Southland is mainland New Zealand’s southernmost region, lying between 44.6° and 46.7° latitude south. It forms a giant triangle, two sides being the South Island’s southern and south-western coasts, and the third extending across-country from Awarua Point in the west to near Waikawa Harbour in the south.
Southland covers 32,612 square kilometres. Stewart Island, which lies 20 kilometres off the southern coast, accounts for a further 1,735 square kilometres. It is within the Southland regional council area, but is covered in a separate entry.
Mainland Southland has three main zones:
Southland became a province in 1861, when it separated from Otago province. It was so named despite the wishes of many locals, both European and Māori, who knew the region as Murihiku – Māori for ‘last joint of the tail’.
A writer in the Evening Post claimed in 1995 that ‘[a]ccording to tradition, to be a true blue Southlander you would support Southland rugby, be seen at the Bluff Regatta, take a picnic to the Tuatapere sports day and take a punt at the Easter Races at Riverton.’ 1
Covering some 13% of New Zealand’s area, Southland holds just over 2% of its population. In 2013 there were 93,339 residents. This was 3,759 fewer than in 1996, but the population had increased by 2,463 since 2006.
Living in an area remote from the country’s main centres, Southlanders have forged a strong local identity. Their region is strongly Scottish and Presbyterian in character, and the Southland accent, with its softly rolled ‘r’, is the only regional one in New Zealand.
In the 2013 census, a high proportion of Southlanders (89.0%) identified themselves as Europeans, compared with 74.0% for the rest of the country. 13.0% identified as Māori, compared with 14.9% in New Zealand as a whole. 2.1% identified as Pacific, 3.2% as Asian and 0.4% as Middle Eastern, Latin American or African. (Census respondents are allowed to claim multiple ethnicities.)
There has been little immigration since the 19th century. New Zealand-born people made up 89.8% of the Southland population in 2013, compared with 74.8% for the country as a whole.
Half the region’s population lives in Invercargill city, and Gore is the largest town. Other towns include Mataura, Bluff, Winton, Riverton and Te Anau.
Southland is rich in natural resources. Its farmlands are highly productive, and it has large reserves of sub-bituminous coal and hydroelectric power. There is also the potential to benefit from deep-sea oilfields. Thousands of Southlanders work in processing local resources, including at freezing works, dairy and fish factories, and sawmills.
Like other regions away from the main centres, Southland has faced the challenge of keeping its young people, who often seek opportunities elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas. But recent developments in the dairy and energy industries have brought new optimism to the province, and a demand for labour.
Southland consists of three distinct landform regions, which have different geologies.
The mountains in the north of the region are part of the block of schist which forms Central Otago. This region is similar in geological composition to north-west Marlborough. The movement along the Alpine Fault has now separated the two areas by 500 kilometres, but the earlier overlap can be seen in the patterns of rock.
The Southland Syncline, a colossal fold in the earth’s surface, is caused by tectonic activity. It reaches from the Tākitimu Mountains to the Catlins coast. The Hokonui Hills, a part of this syncline, were thrust up a few million years ago.
The Southland plains extend from the mouth of the Waiau River in the west to the boundary with Otago in the east. The plains are flanked by the Hunter and Tākitimu Mountains to the north-west, and the Eyre and Garvie mountains and the Hector Range to the north. The Hokonui Hills divide the main Southland plain from the Waimea Plains.
There are three main areas:
Fiordland is a block comprised mostly of gneiss, a rock that has metamorphosed from other rock types, notably granite and diorite (also found in Fiordland). These rocks, some of the oldest in New Zealand, date from the Ordovician period, more than 400 million years ago.
The Fiordland terrain was scoured by glaciations during the last ice age, between 75,000 and 15,000 years ago. That created the coastal fiords and the inland lakes, from Te Anau south to Hakapōua. Mt Tūtoko, north of Milford Sound, is the region’s highest summit at 2,746 metres. Most of the peaks further south are between 1,400 and 2,200 metres.
The Southland plains comprise mostly yellow-brown earths, the product of river deposits, with the most recent soils in the lower valleys of the Mataura and Ōreti rivers.
High rainfall causes nutrient leaching, so farmers add fertiliser, especially in northern Southland. On low-lying river soils, drainage is needed.
Fiordland soils are podzolised gley (waterlogged) and organic soils, but large areas on the summits of the ranges are bare rock, scree and ice.
Before humans arrived, much of the region was forested, with some tussock grass in the lowlands and also in valleys amid forests. Snow tussock predominated above the treeline.
Polynesians who arrived around 1250–1300 CE burnt extensive areas of vegetation. As a result, much forest and woodland was replaced by red tussock and scrub. Harakeke (flax) sprang up in the wetter peat swamp and bog lands.
Some large stands of bush remained, particularly in wetter western areas and along the coast: mostly mataī and rimu in the lowlands, and three varieties of beech in the uplands and mountains. Kānuka, mānuka, bracken and fern grew in forest clearings and margins.
From the 1850s onwards, European settlers cleared the forests and tussock, often by burning, and then planted introduced grasses for grazing animals.
Fiordland has the greatest extent of unmodified vegetation in Southland. The forests are mostly silver and mountain beech, with podocarps such as rimu, miro and Hall’s tōtara at lower levels. But the rich understorey of plants has been damaged by introduced game species such as red deer, tahr and chamois, and by possums.
A drastic reduction in red deer numbers from the late 1960s has allowed many native plants, particularly alpine species, to become re-established.
