A weathered farmer and his dogs mustering sheep in the hills is a romantic part of New Zealand's identity. But it's a way of life under threat.

Martin van Beynen reports.

ABOVE: Canterbury high country station Ben McLeod, at the head of the Rangitata Gorge, is home to about 8000 merinos. TOP IMAGE: Donald Aubrey has farmed the 13,000 hectare property for nearly 40 years. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

ABOVE: Canterbury high country station Ben McLeod, at the head of the Rangitata Gorge, is home to about 8000 merinos. TOP IMAGE: Donald Aubrey has farmed the 13,000 hectare property for nearly 40 years. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

And hardy, like the tenacious mountain tussock, And spacious, like the Mackenzie plain, not narrow;

Holiday Piece

The high country tradition runs through the New Zealand psyche like the cowboy culture influences American identity.

The die for Kiwi manliness is set by the rugged, understated and resourceful high country man. His female counterpart is stoical and kind, making the best of hardship and isolation.

A run holder’s life is but an unending struggle with isolation, the weather, flooded rivers, swarming pests and the bank.

Much of the high country tradition is built on a good dose of romanticism, myth and exaggeration but the fact it endures in the way the country is marketed and still sees itself is testament to its staying power.

But a new wind is blowing. The green movement means declining native ecosystems have attained a special status. Keeping water clean is a top national priority and high country landscapes are recognised as cultural heritage and of inestimable value to the crucial tourist industry.

More townies want to hunt, fish and walk the high country and also have a say on the landscape. High country farmers feel choked by a storm of  regulations.

What is unique to high country pastoral runholders is tenure review, a programme designed to analyse each pastoral lease so vulnerable ecosystems become part of the conservation estate and productive land is freed up by transferring ownership to the farmers.

Whether the high country farmer is still on pastoral lease land or on freehold the question is the same.

Can  high country tradition and knowledge survive in more than myth and history books?

Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, towers over several high country stations. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, towers over several high country stations. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Ah not as plains that spread into us slowly But as that mountain flinging at the skies


Simon Williamson, 50, sits at one end of the big table in his kitchen at the Glenbrook  Station homestead. His wife Kirsty, a former champion event rider, has set the table for a crew of four working on the farm this November morning.

Williamson was farming full-time by the time he was 16. His parents Ron and Jennifer were the runholders of Birchwood Station, a hard, beautiful 23,700 hectares in the Ahuriri Valley near Omarama. The Nature Heritage Fund bought the Birchwood lease in 2004 for $10 million and the land is now part of the Ahuriri Conservation Park.

Birchwood was high altitude farming. Only about half the property was useable and musters on horseback would take up to eight days.

“There was only one track up the valley and we spent a lot of our day on horses or on foot,” Williamson says.

Over two decades, the Government has given up vast swathes of high country land in a process which has cost the tax-payer $65m.
See 'Half a Million Hectares Sold', a Stuff investigation into tenure review.

Farming the steep terrain was not always the most lucrative. In the 1940s his grandfather Ted made more money out of the bounty for rabbits than wool. Deer were everywhere.

“It was nothing unusual to see 1500 to 2000 deer come out of the valleys and past the homestead and into the swamp. Dad used to shoot them with a Damascus-barreled shotgun out the bathroom window for dog tucker.”

Helicopter shooting and live capture in the early 1970s finally decimated the deer population and made the “big places farmable”, Williamson says.

About 300-350 Hereford cows ran on the unfenced valley floors and 7000 merinos chomped on the high pastures.

“They are tough, tough places to make a living. To be honest you are at the whim of the winter. In some of those bad snows we lost a quarter of our sheep and when you haven’t got a lot of breeding ewes you have to buy a lot to get the numbers back up again.”

“The public perception is that it’s wonderful, and it is because otherwise no-one would do it, but it’s a tough way of living. You’re fighting the elements, you are fighting the authorities.

Merinos endure harsh winters and hot summers in the high country. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

“There was always someone wanting something of what was essentially yours.”

 Williamson and his brother Henry bought Glenbrook from the proceeds of the Birchwood sale and split the station between them.

He still regards himself as a high country farmer despite Glenbrook’s more modest real estate and lower altitude.

