Much of the King Country was covered by conifer–broadleaf forests prior to European settlement in the late 19th century. Māori knew the area as Te Nehe-nehe-nui (the great forest).
The south-east was dominated by the tussock grasslands and alpine herbs of the Volcanic Plateau, with beech trees on the western and southern slopes of Mt Ruapehu. The volcanic landscape was afforded some protection when Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, gifted the Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro mountains to the nation in 1887.
Much of the forest was felled or burned by farmers and cut by sawmillers. Nonetheless, in the early 2000s the King Country still had a larger proportion of native vegetation than neighbouring regions such as Waikato.
In 1946 Pureora was one of the last native forests opened to logging. Three decades later, in 1978, conservation activists built and occupied platforms in the branches of some of the park’s massive tōtara trees in protest at the felling of native forests and the effect on native wildlife. The protest was successful gained media attention and achieved a temporary halt in logging. In 1982 logging in the forest ceased.
Protected forest parks and conservation areas flank the eastern, south-western and southern reaches of the King Country. The eastern boundary is largely covered by Pureora Forest Park. Podocarps such as rimu and tōtara grow in dense clusters on volcanic ash, which flattened the previous forest during the Taupō eruption around 200 CE. The deeper the ash, the denser the forest.
In the south of the region are the Tongariro and Whanganui national parks.
A chain of forests and conservation areas runs down the western side of the region. Whareorino Forest in the Hērangi Range is the largest. It contains a complete altitudinal sequence of plants, from hardwood trees to subalpine species. Small forest reserves are found throughout the interior of the region.
Pureora Forest is home to the rare North Island kōkako. Other rare native birds in the forest include the kārearea (falcon), kākāriki (parakeet) and whio (blue duck). Kererū (wood pigeons), tūī, fantails, pōpokotea (whiteheads), tauhou (waxeyes), kākā and North Island robins are more common.
Other native birds live in Whareorino Forest, including the riroriro (grey warbler), miromiro (tomtit), tītiti pounamu (rifleman) and koekoeā (long-tailed cuckoo).
Hochstetter’s frog and native bats are found in both forests. The critically endangered Archey’s frog inhabits damp spots in the higher areas of Whareorino Forest.
Wading birds, including the tōrea (oystercatcher), tuturiwhatu (dotterel) and bar-tailed godwit, live on the shores of Kāwhia Harbour. The west coast is the traditional habitat of the rare Māui’s dolphin. Glow-worms, the larvae of a fungus gnat, adorn the caves of the Waitomo district.
Sea-going no more
The west-coast fossils were mostly sea creatures. Ammonites and squid are common at Puti Point on the Kāwhia Harbour. The Mangapōhue Natural Bridge near Piripiri is full of giant oysters, sea urchins, barnacles and corals. The Kiritehere fossil bed contains mainly clams, though there are also lamp shells, small snails, ammonites and parts of larger sea creatures like the ichthyosaur (a dolphin-like reptile). In 2006 members of the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club found a giant penguin fossil in rocks at Te Waitere on the Kāwhia Harbour. The penguin is displayed in Waikato Museum.
The King Country’s west coast is rich in fossils because it is formed of sedimentary rocks. The first fossil ammonites (large prehistoric molluscs) discovered in New Zealand were found on the shores of Kāwhia Harbour by 19th-century geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter. In 1977 Jean Gyles noticed a giant ammonite shell in a road cutting at nearby Taharoa. Mineral deposits in the shell showed that the ammonite had died after it was covered by volcanic ash under water. The ammonite – at 1.42 metres in diameter, the biggest found in New Zealand – is displayed in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.
Fossils can be seen at Puti Point on the Kāwhia Harbour, the Mangapōhue Natural Bridge west of Waitomo and Kiritehere Beach on the west coast. The caves in the Waitomo district also contain fossils.
Plant and animal pests
Ragwort, gorse and blackberry were noted as pest plants in the 1930s. In the 2000s old man’s beard infested parts of the King Country. Other troublesome introduced pest plants in the region include variegated thistle at Āria, white bryony at Āria and Mōkauiti, Chilean flame creeper in northern areas, alligator weed and Californian bulrush near Taumarunui, and tutsan in the Ruapehu district.
Wilding pines, heather and broom are major pest plants around the Volcanic Plateau. Large herds of feral goats live in the Whareorino Forest and other forested areas in Ōtorohanga and Waitomo districts.