Fiordland remains a treasure chest of rare and endemic plants – including several species of snow grass, herbs, tree daisies, speargrasses and buttercups.
Around 10% of Fiordland’s 3,000 insect species are endemic to the region. Many are big – giant weevils, wētā, snails, wasps, slugs, and the country’s largest caddis. Other oddities include egg-laying worms, a chafer beetle, the short-horned grasshopper, alpine cicadas, 11 species of stonefly or stoners (aquatic insects), and 100 species of brightly coloured alpine moth.
The flightless moa, now extinct, was once a ‘one-stop shop’ for Māori, who killed the huge birds for food and to make clothing.
Ground birds such as kiwi and weka freely roamed the forest lowlands before the bush and trees were burned and cleared, and stoats, weasels, cats, rats and possums arrived.
Fiordland was the last natural refuge for the flightless takahē. In 1948, Invercargill doctor Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered the bird in the Murchison Mountains, after it was believed to have been extinct for 50 years. In the 2010s around 300 takahē survived – 170 of them in the Murchison Mountains.
There may also be some kākāpō (rare endangered parrots) in the wild in Fiordland, but this is uncertain – the major kākāpō population is now on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, off the west coast of Stewart Island.
An area around Lake Hauroko is the only South Island habitat of the endangered brown teal.
In summer the sandfly, which inflicts intensely itchy bites, is the bane of unprepared tourists visiting beautiful Fiordland. In 1773, the British explorer James Cook described the sandfly as ‘that most mischievous animal’. 1
Southland rivers were home to eels, bullies and four galaxiid species (two kinds of kōkopu, īnanga and kōaro). The juveniles of these galaxiids are usually known as whitebait. Eels, lamprey and torrentfish spawn and breed in Fiordland rivers.
Brown trout were first liberated in Southland waters in the 1870s, and rainbow trout in the early 1900s. Atlantic salmon are found in the Waiau river system, including lakes Te Anau and Manapōuri.
Pods of bottlenose dolphins are found around the Southland coast. Some swim up the tidal stretch of the Hollyford River to Lake McKerrow, possibly in pursuit of trout. A close-knit group of about 70 bottlenoses live in Doubtful Sound, moving out to sea when the inner fiord is covered in ice.
A 300- or 400-strong pod of Hector’s dolphins, the world’s rarest and smallest, and the only dolphin endemic to New Zealand, is semi-resident in Te Waewae Bay.
Southern right, humpback and sperm whales are occasionally seen in Foveaux Strait and off the Fiordland coast, migrating to or from Antarctica.
Compared with most other regions of New Zealand, Southland has a harsh climate.
Spring snow-melt or heavy rain in the back country can cause flooding on the plains. On 26 and 27 January 1984, heavy rain on the plains combined with those factors to produce Southland’s worst flood. It caused the evacuation of nearly 4,000 people and cost $50 million in repairs.
Summers are warm, not hot. Invercargill’s mean daily maximum in January is 18.7°C, compared with 22.7°C in Christchurch and 23.1°C in Auckland. However, the long summer twilights make up for the cooler temperatures.
A promotional book of the 1920s painted the chilly south in glowing terms: ‘Nearer the equator than the south coast of England, [with a] climate mild and equable but bracing, that makes one feel it good to live … fogs are infrequent.’ 1
Winters are severe by New Zealand standards. The mean maximum temperature in Invercargill in July is 9.5°C, compared with 11.3°C in Christchurch and 14.7°C in Auckland.
Invercargill’s coldest temperature, -9°C, was recorded on 4 July 1996. Southland’s lowest recorded temperature is -18°C, at Glenaray Station near Waikaia, in the same month.
Frosts are frequent inland during winter – Gore averages 114 each year, nearly one day in three. In coastal regions they are less common (Invercargill averages 94) and less severe, but everywhere pastures are closed off and stock are fed on fodder crops such as swedes and turnips.
Snow falls to low levels on the hills. A deep snow that fell over northern Southland in July 1939 took six weeks to clear. Persisting snow is uncommon at sea level.
Invercargill has an average of 1,682 sunshine hours each year, compared with 2,003 in Auckland, 2,110 in Wellington, 2,142 in Christchurch and 1,684 in Dunedin.
With an average of 98 windy days per year, Invercargill is New Zealand’s second windiest city, after Wellington. Gusts of 143 kilometres an hour struck on 9 June 1993 and 16 May 1994, and a storm on the night of 7 November 1997 caused major damage.
Rainfall averages over 1,000 millimetres annually near the coast, but less than 1,000 millimetres in inland areas.
Rainbows are frequent in Southland. Being closest to the South Pole, Southlanders see more of the aurora australis (southern lights) than other New Zealanders. Several are seen during most months from the southern coast.
Fiordland has the highest rainfall in New Zealand, averaging 6,700 millimetres per year. In 1940, 9,197 millimetres was recorded at Homer Tunnel. Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, the wettest place in Fiordland, has an annual average of 8,750 millimetres.
Māori trace their arrival in Southland to the chiefs Rākaihautū and Tamatea. Rākaihautū, an ancestor of the Waitaha people, was a commander of the Uruao waka (canoe). Tamatea’s waka, the Tākitimu , was wrecked near Te Waewae Bay. In tradition, the Tākitimu Mountains are the upturned hull of the canoe.
The lower South Island was known as Murihiku, a name that loosely means ‘the tail end’ of the land.
