Wool on the rise
Following closely behind explorers and surveyors, graziers penetrated coastal and Central Otago in the 1850s. Some of the biggest runs were far into the interior, around Lake Wakatipu, where William Rees was the first to pasture sheep. Brothers James and William Murison ran flocks on the Maniototo Plain, William Fraser at Earnscleugh, and brothers Alexander and Watson Shennan on the Manuherikia. They leased pasture land – ‘runs’ – from the government for their stock. Runholders also took up land in North Otago. In both districts, a labour force arose of shepherds, drovers and station hands.
From 1861 gold mining overshadowed all other economic activity, but wool retained the second ranking. Crops, including wheat and oats, thrived due to local markets in the goldfields and in the fast-expanding settlement of Dunedin.
The scale of Central Otago’s rabbit plague – and the ensuing business in carcasses – prompted the Mount Ida Chronicle to report in 1898 that ‘the rabbit industry is in full swing, huge piles of departed bunny being taken daily by train down to the coast’. 1
Sheep – failure and success
Returns from wool dipped in 1868 but rose through most of the 1870s. But from the 1880s the industry was hit by problems. The disease of scab infected and killed sheep. Many formerly productive pastures were subject to erosion, and rabbit infestations affected Central Otago severely, probably on account of its dryness. Rabbit carcasses themselves became an export. In 1920 sheep numbers in Otago were the same as in 1880.
In 1882 the first shipment of refrigerated meat left Port Chalmers, destined for the United Kingdom. The second shipment from Otago failed, but problems were overcome and a new market opened up for sheep meat as well as wool.
Farmers and companies invested in meat-freezing works, which were established near Dunedin (Burnside) and in Ōamaru and Balclutha (Finegand). All were on railway lines that linked them to Port Chalmers and Ōamaru Harbour.
The rain game
During the severe drought of 1906–7 North Otago farmers lobbied for explosives to be fired into the sky to prompt rain. Three trial shots were fired on 16 August, and although no rain was noted at the site, it was reported 28 kilometres away, encouraging the believers. Unfortunately for the experiment – but fortunately for the farmers – the drought broke on the night of the 18th.
Opportunities opened up by refrigeration encouraged people to become farmers. Closer settlement was government policy, and landowners could be forced to subdivide. But many owners in coastal Otago, who had bought when wool returns were buoyant, were happy to subdivide. They included the Teschemakers at Taipō, and the Holmeses at Awamoa. In North Otago 15 estates were divided into 540 holdings between 1895 and 1909.
Most of the successful applicants for sections were farm labourers, or farmers and their sons. An initial enthusiasm for dairying gave way to raising sheep for wool and meat after the droughts of 1906–7 and 1910.
Cropping, which had thrived on the estates, declined, partly because of the unreliable climate. But it was still significant, especially in North Otago, which had many flour mills. Wheat regained appeal after a tariff was imposed on Australian wheat in 1927, but it did not recover its formerly dominant position.
From gold to golden fruit
Orcharding developed in Central Otago from the late 19th century, partly a consequence of irrigation using old goldfield water races, but also of the climate with its extremes of heat and cold. Campaigners for the Central Otago railway, which reached Clyde in 1907, saw it as a way to promote development, including the marketing of orchard fruit outside the region.
From forest to pasture
West and South Otago both had substantial tracts of forest. Sawmilling, rail-track laying and road-making employed settlers as they broke in farmland. In the Catlins many of the small farms proved uneconomic, and the land reverted to forest throughout the 20th century.