Story: Natural environment

You’re never more than 130 km from the sea in New Zealand, which has up to 18,000 km of coastline. It’s also a land of mountains, lakes and rivers, native forests, and farmlands. Because the country was isolated for millions of years, unique native flora and fauna, such as flightless birds, have evolved. The variety, beauty and accessibility of these natural features are central to New Zealand’s identity, and attract millions of tourists every year.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: A blue duck

Story summary

All images & media in this story

A land of contrasts

The islands of New Zealand lie in the Pacific Ocean, south-east of Australia.

Although the land is narrow, there is plenty of variety – volcanoes and glaciers, beaches and forests, open plains. Running the length of the South Island is a mountain range called the Southern Alps. The North Island is mainly hill country, with Lake Taupō at its centre.


The coastal climate is mild to cool – it rarely gets very hot, but inland regions can be cold. Most places receive their fair share of sunny and cloudy days. Winds come mainly from the west and can be strong and gusty. There is generally plenty of rain, and everywhere rivers and streams twist to the sea.

The coast

Swimming in the seas around New Zealand are penguins and seals, whales and dolphins. Sand and pebble beaches, estuaries, peninsulas and fiords are features of the long and winding shoreline.

Bush, tussock and farmland

Dense native forests once covered the land, but most of it has been chopped down or burnt to make way for farmland, which covers almost half the country. Forest still covers much of the hills and mountains. High above the forests, tussock grasslands stretch out, dotted in spring and summer with bright alpine flowers such as mountain daisies and giant buttercups.


New Zealand has been isolated from other lands for millions of years. This allowed some animals and plants to develop into fascinating forms, such as giant land snails and flightless birds, including the famous kiwi. Birds, with their distinctive calls, are the most noticeable form of native wildlife. Most are unique to New Zealand.

These plants and animals evolved with few browsing animals to compete with, and no predatory mammals. The early Polynesian settlers killed the moa – a large flightless bird – and in the 19th century many other bird species were killed by rats, cats, stoats and other predators that came with the European settlers.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Natural environment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 February 2005