Kaheraki, who was betrothed to Tamatea’s son Kahungunu, strayed from the party as they travelled past the Tākitimu Mountains. She was captured by the maeroero (spirit of the mountain) and never found again. But in later generations, some say they have seen her shadowy form through the mountain mist.
Before Europeans arrived, Murihiku Māori were largely hunter-gatherers. It was a tough existence, and probably no more than 200 people lived in the region.
It was too cold to grow kūmara (sweet potato). At first, moa and seals were the main source of food, but moa became extinct and seal numbers waned. It is likely that the people then moved between the interior and the coast, with permanent settlements on the coast at Waikawa, Bluff and Aparima (Riverton), and on Ruapuke Island.
From late winter into summer, groups moving inland would fish the rivers. Forest birds such as kākā, kākāpō, kererū, takahē and weka were hunted in the autumn. Hunters caught eels in the rivers and took tītī (muttonbirds) from islands off Rakiura (Stewart Island). Year round, the sea provided most food.
The early tribe of Waitaha, including the sub-tribes Hāwea and Rapuwai, was assimilated into Ngāti Māmoe – newcomers from the north – through warfare and then intermarriage.
In the early 1800s the Ngāi Tahu tribe gradually incorporated Ngāti Māmoe.
The British vessel Endeavour, captained by James Cook, explored the Southland coast in 1770. Cook named a number of features, including Doubtful Harbour (later Doubtful Sound) and Solander and Bench islands. He returned in 1773 and made contact with Māori in Dusky Sound.
Sealers first arrived in the 1790s. Within 30 years seals had been wiped out in the area, and the industry collapsed. But whaling took its place. By the 1820s a number of Europeans had become familiar with the shores and harbours of Fiordland and Foveaux Strait, and their Māori inhabitants. For another 20 years, Pākehā continued to pay relatively little attention to the interior, because of the rich pickings along the coast.
Shipboard whalers worked the southern waters from the 1790s. Whalers based themselves on the shores of Foveaux Strait from the late 1820s. Shore-based whalers had more contact with Māori than those on ships. Intermarriage with Māori women strengthened bonds between the races – but Māori had no resistance to the diseases that Europeans brought.
British sealer James Caddell was captured by Māori in 1810 and became the first European to live in the Foveaux Strait area. He married the chief’s niece Tokitoki, became a fluent Māori speaker, got tattooed, and was given chiefly status. Captain W. L. Edwardson of the Snapper was startled to meet a tattooed European when he put ashore in 1822 looking for flax. Caddell and Tokitoki accompanied Edwardson to Sydney, and taught him how to prepare flax. They later returned to Foveaux Strait.
Sealers and whalers initially supplied potatoes and pigs to Māori in exchange for flax and fish. Māori acquired whaleboats, which allowed them to fish as far away as the Auckland Islands (over 400 kilometres across open sea).
Whaling drew the interest of Māori tribes from further north. Warriors from Murihiku were involved in resisting Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha’s invasion of the upper South Island.
Only in 1836 did a war expedition reach the south. Te Pūoho, a Ngāti Mutunga chief and ally of Te Rauparaha, brought his war party through Haast Pass, with Ruapuke the goal. But the locals were forewarned. Led by Te Whakataupuka’s nephew Tūhawaiki, who had inherited his uncle’s mana, they intercepted Te Pūoho at Tuturau (near Mataura), killing him and taking many prisoners. Tūhawaiki was now the most powerful chief in the south.
Tūhawaiki signed the Treaty of Waitangi in June 1840. But within a few years he was dead, and the whaling stations had been abandoned.
Frederick Tuckett scanned the Southland coast in 1844, seeking land for a Free Church of Scotland settlement. However, he decided on Otago Harbour, further north.
In 1850 Captain John Stokes of HMS Acheron, during its marathon charting of the New Zealand coast, climbed Bluff Hill and was excited by the view of ‘an extensive plain in form not unaptly compared to a bishop’s mitre … [a] vast expanse’. 1 Heading up the Ōreti River in a whaleboat, his surveyor, William Hamilton, was similarly enthusiastic. William Mantell, accompanied by William Stephen and Charles Nairn, followed the Waiau River inland. They were the first Europeans to explore Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau.
In 1852 Walter Mantell bought the Murihiku block – more or less today’s Southland – for the Crown from local Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe. Reserves were never properly laid out, and Māori did not find a place in the new economy and society. Without land, and facing an influx of settlers, they were on the margins of the new world.
Settlement of the Southland plains began in the mid-1850s. The shore whaling stations had all closed by 1850, and runholders, including some former whalers, took up pastoral leases. Closer settlement took place south of the Hundred Line Road – named after ‘hundreds’, an old English unit of land area – from Centre Bush to Scotts Gap.
Both Campbelltown (now Bluff) and Invercargill were surveyed in 1856. Bluff became the port, and Invercargill the service town for the new farming districts, in due course displacing Riverton as Southland’s main town.
The growing settlement and population led to calls for separation from Otago, and Southland, between the Mataura and Waiau rivers, became a province in 1861.
Most Southland settlers came via Otago. But in March 1875, 339 Scottish men, women and children arrived at Bluff from Scotland on the Christian McAusland. Most of the men were shepherds or tradesmen. The 32 single women comprised 24 domestic servants, three dressmakers, two tailoresses, one housekeeper, one factory girl and one laundry maid.
Bluff and Invercargill benefited from the flow of miners to the goldfields in Otago and the few in Southland. Gold was found at Orepuki and Waikaia, but these fields were never as productive as Central Otago.
The gold rushes passed, and with them much of the province’s revenue. In 1870, bankrupt Southland reunited with Otago.
