Before humans arrived, Wairarapa was largely covered in conifer–broadleaf and beech forest. By the time Europeans came, burnoff by Māori and natural fires had left large areas of grass, fern, and scrubland in the south and east. The Tararua Range and the north were still heavily forested. As farming began, most of the lowlands and eastern uplands were cleared of native grasses and re-sown in exotic varieties or given over to horticulture.
The Tararua Range was largely unaffected, and became New Zealand’s first Forest Park (conservation area) in 1954. On the Wairarapa side, there are three main types of vegetation: alpine tussock and scrub, subalpine silver beech forest, and lowland conifer–broadleaf forest.
Wall of flames
Many birds fell victim to the bush-clearing fires:
‘Nor did the birds escape … in the newly felled areas, wekas abounded and loved to hunt among the logs and stumps, some pukekos and ducks were always to be found in the creeks and swampy places while fantails, parakeets, warblers, tomtits and owls all wandered in. As the bush was ring fired around its outer edges, all these unfortunates were trapped inside a complete and mounting wall of smoke and flames too high for them to surmount … few escaped.’ 1
Clearing the Forty Mile Bush
The Forty Mile Bush extended from Kopuaranga to Woodville (being the southern part of the Seventy Mile Bush, which reached Norsewood). It was a conifer–broadleaf forest where the largest trees were tōtara, rimu, rātā and mataī, growing through an understorey of tawa, hīnau, makomako, kōnini, poroporo, kōwhai and lancewood. From the early 1870s the forest was cleared by government-assisted Scandinavian immigrants (and others), who then settled the land.
The bush was cleared in a two-step process. The undergrowth was felled in winter and left to dry. The next winter it was set ablaze, engulfing the whole forest. The smoke could be a kilometre across, billowing up to 6,000 metres high. Grass seed was then sown on the cooling ashes.
Old man’s beard, the tree-smothering clematis, is established across the district. Gorse, blackberry and broom can be a nuisance for farmers, but provide shelter for regenerating native species. Crack willow has infested some waterways. Coastal sand hills were once covered with pīngao (native sedge), but this has mostly been stifled by marram grass. The native Castlepoint daisy (Brachyglottis compactus) is also threatened.
Birds and wildlife
Birds and other wildlife live in three main zones:
The Tararua Range is home to many native birds, such as bellbird, tūī, kākāriki, fantail, morepork and kererū. The long- and short-tailed bat, tree wētā, skinks, geckos and Wainua snail also live there.
These are now mostly farmland, dominated by sheep and cattle. Important habitats exist around Lake Wairarapa for ducks, shags, gulls and terns. Birds found there include the grey teal, pūkeko, and black stilt.
With no harbours and few tidal inlets, the coastal zone is largely a narrow strip beside farmland. The red-billed gull, black shag and banded dotterel all have habitats, and the native katipō spider can be found on some eastern beaches. After being over-hunted by Palliser Bay Māori, fur seals have re-established a breeding colony at Cape Palliser.
In 2000, short-tailed bats were caught and photographed for the first time in the Waiohine Valley, west of Carterton. The bats, which are eaten by rats and stoats, were thought to be extinct in the Tararua Range. Little is known about them, except that they feed on the ground and change roost sites regularly to evade predators. Their presence suggests that the forest is in good health.
Stoats, cats and rats were partly responsible for the huia’s extinction in the early 1900s. They continue to threaten native species. Rabbits are another pest, reducing stock ratios and exposing soils to erosion. In the 1880s one farmer reported seeing a hillside of rabbits ‘moving slowly like a vast blanket’. 2 More recently, possums, goats and deer have severely depleted forests in the Aorangi Range. Clearing, culling and poisoning have contained pests and weeds, but none have been eradicated.