“I’ve still got hill country. I still lamb everything on the hill, I’ve still got a team of dogs but the country is a lot easier. At 500m [at Glenbrook] I dropped 300m from where I was at Birchwood.”

Glenbrook’s 3700ha is run as a mixed farm with 7000 merinos, 130 beef cattle and crops like chicory and lucerne  grown on 500ha under irrigation.

Musters are day jobs and, although shearing hasn’t changed much, the wool clip is sold differently. The Williamsons have their own wool brand and sell part of the clip to American sock manufacturer Point 6.

The essential difference between his Birchwood days and farming at Glenbrook, which went through tenure review before the Williamsons bought it, is bureaucracy, he says.

“It came with the intensification after tenure review. The goal posts are moving with tenure. I always said that tenure review and closing up vast pieces of country was not sustainable for the high country.”

More than productive land has been lost.

“I believe they have lost a whole culture of high country farming and the knowledge that went with it. A way of life has almost gone.”

Glenbrook Station owner Simon Williamson was farming full-time at the age of 16. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Glenbrook Station owner Simon Williamson was farming full-time at the age of 16. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

And standing sentinel to your bleak loneliness the tussock grass

Not by wind ravaged

The South Island high country includes the mountains of the Main Divide and the land over 500-700m above sea level to the east of the Alps.

This enormous swathe of land covers 6 million hectares of which about 2.7m ha was parcelled out, initially as licences in the early days, and then as pastoral leases (about 300), where the runholder owned the grazing rights and the state owned the land.

Under the leases, farmers need permission for activities like cultivation, burning, sowing seed, top dressing, planting trees and track building. The lessees are required to keep the land free of pests and farm the land diligently.

Originally most of what became the high country pastoral leases was covered by beech forest. The first settlers from Polynesia burnt much of the forest and European settlers put paid to the scrub that took its place. Tussock grassland became the main cover.

The farming history of the high country would fill countless volumes but essentially the last 180 years is a chronicle of reverses and occasional booms.

Sheep numbers reached their peak in the 1870s but a decade later rabbits had become a major scourge which persisted into the next century.

Runholders went through a form of tenure change in 1948 when the Land Act allowed pastoral leases to be sold and renewed indefinitely. The idea was to give farmers more of a stake so they would invest and farm more productively.

A series of developments starting in the 50s put more money into high country pockets. One was the Korean war, which sent the price of merino wool rocketing, and then came the post-WWII innovations of topdressing and aerial grass sowing. Phosphate and nitrogen fertilisers and English grasses transformed some of the pasture lands, increasing carrying capacity and production.

In 1978, with the NZ economy in dire straits, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon introduced a range of measures that gave runholders another boost.

Low interest loans, fertiliser subsidies, tax rebates and the reduction or removal of government charges were part of a package that also included supplementary minimum prices (SMPs) for meat, wool and dairy.

Some of the runholders also did well out of deer with farmers getting $5000 an animal.

In the last 20 years, high country farmers have had access to a bunch of new tools ranging from bigger machinery and different crops to better sheep drenches and new sowing techniques.

Tourism and private hunting have provided new income streams.

Irrigation has boosted production on the flatter land and direct drilling, which cuts out the ploughing stage by sowing seed and fertiliser directly into slits cut in ground cover, reduces time and cost.

Some of the most profound effects on the back country have come from legislation and regulation. Conservation values were recognised by the  Land Settlement Board in the 1980s and in 1987, the Department of Conservation was set up.

Another layer of control was imposed by the Resource Management Act in 1991. The purpose of the act was to manage activities on the land in accordance with national guidelines and plans issued by regional and district councils.

Unless activities were permitted, farmers had to get their heads and wallets around resource consents.

Freeholding the pastoral leases started in the early 90s, on the basis the state should not be involved in activities the private sector could do. The process called tenure review was formalised by the Crown Pastoral Lease Act 1998.

A mob of sheep are brought in for drenching at Ben McLeod station. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

A mob of sheep are brought in for drenching at Ben McLeod station. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Alone we are born and die alone; Yet see the red-gold cirrus over snow-mountain shine.

High Country Weather

A brilliant November day at the head of Lake Pukaki. Helicopter Line choppers are making hay in the clear, calm weather, ferrying tourists from the Glentanner Station airfield to the glaciers around Aoraki Mount Cook.