But from that same year colonial premier Julius Vogel’s development programme brought in immigrants and financed new roads and railways.
From the 1880s the advent of refrigerated shipments of meat and dairy produce to the United Kingdom energised the Southland economy. Within eight years, four freezing works opened – two at Bluff, in 1885 and 1892, and the others at Makarewa (1887) and Mataura (1893).
Farmers and businessmen competed to set up freezing works. An entrepreneur with few assets, the future prime minister Joseph Ward, built up a trading business in Bluff that included the Ocean Beach freezing works (though he became overcommitted and got into financial difficulties).
Grain, mostly for the local and Australian market, was grown on the Waimea Plains north of the Hokonui Hills, but declined in importance as pastoral farming became more profitable.
A cheese factory was built at Edendale in 1881 – the first in the country. By 1932, the province had 80 dairy factories.
In the 1920s, a disease was causing lambs to starve and die in lush pasture on the plains known as Morton Mains, near Invercargill. Scientist Donald Frederick Sandys Wunsch diagnosed it as cobalt deficiency in the soil. The problem was solved by spreading superphosphate with added cobalt on the pasture.
The biggest early problem for farmers was rabbits, which had become established in the sand dunes between Invercargill and Riverton/Aparima in the 1860s, and spread throughout the province by the early 1880s. The carrying capacity of one Southland farm fell from 50,000 to 20,000 sheep. The plague eased in the 1890s, but recurred in the early 1920s.
Much Southland lowland was swampy – a result of a high water table and low evaporation rates – and many drains were needed to make it suitable for farming. Rain also leached the soil of nutrients, especially lime. Early farmers became pioneers in the large-scale use of lime on pasture.
The rural population increased steadily from the 1870s until about 1911, as did the number of farms and the volume of production.
Invercargill’s population doubled over the same period, from about 6,000 to over 12,000. The town acquired substantial buildings, municipal utilities, a massive water tower (still standing) and electric trams.
In the 1920s farm output continued to increase, but the rural population did not – agriculture became capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive. Yet Invercargill continued to grow: by 1936 the city’s population of nearly 26,000 was greater than that of Southland county.
Prevailing westerly winds made the Melbourne–Bluff route a favoured approach to New Zealand in sailing days – though ships sometimes had to contend with contrary winds in Foveaux Strait. Land transport from Bluff to Invercargill had to take account of the tides at the narrow neck of the Bluff isthmus.
The first railway in the south was built in 1864, of locally milled kahikatea (white pine). It ran between Invercargill and Makarewa, part of a scheme to improve access to the Wakatipu goldfield. Wooden rails tended to warp, and when gold seekers moved on, the line was abandoned in 1866.
But railways had come to stay. A workshop opened in Invercargill in 1868. During the 1870s, railways were built from Invercargill to Lumsden, Kingston, Ōtautau and Riverton, and between Lumsden and Gore. Dunedin and Invercargill were linked in January 1879. By 1911 branch lines operated to Hedgehope, Mossburn, Nightcaps, Tūātapere, Glenham, Waikaia, Waikākā, Tokanui and Ōhai.
Rural Southland set up the country’s first electric power board, with a mandate to provide power to country areas as well as towns.
Southland built its own power station at Lake Monowai. By the time the station opened in 1925, more than 5,300 kilometres of power lines had been strung – far more than in any other part of the country. By 1930 all settled parts of the province were reticulated.
But the scheme was overambitious, and the board went bankrupt in the 1930s depression. The government took over, and Southland became the only part of New Zealand without a local electricity supplier.
There was controversy over the building of Manapōuri power station to supply electricity for an aluminium smelter at Tīwai Point, near Bluff. The work would be done in a national park and require a rise in the level of beautiful Lake Manapōuri.
Led by Southlanders, a massive protest campaign was mounted between 1969 and 1972. The scheme went ahead, but the lake’s level was not raised.
Most of New Zealand’s 10–15 billion tonnes of lignite (brown coal) are in Southland. During the energy crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, mining more lignite was considered, and interest revived in the 2000s. However, transporting lignite any distance is not economic, and lignite-fuelled power stations usually have higher CO2 emissions than those fuelled by black coal.
Coal was first mined in western Southland in 1879 at Nightcaps. After those seams were exhausted, neighbouring Ōhai was mined. Nightcaps and Ōhai became mining towns, with strong labour traditions. Since 2009 the only operating mine in this area has been an opencast one at Nightcaps.
In the eastern Southland lignite field the Mataura mine supplied the local paper mill from 1951, but closed with the mill in 2000. In the early 2000s, mines still operated at nearby New Vale and Goodwin.
In 1930, when railway traffic peaked in Southland, there were 586 kilometres of track. Improved roads and more modern trucks and buses then tipped the balance from rail to road freight.
Between 1959 and 1971 more branch lines closed. The ‘Southerner’ passenger express train from Christchurch to Invercargill, which began in 1948, last ran in 2002.
In the 2010s there were 219 kilometres of railway track in Southland – the South Island main trunk line; Invercargill to Bluff; and from Invercargill to Ōhai to transport coal.
From 1958 to 1968 the US navy flew regularly between Invercargill and McMurdo Sound. These Antarctic flights attracted large crowds to watch the spectacular night take-offs, which used flame-throwing bottles to get airborne. Some hoped that Invercargill would become the jumping-off point for tourists to Antarctica – but it never happened.
