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Trees and farming near the roof of the world

Angus Gordon, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2008.

Ian Cummings farms an 800 hectare sheep and beef property at Hihitahi, 9 km south of Waiouru, in what can only be described as a climatically challenging environment. His farm is adjacent to State Highway 1 at Deacans Road and ranges in altitude from 750 metres to 960 metres above sea level.

It is a typical example of the sort of farming environment that exists at the north-eastern corner of the Middle Districts region, with elevated tablelands that slope from south-west to north-east. These comprise hard sedimentary mudstones capped with bands of shell rock and limestone, which are in turn draped in a thick layer of soils derived from volcanic ash deposits many metres deep in places.

Dominating the horizon

From the top of the farm Mount Ruapehu dominates the northern horizon, with its crater being a mere 30 kilometres away. Hihitahi state forest is due east two kilometres away, and to the south and west lies the increasing dissected hill country of theWanganui sedimentary basin. State Highway 1, the main trunk railway line and the Hautapu river lie along the eastern boundary. The river has a limiting effect on climate locally as it provides a drainage path for the very cold air that produces the severe out of season frosts that afflict this region and the upper Hautapu river catchment behind Waiouru military camp.

In keeping with the frost issues, this region of the North Island is prone to regular and sometimes heavy falls of snow. Farming and tree growing here requires a sometimes cautious approach if long term survival is the goal.

Sheep and beef

Ian bought this property 20 years ago and since then has progressively developed it into the mixed sheep and beef and farm forestry operation that it is today. His commitment to his property was acknowledged this year, as he was the supreme winner of the 2008 Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards. Ian also won the PPCS Livestock Farm Award and the Horizons Regional Council Award.

One of the iconic bits of the property is a 100 hectare native bush reserve that has been fenced to exclude livestock and protected with a QEII covenant. This is a real gem of a spot that is the envy of all who have seen it.

His forestry plantings started back in 1989, with many of his plants purchased from the nursery of local farm forester Don Tantrum. In some places the trees are for shelter, some for timber production, some for beautification and some to complement other features on the property such as fenced off wetlands.

Providing shelter

Radiata pine and the eucalypt Eucalyptus delegatensis were the first to be planted near the top of the farm at 900 metres above seal level. These were put in to provide shelter for livestock on the elevated table land that dominates the top of the property, and also to retire a steep cold gully that provided little in the way of grazing.

Both the pines and the eucalypts are showing the effects of exposure and altitude with the tops of the most exposed trees on the upper edge of the gully rim being neatly trimmed off by the wind and having only achieved between seven metres and 10 metres of height growth in 19 years. In comparison, trees growing down in the gully system are reaching a much better height and form.

Ian soon found that E. nitens was an almost bulletproof tree species in terms of withstanding climatic extremes, and had quicker initial growth than many of his other forest species.Therefore he has used it extensively as shelter rows around the outside of plantations of macrocarpa and Lawsoniana. E.nitens is also planted as shelterbelts in key positions to provide shelter on very exposed points on the property and as woodlots. E. fastigata is also being planted as a plantation species in preference to E. nitens as it is reputed to be better to saw, but its plantings are limited to sloping sites with frost drainage.

Eucalypt trial

Ian took part in the nationwide eucalypt species trial that was undertaken by the Eucalyptus Action Group back in 2004. His hillside trial site grew well for the first 12 months but then was completely destroyed by a huge out of season frost in November of 2006. This demonstrated the harshness of this particular climate and the susceptibility of the group of species tested in his environment.

Douglas fir is another species that Ian likes to plant as they perform well especially on hillsides that slope away to the south and east, out of the prevailing west and north-west winds. Poplars are going to become part of the species mix on parts of the farm where there is an erosion risk, but where he wants to retain grazing.

This is an interesting property that farm forestry members should take the opportunity to visit if they ever get the chance in the future. Just remember to bring a quad bike and plenty of warm clothes as there is only a limited amount of passenger space on the back of Ian’s trusty Clydesdale Rogun, and the air up there is pretty thin.

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