Glentanner is the last station before the entrance to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and is owned by Ross and Helen Ivey.

Glentanner owner Ross Ivey "adores the sheep work" at his high country station near Tekapo. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Ross Ivey, 63, has been on the station since he was a baby and earned his high country medals farming traditionally with his father Ian.

He is a prime  example of the new breed of high country farmer.

For instance, on this November day he is doing a round of the contractors working on the property. Some are putting the finishing touches to a new ablution block at the Iveys’ camping ground and motor camp which Helen manages.

Called Glentanner Park, it had 30,000 visitors in the year to March. Ten staff keep the place running.

Another building in the complex houses a cafe, a booking facility for activities in the area and a shop selling a range of merino brands, including Icebreaker and Untouched World. Some of Glentanner’s wool clip ends up in Icebreaker clothing.

In the coming weeks, Glentanner will host a film crew working on a feature based on a video game. The station has hosted many celebrities and the Iveys have fond recent memories of mixing margaritas for Oprah Winfrey, who was in the area for a Disney movie.

Ivey’s father Ian, a shepherd at Mt Somers station, came to manage Glentanner in 1957. Helen was brought up on a North Canterbury sheep and beef farm and studied farm management before becoming an adviser for the Ministry of Agriculture.  

After Ivey did a valuation degree at Lincoln, he and his father pooled resources to buy the historic but tough property in 1974, alert to the tourism possibilities. The motor camp began in 1978 after a battle getting consent. Glentanner has since been through tenure review with 268ha restored to full Crown ownership and 440ha set aside as scenic reserve.

Tenure review took about 15 per cent of the station’s capacity to carry sheep by taking what Ivey calls their “best bit of land”, a tract noted for its matagouri, wetlands, lagoon and moraine downs.

“We are pragmatists. We accepted from the outset you had to be prepared to give something up. A lot of farmers thought they could have it both ways.”

Ivey says his diverse income stream is typical of high country stations in the modern era.

“Most have got other things going on.

Despite the various balls in the air, Ivey still regards himself very much as a high country farmer.

The man alone on the hills with his horse and his dogs has well and truly gone, he says.

“I would feel sorry for them [the loners]. Things have moved on. Everyone has got an iPhone. You can’t live like that anymore. We don’t have horses for a start. We’ve been mustering with helicopters since the early 70s.”

Although the 10,000 merinos on Glentanner and another separate block, which their son Mark manages, are not particularly profitable, he sees sheep farming as part of his cultural heritage and grazing as vital to maintain the farm.

“I adore the sheep work. We do the traditional things like bringing the sheep down from the mountains. We use helicopters but still have the dogs, the walking sticks and a lot of camaraderie up there.

“The most cost-effective way of maintaining the land is farming it. DOC and the greenies might be well intentioned but they haven’t joined all the dots. They might want to have tussock grasslands but they don’t want farmers to spray or burn and the two don’t add up. Subdivision, oversowing and topdressing, vegetation control, stocking. That’s how you maintain tussock grassland. You can’t just pull out and hope for the best.”

High country farmers now have to be conscious of their “social licence to operate”, he says.

“It’s a key thing. We have to look after our staff, our water, our stock, our horses, our dogs.”

Back towards Lake Tekapo is Balmoral Station which, like Glentanner, is forging a new trail for the high country.

Andrew Simpson and his wife Karen have taken a 9700ha tract of dryland and in addition to traditional farming have gone into property development, a golf course, rental accommodation and merino clothing.

Simpson has a fine high country pedigree. His father started work on Mt Cook Station in 1928 after responding to an advertisement which read:

“Wanted: Youth of 17 to 18 years. Must hate town life. Must weigh not less than 11 stone. Must stand cold like an arctic hero. Must have plenty of common sense. Brains not necessary.”

Property development on land next to the Tekapo township has been the big money spinner for the Simpson family and allowed it to keep its members employed on the land.

Merinos have been the backbone of high country farming. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Merinos have been the backbone of high country farming. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

A dark wind rides the whinnying tussock up the hillside.

Gathering Mushrooms

The obvious result of tenure review is the retirement of large areas of land previously grazed by the runholders.