In 1888, Henry Homer had discovered a saddle leading from the Hollyford River to Milford Sound. Work on the Homer Tunnel, to provide a road route to Milford Sound, started in 1935 but was suspended during the Second World War. The tunnel opened for traffic in 1953.
The ‘Southern Scenic Highway’ runs from Balclutha in Otago to Te Anau, taking in the Catlins district, the Southland coast, and the Waiau Valley north to Te Anau.
Invercargill airport was built on land which had been reclaimed from the New River estuary between 1919 and 1940. Commercial flights began in 1948.
Commodity prices, especially for wool and meat, were high after the Second World War. In its heyday, between the 1950s and 1980s, the Southland A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show at the Invercargill showgrounds attracted crowds of up to 50,000.
During the 20th century, many dairy farmers switched to sheep farming. In the 40 years from 1920, the ratio of dairy cows to 100 sheep shorn fell from 6.03 to 0.54 in Southland county.
Dissatisfaction with stock prices and terms offered by Ocean Beach freezing works and Southland Frozen Meat prompted Southland farmers to form their own freezing company, Alliance. It began processing at the newly built Lorneville plant near Invercargill in 1960. Alliance subsequently bought out both Ocean Beach and Southland Frozen Meat.
Farm output increased on the plains, and in the 1950s and 1960s more isolated areas were brought into production, including:
Wheat was grown extensively during the years of guaranteed prices between the 1930s and 1980s, with production peaking at 100,000 tonnes per year in the 1980s. It has not been significant since then.
Sheep numbers in Southland dipped from 9 million in 1985 to 4 million in 2012. But productivity per sheep increased: in the early 2000s, farmers were consistently achieving 145% lambing rates (the ratio of births per ewe).
In the 2010s Alliance ran works at Lorneville, Makarewa and Mataura. Blue Sky Meats operated a plant at Morton Mains, and South Pacific Meats had one at Awarua.
Rabbit infestation was a problem throughout Southland in the 1940s, and again in the 1990s. But Southland was not as hard hit as other regions, as most rabbits did not survive the cold, wet winters.
In 1977 only three dairy factories were still open, others being victims of outdated technology and the decline in dairy numbers. After the factories at Tisbury and Mataura closed in 1978 and 1981, farmers sent their milk to the one remaining plant at Edendale, now owned by the Southland Dairy Co-operative.
But from the early 1990s, Southland experienced a boom in dairying as North Island dairy farmers flocked south, drawn by cheaper land prices and the long growing and milking season.
This move coincided with rapidly rising international prices for milk, milk products, cheeses and butter – in sharp contrast to prices for wool, beef and sheep meat, which remained static or fell.
Between 1990 and 1998, the Edendale factory doubled its capacity, expanding to produce whole-milk powder, cheese, casein and lactose. In the 2010s the company had 600 employees – one of Southland’s biggest payrolls. A new milk-processing plant opened at Awarua in 2008.
In the early 2000s the average Southland herd size was 472 cows – close to four times that before the 1990s. Herds produced an average of 1.95 million litres of milk. In 2012 Southland had more than 670,000 dairy cows, compared with 50,000 in 1992.
In 2013, 17.0% of Southlanders worked in occupations associated with farming and fisheries, compared with the national average of 5.7%.
In 2013 only 0.4% of the Southland labour force (170 people) worked in fishing – a drop from the mid-1990s, when 477 people worked in the industry.
SouthFish, an association of five Southland-based businesses, leased inshore fishing quota to Southland fishers.
From east to west around the coast, fishing fleets have been based at Waikawa, Fortrose, Bluff, Riverton/Aparima, and more recently, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.
These settlements are a strong element in the region’s identity. Apart from the sounds, they date back to the earliest days of European arrival – Waikawa, Bluff and Riverton (originally known as Jacobs River) began as whaling stations. Before that, each was a favoured spot for Māori settlement because of the ready access to productive fishing.
Initially most fishing was for subsistence, but Māori began bartering fish with settlers. By the 1850s, domestic fishing fleets (mostly rowing and sailing dories, using hand-lines and nets) were catching red and blue cod, groper, ling, shark and flat-fish.
Seine-netting came later, and Foveaux Strait oysters were first dredged in the 1860s. Because of isolation, limited transport and equipment, the differing species and the fact that fish are perishable, each community had its own fishery.
Southland takes over half of New Zealand’s blue cod catch. This fishery developed in the 1920s when New Zealanders and Australians acquired a taste for its sweet, firm, white flesh.
Through the 1920s and 1930s regular exports of southern blue cod were sent from Bluff to Melbourne, where it sold at a premium. Exports reached $2 million in the late 1990s, but fell to less than half a million dollars in the 2000s.
The blue cod fishery is mostly inshore. Larger northern-based and overseas fishing vessels catch tuna, hoki, dory, squid, monkfish and hake in large numbers, particularly off the coast of Fiordland.
The output of the renowned ‘Bluff oyster’ fishery in Foveaux Strait used to be sold entirely within New Zealand (exports were banned until October 1998).
In the 2000s the species was put on the quota management system, and recovered from the Bonamia infection (a parasitic disease) which blighted the fishery from 1986 to the mid-1990s. The Bluff Oyster and Southland Seaford Festival every April attracts visitors from all over the country.
The Fiordland Lobster Company Ltd (founded in 1989) specialises in the capture and export of live lobsters to Asia. Its principal operations are at Te Anau, with depots in Riverton/Aparima, Milford Sound and Jackson Bay. It processes more than 300 tonnes of live lobsters annually, for a return of $18 million.
