fertility across what has been aptly termed the Ring Plain. This ends quite abruptly against low hills of outlying sedimentary rocks and the swamps, such as the Ngaere Swamp. A few miles further inland and eastwards, the road is confined within deep winding valleys of the dissected hill country.
Anyone acquainted with Taranaki would be dissatisfied with a description left at this point, for there are physiographic variations that distinguish one part of the region from another. In the southern and south-eastern sector, the Waimate Plains are an extensive area of level rolling country and constitute the most frequently photographed part of Taranaki. The northern and north-eastern parts of Taranaki are, however, less rolling and more dissected, the factor at work being the streams, which are forced to cut deeper owing to their shorter profiles. On the west between Okato and Opunake the remnants of an extensive lava and mud flow appear as a jumble of conical hills rising in some cases to a height of 40 ft and restricting the views. Nearer the foot of Egmont the landscape becomes chaotic, with the conical hills, half-burnt trunks and stumps of the original trees, patches of swamp, huge boulders of volcanic rock, strewn in an almighty disorder.
Mount Egmont itself exerts an orographic effect on the distribution of the rainfall, raising the total rainfall to 80 in. and above in the north-western parts and producing in the Hawera district a rain-shadow effect. At New Plymouth, therefore, the average annual rainfall reaches 60·16 in., but at Inglewood, only 10 miles away, it reaches 94·41 in. Near Hawera the average annual total rainfall is 42·39 in. Although the number of days with rain is high at New Plymouth (166), the hours of sunshine are considerable (2,110) and the temperatures range between a mean daily minimum of 43·3F in July and a mean daily maximum of 69·4F in January.
The farmers of Taranaki have taken advantage of these favourable environmental conditions and, with the adoption of certified seed mixtures and the utilisation of modern fertiliser practices, they have reduced to negligible proportions the period of the year when grass growth comes to a halt. In an attempt to mitigate the effects of the strong winds, the planting of barberry and boxthorn hedges has been widely undertaken since the 1920s, so that the region now appears as a series of small rectangular paddocks quilted by these hedges. Taranaki, in fact, has become celebrated for the use of these hedges, but, as ever, new technologies are rendering old achievements suspect. For with rotational grazing, the paddocks are recognised to be too small and the labour costs of trimming these hedges are becoming excessive.
A Cultural Landscape
The present landscape of Taranaki is largely a cultural one and the immense change wrought by the dairy farmers can be fully appreciated only by comparing photographs of different eras. Originally the region was bush covered, except for some notable areas of swamp and some areas of open and scrubby vegetation along the coastal strip and in the immediate vicinity of Hawera. The extension of cultivated land was a slow process which the disturbances associated with the Maori Wars did nothing to speed. By 1881, 40 years after the original date of settlement, the railway had extended from New Plymouth only as far as Midhirst, and New Plymouth, with 3,310 persons, was the only town with a population exceeding 1,000. All the other settlements, with the exception of Hawera (943) and Patea (834), had populations of less than 500. The area under cultivation amounted only to 124,391 acres. However, the expansion of the economy in the following decades is revealed by the 308,072 acres under cultivation by 1891 and the 738,171 acres under cultivation by 1901. More illustrative, because they apply to the lowlands rather than to the whole of Taranaki Province, are the numbers of dairy cows: in 1895 the figure was 49,450; in 1905, 123,066; and in 1921, 159,621. The photographs for these early decades call immediately to mind those of the shell-torn woodlands of the Western Front during the First World War. At the turn of the century the Taranaki landscape revealed four elements: leafless, branchless, half-burnt tree trunks left standing after the bush fires; at the foot of them the bric-a-brac of fallen branches and trunks over which the newly sown pastures were growing; already the landscape was carved up by wire fences; and within all this were the farm houses, the milking sheds, and the small villages which contained the butter or cheese factories.