It’s hard to know if stock numbers have reduced much but farmers face a raft of changes.

Willy Ensor and his wife Sarah gave up the upper reaches of their Redcliffs Station in the upper Rakaia after completing a tortured tenure review that took 16 years and finished in 2010.

Under the review and a previous programme the Ensors gave up 7000ha of their pastoral lease and added 1385ha to their 600ha of pre-existing freehold.

Farm dynamics changed well before their tenure review settlement when, in 2002, they began to irrigate about 90ha on the river terraces.

This allowed the farm to finish its lambs and cattle in the dry summer months and be choosier about when they were sold.

Investment in things like fencing and pasture management since the tenure review has made the land more productive and stock numbers have not changed much despite having less land, Ensor says.

The cattle herd has increased to 200 cows and wool has gone from about 70 per cent of the farming income to about 40 per cent.

With their 2500 wethers - castrated male sheep - gone, musters are tame affairs compared to the old days when the musterers would camp out in huts and have gear dropped off by helicopter.

“I’m now partly a high country farmer and partly a hill farmer,” Ensor says.

“The autumn musters were a great event and the young shepherds, they just relished them.”

Change is inevitable, he says, and “you can’t just sit back and watch it happen. Markets change, technologies change, and how we produce changes”.

The couple recently signed to supply Icebreaker for another 10 years and they also produce for the New Zealand Merino Company’s alpine merino luxury meat brand.

“It’s one of the positive changes. Not many commodity producers can say we are producing for a specific product for specific markets. We are not just riding our luck and seeing where it goes.”

The farmer’s loss of grazing land has been a massive gain for recreation.

To date, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) has taken 119 pastoral leases comprising about 620,000ha through tenure review. About 300,000ha has gone into the conservation estate, helping to form 12 conservation parks and areas and the rest has gone into private ownership.

The new conservation lands are managed by DOC, a department not universally admired by farmers.

They say DOC doesn’t have the resources or the expertise to look after the huge tracts of land handed to it by tenure review. More farmers now have DOC as a neighbour and are worried DOC’s overtaxed ability to manage pests like rabbits and pines will undermine their own control efforts.   

High country farmers argue they are the best stewards of the land and, if given a freer hand, could manage the land to provide a return while tackling pests and preserving agreed conservation values. Organisations like Forest and Bird disagree, pointing to past experience where farmers have mostly favoured financial return over the environment.

The general pattern emerging from the tenure reviews completed so far is that DOC has taken the high altitude country while the runholders have freeholded the lower, more productive areas.

This approach appears to be changing. Ecologists have warned that an alarming proportion of lowland and river flat ecosystems has been lost or threatened by intensified high country farming.

Farmers say the loss of their summer grazing in the high altitude pasture land means they need more latitude in the way they farm the lower freeholded lands. Essentially this means more irrigation, cultivation, subdivision and more pressure on ecosystems.

Simon Williamson and some of the degraded pastures at Glenbrook Station. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Simon Williamson and some of the degraded pastures at Glenbrook Station. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

The vicious matagourie And spear grass tipped with pain They've had their day of greatness Upon that wild terrain. Top dressing's been adopted results are clearly seen There's English grass and clover where native grass has been.

A tribute to enterprise!

The Williamsons’ Glenbrook Station is in the heart of the Mackenzie, an area at the centre of the controversy over the effect of intensified farming on iconic landscapes.

With dogs Sam and Merph in the back of his V8 diesel ute, Simon Williamson drives past the silos containing  grain and seed in the direction of the land behind Table Hill.

Simon Williamson says Glenbrook Station in the Mackenzie is under threat from pine trees and hieracium. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Crossing State Highway 8, he drives the Toyota up a network of shingle tracks to a vast plateau behind Table Hill. His land does not go quite as far as the eye can see but it is a sizeable spread nonetheless.

Williamson has about 1700ha on the plateau [a moraine technically] which cannot be seen from the highway, the Ohau Road or Twizel, which he argues takes the landscape element out of the equation.

Pine trees are encroaching like an invading army from the north-west and a closer look at the tussock shows hieracium (hawkweed) well established across large areas. Rabbits are still a problem.