Southland has the largest rock lobster (crayfish) fishery in New Zealand, currently earning more than $30 million in annual exports, mostly to Hong Kong. The most productive waters are in Fiordland. Lobster processing companies, including the Māori-owned Ngāi Tahu Fisheries, also operate from Bluff, Riverton/Aparima and Stewart Island.
The Paua Quota Management Area for Otago and Southland accounts for 35% of the country’s pāua catch, with two-thirds coming from Stewart Island and Fiordland. Three companies in Riverton/Aparima export pāua-shell jewellery. Another shellfish, green-lipped mussel, is farmed at Stewart Island and processed in Bluff.
When provincial government was established in New Zealand in 1853, thinly-populated Southland was part of Otago province. The whole area had only 2,500 Europeans, mostly in and around Dunedin. In July 1861, after more immigration into the area, approximately that number of southerners secured a separate province. After the provincial council embarked on a grand public works programme, it went bankrupt and reunited with Otago in 1870. But the idea of a distinct area called Southland survived.
On 26 August 1871, Invercargill property owners elected the town’s first council. In 1876, the provinces were abolished, and two counties were established:
A Fiord county was defined in 1876 but as it had virtually no residents, no council was ever established. Borough (town) councils were set up at Gore, Mataura, Winton, Bluff and Riverton/Aparima, and in the suburbs of Invercargill. Edendale, Wyndham, Lumsden, Nightcaps and Ōtautau had limited self-government.
Southlanders played a full part in the wars of the 20th century. Of the 228 New Zealanders who died in the South African War, 24 were from Southland. 699 Southlanders lost their lives in the First World War, 638 in the Second World War and two each in Korea and Malaya during the 1950s. Victor Spencer, a 20-year-old soldier from Bluff, was the only Southlander, and the last of five New Zealanders, to be executed by the military authorities in the First World War. He was shot for desertion in Belgium on 24 February 1918.
Suburban Gladstone, Avenal and North and East Invercargill amalgamated with Invercargill in 1909, and the town gained city status in 1929.
In the 1940s and 1950s, after the Second World War, new suburbs were built, including Clifton, which housed construction workers for the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter. South Invercargill borough amalgamated with the city in 1956.
In 1989 local government was restructured:
The Southland regional council, established in 1989, looks after the environment and transport. Venture Southland (from 2019 the Southland Regional Development Agency), a successor to the Southland Progress League, and a joint initiative of the regional and district councils, promotes the region.
Eve Poole served as Invercargill’s mayor from 1983 to 1992. She is the only woman to have held the office, and the city’s only Jewish mayor to date. A public library building which she was instrumental in getting built carries her name.
From 1893 to 1946, Southland was represented by four electorates in Parliament: Invercargill, Wallace, Riverton/Awarua and Mataura. The Mataura electorate was abolished in 1946. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, Southland has been represented by the Invercargill and Clutha–Southland electorates.
The rural electorates have usually been held by conservative parties, but Invercargill has changed hands between left and right several times.
Southland was always a part of the Southern Māori electorate, and is now within its successor, Te Tai Tonga.
Up to 1935, Southland Boys’ High School had produced more Rhodes scholars than any other high school in the country. They were Frederick Miles (1912), Hubert Ryburn (1925), James Dakin (1929), Geoffrey Cox (1931) and Eric Haslam (1935). The Southland-born writer Dan Davin, who attended the Marist brothers' school, was a Rhodes scholar in 1935.
The principal high schools in Southland are Southland Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools, James Hargest High School, Verdon College and Te Wharekura o Arowhenua (Invercargill); Aparima College (Riverton/Aparima), Central Southland College (Winton), Fiordland College (Te Anau), Gore High School and St Peter’s College (Gore), Menzies College (Wyndham), Northern Southland College (Lumsden) and Tūātapere Community College.
The Southern Institute of Technology, with campuses in Invercargill, Gore, Queenstown, Balclutha, Christchurch and Auckland, is the region’s principal tertiary education institution. In the 2000s it became one of the country’s largest such institutions by charging no course fees to New Zealand citizens and permanent residents.
In 2010 the Southland district health board, which covered the whole of Southland region and the Queenstown district, merged with the Otago district health board to form Southern DHB. In 2022 district health boards were replaced by Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand and Te Aka Whai Ora Māori Health Authority..
From the early days of European settlement, Southland was markedly Scottish and Presbyterian. In 1871 over 60% of Southland’s British immigrant population was Scottish-born – the highest proportion in New Zealand.
The first Presbyterian church in Invercargill was erected in Tay Street in the 1860s. The present structure, designed by John Mair and built in Italo–Byzantine style, went up on the same site in 1915. It is the largest church in Southland, and was the cornerstone of Mair’s reputation as an architect.
The temperance and prohibition movements had strong support from Presbyterians. Mataura electorate voted no-licence in 1902, and Invercargill followed suit in 1905, by a margin of nine votes. Invercargill went ‘wet’ again in 1943, and the Invercargill Licensing Trust was established to run the city’s liquor outlets. Over the years the trust has been the main contributor to many Southland organisations. A licensing trust was also established when the Mataura district finally rejected prohibition in 1954.
Invercargill had a significant Irish Catholic minority, mostly working-class, who emigrated from Galway from the 1860s and settled in South Invercargill. Catholic communities also settled in the Hokonui Hills and in parts of western Southland.
The Māori–Pākehā world of coastal Southland and Stewart Island has contributed a distinctive element to Southland culture. So have the coal-mining towns of Nightcaps and Ōhai, with their strong labour movement, which found an echo in working-class Invercargill.
