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Wairarapa farm forestry

Allan Levett, New Zealand Tree Grower February 2010.

Of the 600,000 hectares in the Wairarapa there are 244,000 hectares of mudstone hills, 112,000 hectares of argillite and 125,000 hectares of steep shattered greywacke on which tree planting is one of the important counters to gull, slump, slip and sheet erosion. As a result over the years the Wairarapa has had a very active Catchment Board and now Regional Council who have gone out of their way to obtain farmer co-operation in planting the river headwaters and eroding hills.

In the mid 1950s Murray King, the soil conservator for the Wairarapa Catchment Board, had been following the movements of Neil Barr who for some years had the vision of  integrating farming and forestry and promoting tree planting with the Forest Service. In 1956 Neil Barr and Forest Service representatives came to Masterton and addressed a small gathering of interested farmers. This was the inspiration for the development of the Wairarapa Farm Forestry Association, the fifth such group in New Zealand.

Murray King had prepared a list of 27 people likely to be interested. The local Federated Farmers called the meeting on 15 June. Russell Smith was elected President, with John Coom and Hugh Barton as vice-Presidents. Murray King was elected Secretary/Treasurer and the committee consisted of Ian Nelson, Bob Williams and A C Ahearn.

First field day

Within weeks of the branch being formed, the first field day was under way with a visit to the property of Will Hull at Whareama who had planted a range of species between 1924 and 1928, but was a pioneer in high pruning radiata pine and macrocarpa to 14 metres. Sawmilling trials on logs from this plantation clearly showed the value of pruning. In August 1956 a field day was held at Russell Smith’s property where there was a planting demonstration of several species. In 1957 the six branches that had been formed held a conference in Rotorua at which the combined Farm Forestry Association of New Zealand was formed with Neil Barr as president.  Wairarapa  members to serve on the national association were

  • Russell Smith who served a term as National President, 1963 – 1967
  • Jim Pottinger was National Secretary from 1963 to 1968 and National President 1973 to 1976 and on the National Executive from 1971 to 1977
  • Airini Pottinger served on the National Executive in 1984
  • Joe Taylor was an affiliated member of Federated Farmers as Farm Forestry representative and was co-opted to the national Executive from 1974 to 1985.

There were four life  members − Will Hull, Russell Smith, Jim Pottinger and Airini Pottinger.

Through the years

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a resurgence in interest planting radiata pine on the eastern Wairarapa hills, mainly on the ground reverting to manuka steep hill country. In 1960 we were still importing eucalypt fence posts from Australia. Two pressure treatment plants had been established in about 1956, a Boliden plant at Masterton and a Tanalith plant at Carterton. Also at this time cold soak treatment using creosote was being promoted. The Forestry Encouragement  Act of 1962, which made a loan of $200 a hectare, also encouraged the planting of radiata pine.

For a short period in the 1960s farmers were planting pampas blocks to feed cattle in times of drought or in the winter. Worries that it could spread to tree plantations resulted in this practice being discontinued. Then there was agro-forestry, where radiata pine was planted at wide spacing and grazed with livestock. The resulting large diameter bottom log and heavily branched top meant that this form of forestry was less profitable at harvesting.

Over the years many eucalypt species have been tried in the Wairarapa with mixed results. The westerly winds that are experienced in the area uproot trees and stress logs, making this a difficult species to mill, with not many sawmillers able to handle it well. End users like to have the timber well seasoned before purchase.

With a surge in prices for radiata in the mid 1980s, some of the remote plantations in the Wairarapa were at last worth harvesting, and many of the post war plantations were felled and replanted. Some of these were 35 to 40 years old and produced excellent framing timber.


Over the last 20 years there has been a growing interest in planting indigenous species, some for aesthetic reasons, enhancing fenced off blocks of our native trees and some plantings are taking place with the intention of harvesting in the distant future.

Before the availability of treated radiata in the 1960s, houses were built using rimu, matai and totara and many are aware of the beauty of rimu panelling and matai flooring. However many of those who are planting indigenous species assume that they can harvest at 40 to 50 years and have an end product similar to which nature took 500 years, but this will not be the case.


Our membership was originally all farmers and reached a peak in the 1980s. Since then it has declined and has a different make-up, with about 40 per cent of members non- farmers. They are forestry consultants, small block holders and city forestry interests which makes an interesting group and will probably halt the decline in membership.

Carbon is the in thing at the moment, exercising the minds off all foresters. A carbon workshop held in Masterton in 2008 had 170 attendees from the Manawatu and south of Napier. We now have the likes of Allan Levett, of the Tinui Forest Park and the Trimble Foundation doing valuable trials and research.

Community projects

One of the first community projects to be undertaken was guiding the establishment of Kiriwhakapapa as a scenic reserve in 1964. Over the years other projects have been accomplished, including buying the trees, planting and tending. The latest project in which members are involved, is the Homebush trial of eucalypt species that have a potential natural ground durability for vineyard posts. For some years we also sponsored pest control on 10 hectares at Pukaha, Mt. Bruce, the National Wildlife Centre.

In 1998 a trust fund was established to recognise the significant contribution to the region over many years by Murray King. The Wairarapa Branch, along with the Masterton District Council and the Wellington Regional Council, formed the trust fund. The objective is a scholarship to help a senior Wairarapa student study aspects of forestry, in particular protection forestry, indigenous forestry or resource management in relation to forestry.

The Wairarapa Branch hosted the national Conference in 1967 and again in 1987 and we are looking forward to hosting the Conference in Masterton, mid-April 2011.


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