The South Island high country is the last great massif of unallocated Crown lands in New Zealand being divided into private and full Crown ownership. The area spans the dry and rain shadow eastern side of the Southern Alps of Canterbury, Otago and Southland, and the inland ranges of Marlborough.
The high country comprises 2.37 million ha allocated as at 1998 into:
- 2.17 million ha of pastoral lease, divided into 304 leases, ranging in area from 1,200 ha to 74,000 ha
- 20,000 ha divided into five pastoral occupation licences
- 180,000 ha special lease in South Marlborough - Molesworth Station, which was transferred into Department of Conservation management on 1 July 2005.
Once regarded as a wasteland, society has been increasingly recognising the value of native species and ecosystems, landscapes and recreation opportunities in the region, much of which is at or above 600m altitude. Graziers, currently restricted in their use of leasehold land, have been seeking greater flexibility.
Ruataniwha Conservation Park
The high country contains vast landscapes of mountains, snowfields, glaciers, alluvial outwash fans, limestone and other rock landforms, inland basins and glaciated valleys, forests, tussock- and grasslands, the headwaters of braided rivers, crystal-clear tarns, milky-blue lakes, native forests.
The look and feel of the high country has been celebrated by many New Zealand artists, not least in the paintings of Grahame Sydney and the poetry of Brian Turner.
Much of the high country landscape today has been shaped by 150 years of pastoral farming, and by Maori before that. Burning and grazing over centuries has resulted in more grass and tussock cover than would naturally be the case.
Native species and ecosystems
The high country includes include dry beech and podocarp forests, stands of totara and mountain cedar (kaikawaka), as well as tussock grasslands, sub-alpine shrublands, alpine herbfields and wetlands.
Intact ecological sequences from valley floors to mountain peaks are a priority for protection via conservation, for example, the former Birchwood and Clent Hills Stations.
Native broom, coprosmas and hebes are examples of rapid, multiple speciation during the most recent glaciations. Many divaricating (wiry-branched plant species) are only beginning to be discovered and described.
Dry native cushionfield, herbfields and grasslands dominated by diverse low-growing and prostrate plants are important hosts for larvae of endemic moths and other invertebrates.
The high country is home to threatened bird species, such as:
- Kea (alpine parrot), rock wren and falcon (karearea) above the tree line
- Kaki (black stilt), wrybill, banded dotterel and black-fronted tern in the headwaters of braided rivers
- Southern crested grebe in lakes and wetlands.
- Yellow-crowned kakariki (parakeet), brown creeper and rifleman in forests.
Many species of skink and gecko, large-bodied insects such as weta, grasshoppers, moths and beetles, and native giant snails are found nowhere else in New Zealand. They include the Otago, grand and scree skinks, black-eyed gecko and short-horned grasshopper.
South Marlborough, alone, has 37 endemic and threatened plant species, having one of the most diverse scree floras in New Zealand. The Sedgemere woollyhead is restricted to one part of one tarn at Molesworth Station.
Recreation and public access
The high country offers opportunities for tramping, trout fishing, hunting, camping, horse trekking, photography, bird watching, botanising, mountain-biking, climbing, cross-country skiing and ski-mountaineering, extreme outdoor events and sports.
The public will have access as of right to new conservation areas being developed in the high country. Facilities such as tracks, camp sites, huts and visitor information will be developed over time.
New conservation parks
Seven conservation parks have been opened in the high country. They are from north to south: Molesworth, Korowai-Torlesse, Ruataniwha, Ahuriri, Oteake, Te Papanui, Eyre Mountains/Taka Ra Haka.
Future parks may be formed in the Kaikoura Ranges, Pisa Range, Ashburton Lakes including Lake Heron, and the Remarkables. The extent to which parks in these areas develop will depend on the final outcomes of processes such as tenure review of pastoral leases.
Historic and cultural heritage
Built structures, e.g. musterers’ huts, where they occur on conservation land may be managed by DOC management as heritage sites. Examples abound at Molesworth Station, with cob cottages dating from the 1860s.
The high country was important to South Island tangata whenua, notably Ngai Tahu, for whom the region was on their traditional trade and other routes between the east and west coasts of the South Island.
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