After a 1965 world tour that included Invercargill, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards reputedly called the city ‘the arsehole of the world’. Before Southland’s 2005 clash with the British and Irish Lions rugby team, BBC commentator Brian Moore compared Invercargill to ‘Chernobyl … or Bhopal or wherever really’. 1 On a happier note, British comedian John Cleese, who had dubbed Palmerston North ‘the suicide capital of New Zealand’, said Invercargill was ‘delightful’. 2
The Invercargill Garrison Band, which won national awards for decades, was established in 1867. Their signature piece, ‘The Invercargill march’, was composed by bandsman Alex Lithgow in 1908.
Colonial Invercargill was regularly visited by touring musical and vaudeville companies, partly because Bluff was often the first port of call for ships from Australia. Until 1903, performances took place in Sloan’s Theatre (also known as the Theatre Royal) in Dee Street. In 1906, the Invercargill Borough Council opened the Civic Theatre to replace Sloan’s. The Grand Theatre (later the Regent) was principally a cinema, but also hosted touring stage shows.
After the First World War the rise of the cinema saw these tours wane, and operatic and repertory societies took their place. The Invercargill Operatic Society dates from 1925, and the Repertory Society from 1929.
The Invercargill Competitions Society promotes and stages children’s theatre. The Southern Institute of Technology has a drama school, and also uses a television channel, Cue (formerly Southland TV), to provide multimedia distance learning.
The Operatic Society became the Invercargill Musical Theatre Company in 1993. It stages musicals, cabarets and theatre–restaurant shows every year in Invercargill’s Civic Theatre. The Repertory Society mounts three shows a year.
Publications about Southland date back to early-20th-century compilations by Robert McNab and James Herries Beattie. Frederick Hall-Jones and his son John made an immense contribution to Southland local history, as did brothers Neill and Alexander Begg.
Recent publications covering Southland include The book of Southland records, Cyclopedia of Otago and Southland and Murihiku: the Southland story. A full regional history remains to be written.
Southlanders who have gained national prominence as artists and writers include musician Alex Lindsay, poet Ruth Dallas, choreographer and dancer Michael Parmenter, opera singer Deborah Wai Kapohe, country singer Suzanne Prentice, pianist Janetta McStay, cellist Ewan Murdoch, sculptor Molly Macalister, painter Nigel Brown, glasswork artist Phil Newbury, and writer and comedian Jon Gadsby. Most are commemorated on a plaque in Invercargill’s Civic Theatre.
Born in 1913 in Invercargill, Dan Davin captured the distinctive world of local Catholic communities in the early 20th century. Award-winning poet Cilla McQueen lives in Bluff, and her work has a strong regional flavour.
Southland’s best-known ‘indigenous’ painter is Trevor Moffitt (1936–2006). He painted a series of powerful landscapes – storm-whipped macrocarpas against black skies, looming over wind-flattened grasslands.
Even more than New Zealanders as a whole, Southlanders have made reputations away from home. Expatriates include playwright Robert Lord, poet Bill Manhire, rock musician Chris Knox, ballerina Rowena Jackson, and journalists Geoffrey Cox and Peter Arnett.
Competitive rugby began in Southland in 1876, and the Southland Rugby Football Union was formed in February 1887. The Otago–Southland clash later that year began one of the great rivalries in New Zealand rugby, between the maroon of Southland and the blue and gold of Otago.
The Southland Stags are the provincial rugby team. In the 2010s they played mainly in the championship (second-tier) competition in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Southland rugby’s heyday began in 1938 when it won the Ranfurly Shield, New Zealand’s premier provincial rugby trophy, back from Otago. Southland staved off 11 challenges before losing the shield to Otago in 1947. Since then Southland has held the shield three times, in 1959, 2009 and 2011.
Southland has produced over 50 All Blacks. The first, in 1896, was Nisbet McRobie, who played his only game for New Zealand against Queensland at Wellington. A more recent Southland All Black was Clarke Dermody.
Cricket was probably first played by whalers at Riverton/Aparima in the early 1800s. The first recorded match was between the Invercargill and Riverton clubs in 1862.
In 1911, Southland won the Hawke Cup, the symbol of supremacy among the country’s minor associations. After losing it in 1913, the region was not successful again until 1970, when it lost it after two challenges.
Netball began in Invercargill when the Southland Ladies’ Basketball Association was founded in 1925. The first provincial match was against Otago in 1926.
In 1998 Southland’s Southern Sting took part in a new national competition, playing in the old and leaky Centennial Hall. An $11-million stadium was built at Surrey Park, and the Sting won its first national championship there in 1999. They triumphed each year until 2005, when the Sting was runner-up.
In 2008 the Sting was replaced by a combined Southland–Otago team, the Southern Steel, in a trans-Tasman ANZ Championship. When this competition was replaced by a New Zealand-only ANZ Premiership in 2017, the Steel were the first winners.
Sting players Bernice Mene, Tania Dalton, Lesley Rumball, Donna Loffhagen, Belinda Colling and Adine Wilson all starred in the national netball team, the Silver Ferns.
Runner Billy Trembarth, from Gore, won several New Zealand and Australasian titles before turning professional. In 1911, he became professional world champion over 440 yards.
Southland’s first thoroughbred race was held at Myross Bush in 1860. The Southland Racing Club was formed in 1885 and is now based at Ascot Park. In the 2010s five racing clubs and six trotting clubs were active in the region. Cardigan Bay (1956–88), the first pacer to win US$1 million in stakes in North America, was foaled at Mataura.
