Story: Farming and the environment

Page 2. Early changes

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Polynesian practices

Before Europeans arrived, Māori grew crops they had brought from Polynesia. However, due to New Zealand’s cooler climate, and different vegetation and soils, many could not flourish and some only survived in the warmer north. Māori also changed the landscape by burning large areas of forest, probably to make hunting easier.

Māori agriculture expanded rapidly after initial contact with Europeans, who provided new technologies, trading opportunities and crops. Māori rapidly incorporated the potato into their range of crops, as it was easier to grow and more productive than kūmara.

Transforming the landscape

In 1840 rainforests covered about half of New Zealand’s land area, and native tussock grassland covered most of the eastern hill and high country of the South Island. By 1930 about half of the forest area, and a large part of the tussocklands – totalling 39% of New Zealand’s land area – had been transformed into pastures. European settlers carried out this extraordinary conversion by:

  • clearing forest, mainly through burning
  • draining swamps and wetlands, removing most of the lowland forest in the process
  • burning hill and high country tussock grasslands.

Forest clearing

Clearing forest, whether by burning or felling trees, was expensive and time-consuming, and didn’t gain momentum until the 1850s. It was also slowed by Māori resistance, but accelerated in the 1870s after military intervention.

The first successful shipment of frozen meat and butter to London in 1882 made dairying and fat-lamb farming viable, adding economic incentives to clear land and grow pasture. By the early 1900s English ryegrass, white and red clover, and cocksfoot began to dominate the countryside.

Draining wetlands

Lowland swamps soon attracted settler attention. Assisted by the state, a remarkable 85% of wetlands were drained by the Second World War. This figure is high compared with countries such as the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, where about 60% have been drained.

Burning tussock

Fire was used to clear the tussock lands of the South Island for pasture, and farmers continued to burn regrowth, which also added nutrients to the soil. Pioneer botanists such as John Buchanan showed that the intricate ecosystems of high country areas had been radically changed by farming as early as the 1870s.

Soil fertility

The new pastures, and increased numbers of grazing animals, soon exhausted New Zealand’s limited soil fertility, so farmland required constant addition of fertilisers. Of these, superphosphate, which helped correct phosphate and sulphur deficiencies, was the most important. On hill country, it was not possible to add fertiliser to the soil until the advent of aerial topdressing in 1949.


To stop the spread of stock diseases, such as sheep scab (a small mite which ruined the fleece) and footrot, and to keep animals penned in, farmers criss-crossed the landscape with fences.

How to cite this page:

Julia Haggerty and Hugh Campbell, 'Farming and the environment - Early changes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2022)

Story by Julia Haggerty and Hugh Campbell, published 24 Nov 2008