Modern Dairy Farming
The last 40 years have seen the final transformation of the landscape, so that the barbary hedges, the conifer trees, the tar-sealed roads, the modernised milking sheds, and the milk tanker have become the important elements of the landscape. There are now some 258,000 dairy cows in milk and Taranaki accounts for 13 per cent of the total cows in milk. The region ranks highest in terms of average butterfat production per cow, 270–280 lb, a figure which has progressively improved in the post-war period from the 1945–46 level of 235 lb. The region accounts for approximately 16 per cent of the butterfat processed by all dairy factories. The importance of dairy farming in the pastoral economy of Taranaki is revealed by the high ratios obtained for dairy cows in milk per hundred sheep shorn, especially the figure of 218·71 for Waimate West County, and, unlike so many other areas, by the increase in dairy cattle numbers during the last decade. In association with dairy farming, the average size of holding tends to be low in comparison with other parts of New Zealand. Nevertheless, as the figures for sheep and lambs shorn reveal, this industry makes some contribution to the growth of Taranaki.
Inevitably the economic life of the region's towns is closely tied to the farming industry. The smaller ones, such as Stratford, Hawera, Opunake, Ingle-wood, and Eltham, together with the larger villages of Manaia, Kaponga, Okato, and Rahotu, act as servicing and retail centres for the surrounding communities; and significantly, with the exception of Hawera, they have displayed a relatively low rate of growth during the last decade. Waitara and Patea both contain large freezing works, but whilst Waitara grew by 42·96 per cent (1951–61) Patea's rate of growth, 18·04 per cent, was amongst the lowest. New Plymouth is the commercial, governmental, and educational centre for the region, the most important locality for manufacturing, and its port is the principal outlet for the area's exports – in 1960, 54,299 tons of cheese, 43,584 tons of frozen meat, and 13,068 tons of butter. The principal imports were also largely agricultural in purpose – 146,289 tons of manure, 91,671 tons of oil and petroleum products, and 22,198 tons of cement. In total the port, during 1960, handled 460,482 tons of cargo.
Statistics of the Taranaki Region
|New Plymouth City||5,238||16,653||21,747||29,368||515|
|County||Average Area of Holdings, 1960||Area Occupied, 1960|
|Cows in Milk|
|County||Cows in Milk||Dairy Cows in Milk per 100 Sheep Shorn|
A striking feature of the region's development is that since 1911, after a period in which there had been a considerable increase of population, with the exception of the quinquennium 1921–26, Taranaki has been a region of marked outward migration. In a large part this is attributable to a consistently high rate of natural increase and to the overwhelming pastoral nature of the economy (29.37 per cent of the labour force is engaged in primary industry) and the relatively weak development of manufacturing. As late as 1951 the total population of the region was almost equally divided between the urban and the rural sectors. Equally striking is the failure during the period 1953–61 for the rate of growth of the manufacturing labour force (6.4 per cent) to match the rate of growth of the total labour force (7.4 per cent), both rates being well below the equivalent national level. It is difficult in the face of these low rates of growth, and considering the region's heavy dependence upon dairy farming, not to feel concerned about the future of the region; especially regarding the future of dairy products which could be jeopardised if Britain were to enter the European Economic Community. The discovery of an exploitable natural-gas deposit at Kapuni in 1962 is an event of great significance, but how many of the benefits Taranaki may be able to direct towards a diversification of her own economy remains problematical.
by Samuel Harvey Franklin, B.COM.GEOG., M.A.(BIRMINGHAM), Senior Lecturer, Geography Department, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Annual Reports (1924–61), New Zealand Dairy Board
- New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, Vol. 96, Apr–Jun 1958, “Farming in New Zealand – Tara-naki”, Burgess, A. C.
- New Zealand Geographer, Vol. 117, Apr 1961, “Pioneering the Bushland of Lowland Taranaki – a Case Study”, Johnson, W. B.
- Ibid, Vol. 18, Oct 1962, “The Taranaki Gas Discoveries”, Wheeler, R. H.;Erdkunde, Vol. 26, Mar 1962, “Mount Egmont – Taranaki”, Schwein-furth, U.