The first flocks
The first sheep arrived in Marlborough in November 1846, when John Cooper and Nathaniel Morse brought a flock from Nelson into the upper Wairau valley, where they had taken up a run. In August 1847 Frederick Weld and Charles Clifford, having leased coastal land between Whitecliffs and Kēkerengū from Te Puaha of Ngāti Toa, shipped 3,000 merino sheep there from New South Wales.
Whale of a building
In the mid-19th century Kaikōura runholder George Fyffe worked in a shearing shed made out of whale bones. The walls were whale ribs and vertebrae, sunk in the sand floor. Bones from a nearby beach were sorted, and those of the same length were used to fence Fyffe’s sheep yard.
In the early 1850s stock-droving routes were identified which reached Canterbury via the upper Wairau valley. Over the next few years, despite many changes and considerable uncertainty about grazing rights, de-pasturing licences (which allowed farmers to graze their flocks in particular areas) and squatting regulations, runs were taken up through most of Marlborough. These were largely on grazing land south of the Wairau valley.
Runholders and smallholders
By the mid-1860s runholders had made use of de-pasturing licences and leasehold regulations to occupy almost every grazeable part of the province. A transient workforce of shepherds, musterers, shearers and cooks underpinned the enterprises. Where they could, runholders freeholded land to secure their occupancy.
Runholding was not so lucrative after the mid-1860s. The price of wool began to drop in 1866 and did not recover for a generation. Rabbits were released (for food and sport) in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and their populations quickly grew to plague proportions. Successive efforts to control them never lasted. The combination of falling prices, scab (a quickly spreading sheep affliction, caused by a mange mite) and rabbits rendered many runs worthless.
Running from rabbits
The Keenes were runholders at Swyncombe station, inland from Kaikōura. Still visible on the crest of the hill between the Waiau road and Swyncombe is a clump of blue gums said to have been planted on the day when rabbits were released in the area, around 1860. In 1882, a little more than 20 years later, rabbits had driven the Keenes from their land.
In the 1890s, when scab was controlled and wool prices recovered, demand for land and settlement meant that the extensive acreages of many large runs were divided into smaller properties. The leases on about 364,000 hectares of pastoral runs fell due in 1896. Between a quarter and a third of this land was made available for closer settlement between then and 1912. At the same time all or parts of the Blind River, Starborough, Richmond Brook, Flaxbourne, Ōmaka, Hillersden and Lynton Downs estates were acquired by the government.
Farming in the 20th century
In the 20th century large stations with a combination of leasehold and freehold ownership continued to dominate the back country. Soil erosion and rabbits were both problems. Around 1950, rabbiters were killing 100,000 rabbits a year on just one station; when aircraft dropped poison the kill rose to 300,000 per year.
The lessee surrendered the massive Molesworth run in 1938, but others further inland and to the west continued in business, as did Molesworth itself, under government management. In the northern hill country and through the Sounds however, much land was no longer grazed.
On the lowlands, most farms grew grains (barley and wheat), seeds (clover, lucerne and ryegrass), pulses (especially peas) and vegetables, and ran some livestock. Dairying was concentrated around Blenheim (providing milk for the town supply) and in the moister lowland areas, notably around Kaikōura and in northern valleys such as the Rai, Linkwater and Koromiko.
As late as 1970 there was little indication that these lowlands were about to be transformed, but vineyards were soon to be planted and a winemaking boom to be under way.