Alec Pickard (1913–2006), who taught at Southland Boys’ High School for many years, wrote short stories under the pseudonym A. P. Gaskell. A cricket and rugby coach, he was the first New Zealand fiction writer to write about rugby, and stories such as The big game (1947) achieved iconic status. Gaskell was one of the first authors to write in a distinctly New Zealand idiom.
The opening of Kew Bowl in 1949 boosted track cycling in Southland. By the 1960s, crowds upwards of 4,000 were attending its New Year Cycling Festival, which drew top track cyclists from around the country and overseas.
In 1956, local administrators began the Tour of Southland as part of the province’s centenary celebrations. In the 2010s the week-long event was one of New Zealand’s major multi-stage tours. The country’s first indoor velodrome, in Invercargill’s Stadium Southland complex, opened in 2006. It was designed by German expert Ralph Schuermann.
Motorcycle racing in Southland is inseparable from the name of Burt Munro. He set world records for the Indian motorcycle in the 1960s and 1970s, and was the subject of the 2005 movie The world’s fastest Indian.
Teretonga motor racing track near Invercargill commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2007. It has hosted the New Zealand grand prix half a dozen times.
The Southland back country provides many opportunities for hunting. Red deer and pigs are found in the forests and mountains, and in Fiordland National Park along with chamois and wapiti. Trout populate all the main Southland rivers, and Lakes Te Anau and Manapōuri also have land-locked salmon. The Mataura River is particularly favoured for brown trout fishing.
Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest at more than 1.2 million hectares, is the heart of Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Established in 1952, the park’s many striking features include:
Covering some 12% of New Zealand’s area, Southland has just 2.2% of its population: 93,339 residents in 2013.
Southland’s urban population grew steadily from the 1870s (apart from a dip in the late 1880s). This paralleled the rise of its farming economy. By 1916 Invercargill was a substantial town of nearly 18,000, second only to Whanganui among the country’s regional centres.
Farming boomed in the quarter-century after the Second World War, and the towns thrived as a result. Between 1945 and 1976 Invercargill’s population nearly doubled (from 27,500 to 53,800), as did Gore’s (5,000 to 9,000).
One Southland family has been recognised by Guinness world records as the world’s largest known English-speaking family. The Taylor family was descended from James and Betty, who arrived in Port Chalmers in 1860 with eight children. Developing a carrying business, James shifted to Winton in 1862 to cart gravel for the roads that helped hundreds of farmers settle in the area. First-generation family members settled around the province, and bred prolifically. By 2002, one in every 20 Southlanders was a member of the Taylor dynasty.
Through most of the 20th century the rural population of Southland grew little, despite expanding farm output. An exception was the newly developed lands of western Southland.
Pastoral industries needed less labour, and the linked schemes at Manapōuri (hydroelectricity) and Tīwai Point (aluminium smelting) only needed intensive labour during construction in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The towns eventually followed suit. Mataura reached its peak population in 1966, Winton in 1971 and Gore and Invercargill in 1976.
Since then, the region’s population has been static or declining. Figures from the 2013 census show a gradual drop:
Southland’s total population decreased by 6.3% between 1996 and 2001 – the largest fall of any region. Between 2001 and 2006, it was the only region to see a decline, although this was small: 0.1%. Buoyant farming, construction and energy industries then reversed the trend, with growth of 2.7% between 2006 and 2013.
In 2013 half of the region’s people lived in the Invercargill urban area and 8% in Gore. Five other towns had between 1,000 and 2,200 residents:
Other townships include:
In 2013, 17.0% of Southland’s labour force worked in agriculture, forestry and fishing, compared with the national average of 5.7%. Manufacturing accounted for 16.8% of the labour force, compared with 10.9% for New Zealand as a whole. Education employed 6.6% (8.6% nationally).
Southland’s occupational and income structure is less ‘developed’ than that of other regions. Although it has a higher proportion of managers than the national average (reflecting the high number of farms), the ratio of professionals to labourers was nearly the reverse of the national figures – 14.6% for professionals (22.5% nationally) to 18.9% for labourers (11.1%).
In 1987 the Waitangi Tribunal began hearing claims by the South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu over land loss and fishery rights. Four years later the tribunal found in the tribe’s favour, including the failure of the Crown to provide adequate reserves for Māori.
Southland is more ethnically homogeneous than New Zealand as a whole: 89.0% identified as European in 2013, compared with 74.0% nationally.
The Māori population has historically been concentrated around Bluff.
In 1961 there were 377 Māori in the Invercargill urban area (including Bluff) compared with 321 in the Dunedin urban area, which was twice the size. This was still only about 1% of the total urban population.
In 2013, 14.3% of Invercargill residents identified as Māori, as did 13.0% of Southlanders – not far off the national figure of 14.9%.
(Includes Stewart Island)
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe, Waitaha
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
Dougherty, Ian. Southern Sting: the team that inspired a region. Auckland: Exisle, 2004.
Esler, Lloyd. The Southland book of records. Invercargill: L. Esler, 2002.
Sorrell, Paul, ed. Cyclopedia of Otago and Southland. Dunedin: Dunedin City Council, 1999.
Sorrell, Paul, ed. Murihiku: the Southland story. Invercargill: Southland to 2006 book committee, 2006.
Thomson, Jane, ed. Southern people: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography. Dunedin: Longacre in association with the Dunedin City Council, 1998.