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Arriving in New Zealand 1962

Monday, February 09, 2015, John Purey-Cust Ponders

I came from Great Britain to New Zealand, to a job in the NZ Forest Service, in January 1962. I left a densely populated country where the original forests were gone but wood was still king and I came to a country where one kind of forest, complicated and ancient, was still the enemy and being replaced by a more simple, more understandable one for which there was as yet little market.

My previous boss (in East Anglia) had told me “We live within 50 miles of 10 million people – we can sell anything”, and we could – oak for historic buildings damaged in the war and new motorway fencing, lime for beer barrel bungs, poplar for truck decks, fruit baskets, and brewery shovels, larch for fence posts and fishing boat hulls, Spanish chestnut as ‘oak’, elm for coffins, sycamore, beech and walnut for the furniture trade, and so on – I don’t recall a species that we failed to uncover an existing market for.

Apart from specimen trees conifers were left to the UK Forestry Commission or imported from Scandanavia, and a matter of general public contempt. There was little concept of ‘native’ tree species (only three native conifers, Scots pine, yew and juniper) and a long and vigorous history of introductions, going back at least two thousand years to the Romans.

The prime object of management of private woodland was pheasant shooting, an occupation closely tied to social status. Pheasants are a woodland bird.

I arrived at a time when New Zealand’s exotic plantation cut was just rising to equal the cut from native forest, helped by the government demonstration mills at Conical Hill and Rotorua. The demand was domestic and the market heavily restricted by bureaucratic methods of sale. Farm forestry was just beginning but the general attitude still saw timber sales as a minor part of farm development.

I was fortunate in my early postings to places where there were State plantations covering the range of New Zealand’s forestry history - first year in Canterbury at radiata-only Balmoral (a riverside boulder bank expressing the then rural attitude to the limitless bounds of lands fit for farming) and Hanmer, an older plantation. I lived in the Hanmer Forest camp (where one night the sky turned green, the atmospheric effects of an H bomb test). Hanmer had large blocks of Corsican and a poor strain of ponderosa pine, larch and some Douglas fir and radiata pine.

Balmoral had suffered a major fire some years before and management was dominated by fears of another. The priority at Hanmer was to provide work for seasonally unemployed freezing workers, mostly by poisoning (girdling by axe and ammonium sulphamate or ‘ammate’ in the cuts) stands of ponderosa pine prior to under planting with Douglas fir and poison thinning densely stocked Corsican pine.

I moved on to a year in the mill at Conical Hill followed by four years in the Tapanui District. The local plantations went back to the 1890s which was why Conical Hill mill had been built there just after WWII. From memory it cut mostly unpruned radiata and some Corsican pine.

There was also a new private CCA pressure treatment plant for fencing material attached to a neighbouring private sawmill. The prevailing fence post of the time was concrete so the new wooden posts (mostly Corsican) were greeted with enthusiasm, with the peculiar exception of the local Forest Service District Ranger. To him the market definitely didn’t rule; fence posts were concrete and ever more should be so. His office and mine shared a common chimney so I shared all the discussions between him, the local mill owner and the Conservator, called in to adjudicate. Eventually the treatment plant won.

The big issues of the time were grading rules for sawn plantation timber, silvicultural regimes for pruning and thinning, and the start of the log export market down here in the mid1960s.

The grading rules required endless mill studies at Conical Hill and elsewhere and later on became tied in with the development of the silvicultural regimes needed to produce the desired grades. These heralded the end for Corsican and ponderosa pine and larch which disappeared from planting, defined Douglas fir as a structural timber which didn’t need pruning, and radiata pine as the future jack of all trades.

Ponderosa at first ranked highly under the new rules because of its predominance of tight green knots. It lost that grading reputation on the green chain – sawn timber breaking at the knot under its own weight.

The weight of forestry history fell rather differently on the rest of Otago. It had one ‘old’ plantation forest, Naseby, and a growing area of post war planting nearer the coast. Part of the NZFS Southland Conservancy, the Otago ranger district’s peculiarity was to have an extremely aggressive and capable university trained forester as its district ranger – Keith W Prior.

That broke the rules of the hierarchy as rangers usually rose through field experience or had ‘sub-professional’ departmental training, and traditionally occupied territorially responsible positions up to the rank of conservator of forests. So Keith’s position aroused resentment, added to by the fact that while he had primary and tertiary qualifications he had no secondary ones, having left school early to take up an apprenticeship with the Auckland tramways department and pursuing a rehab forestry degree after the war.

From time to time he would allow the Otago Daily Times to misinterpret his position as the Conservator of Forests, Otago, causing eruptions in Invercargill. He once told me that an Auckland tram contained the wood of 40 different species of tree, and that if any special tools were required for the job it was up to the tradesman to make them. We owe much of Otago’s plantation forest estate to Keith.

One post

Post from John Redditt on April 25, 2020 at 1:34PM

Interesting read, John. I remember our times together in Tapanui before your transfer to Invercargill. Your black Labrador Rolly was a bit of a character too. That Vanguard Ute you used to use was a great sturdy vehicle, almost as good as a LandRover.

Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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