From forest to pasture
Before humans arrived, the Taranaki region was one of the most densely forested areas of New Zealand. Over several hundred years Māori partially cleared the bush for several kilometres inland from the coast, and in tiny areas further inland.
The arrival of Pākehā settlers in the 1840s began the near-complete devastation of Taranaki’s ring-plain forests, and of much of the inland hill-country bush. The land east of the mountain was cleared for farming in the 1870s and 1880s, after the Taranaki wars. Clearfelling was followed by summer burning, which sometimes flared into huge bushfires and devastated the fledgling dairy farms.
Barberry and boxthorn
Hedges on the region’s dairy farms are usually either boxthorn or barberry. Boxthorn is used in coastal and south Taranaki where hedges are exposed to salt-laden winds. Barberry hedges predominate in wetter areas on the slopes of the mountain. Unless trimmed, both species can grow to an immense size. This problem spawned a bizarre assortment of home-made mechanical hedgecutters – including customised tanks and tractors – from the 1950s on. Boxthorn has been declared a pest plant that cannot be propagated, sold or planted.
In the 2010s only 30% of the former forests remained – most had been replaced by pasture. Dairy cows were the most common large mammal, and introduced blackbirds, house sparrows and starlings were the most abundant birds.
Like much of New Zealand, Taranaki has battled with introduced plants that have become pests. Farmers have fought gorse, Californian thistles, giant buttercup, foxgloves and many other weeds that invade pasture. Native mānuka and carpet fern also quickly reclaim hill-country pasture if not controlled.
Wild goats, pigs, mustelids (weasels and stoats), possums and rats have damaged the bush and harmed native animals – although the high rainfall has stopped rabbits becoming major pests in the region.
Taranaki’s fertile soil was a boon to early Pākehā settlers, as this letter suggests: ‘[W]e have had almost every vegetable you can name. We have peas now, though nearly mid-winter. Beans here grow for seven or eight years without being replanted. Some melon and cucumber seed I brought has produced beautiful fruit. I have grown vegetable marrows, from William Bayly’s seed, 2 feet 6 inches [76 centimetres] long, and I have one now in the garden, 27 inches [70 centimetres] in circumference. We have had “enormous radishes,” “stupendous carrots,” and all sorts of vegetable wonders.’1
In the 2010s the Taranaki Regional Council was responsible for many aspects of local environmental issues, and ran programmes for possum control, riparian (riverside) revegetation and dairy effluent cleanup.
The garden of New Zealand
The Taranaki ring plain has some of the deepest and most fertile soils in the world. These yellow-brown loams produce excellent horticultural crops and support a highly efficient dairy industry. With its combination of year-round rainfall, mild temperatures, plentiful water and fertile soil, the area was dubbed ‘the garden of New Zealand’ as early as 1840.
In the 2010s Taranaki was still known for its gardens. The Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, Pukekura Park, Tūpare, Hollard Gardens and many private homes were open to the public during the annual Taranaki Rhododendron Festival and the Fringe Garden Festival.
Plants for the world
One of New Zealand’s oldest and best-known horticultural firms is Duncan and Davies, outside New Plymouth. In 1910, 23-year-old Victor Davies and James Duncan formed the partnership. After the First World War the firm expanded, and by the 1970s ‘D & D’s’ had 170 employees working on 100 hectares, producing 2.5 million plants annually. The firm propagated many rare native species, which they sent to botanical gardens in Britain and Europe, and exported to markets around the world. It was still in business in 2019.
Marine protected areas
In 1991 the Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Protected Area was created around the islands adjoining Port Taranaki. Although nets and set lines are prohibited, recreational and some commercial fishing is permitted. The islands are home to one of the northernmost breeding colonies of the New Zealand fur seal.
There are two marine reserves, where all fishing is prohibited: Parininihi (2006), offshore from the White Cliffs north of Pukearuhe, and Tapuae (2008), off the Ōmatā coast. The West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary runs from Maunganui Bluff to Ōakura beach, south-west of New Plymouth.
In the 1980s illnesses among residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutū, near the agricultural chemicals firm of Ivon Watkins Dow (now Corteva Agroscience), received publicity. Decades of investigation suggested that many residents had been exposed to high concentrations of dioxin, a by-product of manufacturing the herbicide 2,4,5-T. Although the plant ceased making 2,4,5-T in 1987, neighbours were still raising concerns about further emissions in the early 2000s. However, some people argued that the exposure to dioxin was limited and not harmful.
A plan to discharge industrial waste to the sea from the synthetic petrol plant Synfuel (later Methanex) near Waitara was opposed by Te Āti Awa. In 1981 the tribe took a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal over the proposed discharge. The tribunal recommended that the waste should be piped to the existing Waitara outfall, preventing pollution of traditional kai moana (seafood) reefs along the coast.
Despite opposition from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, the iwi continued their battle and were eventually rewarded with wide-ranging changes to regional planning laws concerning pollution and waste disposal.