He wants to irrigate about 470ha of the flat land to grow crops mainly for stock feed but an application by the Benmore Irrigation Scheme covering the area was turned down.

He believes the tussocks on the 1700ha won’t survive and soils that aren’t invaded by pines will eventually be blown away.

“The biodiversity will be gone unless the greenies compromise. I can’t graze it hard enough to beat the pine trees. To make it all sustainable I need an income off this land so I can deal with the ongoing pine and pest problem.

“You can’t keep land in a good state unless you’re making something off it. Glenbrook went through tenure review and gave away 4000ha. The payoff was supposed to be the ability to develop the freehold. Now they are saying we want another bite of the cherry.”

Some have even more ambitious plans for the Mackenzie drylands. Dunedin businessman Murray Valentine owns Simons Hill and Simons Pass station on the broad Pukaki Plain and originally had plans to develop about five farms for 15,000 dairy cows. A protracted legal battle ended with consents to irrigate 4800ha of the two stations and Valentine amended his farming plan to include more beef fattening and cropping.

Last year environmental opponents* withdrew court action after Valentine agreed to set aside 1800ha of land for destocking and protection against pests.

Valentine, although not a high country man, has essentially the same argument as Williamson. In his view the land is already hopelessly degraded and irrigation will save the soils and provide an income to do the environmental work.

The Mackenzie District Council has tried to deal with pressures on the landscape from intensified farming and subdivision by changing its District Plan. The change (PC13) has been caught up in court manoeuvres since it was notified 10 years ago.

PC13 restricted the ability of farmers to irrigate and cultivate land. In a decision in April, the Environment Court confirmed PC13, thereby making cultivation, irrigation and direct drilling a discretionary activity. In other words farmers will have to get a resource consent for the activities.

Ecologists told that court that farming practices over the last decade or so had destroyed 18,000ha of indigenous vegetation on the lower lands in the Pukaki and Tekapo ecological districts. In addition, they said the Mackenzie Basin contained 83 at risk or endangered native plant species in addition to tussock species.

The court rejected the farmers’s argument they could not manage the cost of weed and pest control and disagreed land would revert to bare ground and hawkweed if oversowing and topdressing was not allowed to continue. It also found the long term effects of oversowing and topdressing could be detrimental on tussock landscapes, depending on management and fertiliser input. Cultivation resulted in complete displacement of native species, the court said.

Ben McLeod station owner Donald Aubrey hopes his children get the same satisfaction out of the high country as he has. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Ben McLeod station owner Donald Aubrey hopes his children get the same satisfaction out of the high country as he has. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

At that time of day when the world turns away from the sun and the last traces of sunlight are gone from the ridgetops, I lead my old horse down a wild river valley with two trout in the split sack behind the saddle.

Time of Day

Ben McLeod is the station before Mesopotamia on the Rangitata Gorge Road.

Donald Aubrey, 59, took over the 13,000ha station when he was 21 and he and wife Suzy have not been tempted to go through tenure review.

“We don’t want to sell and see no real advantage in tenure review.”

Although their twin sons, Gerald and Rob, are introducing some modest changes, the farm is managed pretty much as it was 40 years ago. Wool is still the main income and the huge tract of land, half the size of the Abel Tasman National Park, carries only about 2000 more sheep than when Aubrey started. About 100 Herefords have been added to stock numbers.

It's been a good season at Donald Aubrey's high country station, Ben McLeod. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Due to direct drilling the farm grows more baleage on the flats and, for two months of the year, part of the farm is cleared and stags, which have been brought into prime condition on lusher pastures on other farms, are released for safari hunting.

Otherwise the sheep still head over the steep north facing terrain on the Ben McLeod Range in summer and have to be brought down in a muster in the autumn.

The tough station has certainly not made the Aubrey family a fortune and the latest threat is from Douglas Fir seedlings spreading from a plantation across Fox Creek.

Aubrey is not looking for an easy life but wonders whether the station is sustainable in economic and environmental terms.

He says matagouri on the farm has increased fivefold under his watch but tussock has suffered particularly from grass grub. His merinos have hard winters because of the lack of feed and he is always mindful of animal welfare issues.

The station works hard to protect the tussock grasslands but it’s a battle, he says.

“We don’t want to lose the tussock. It provides a  microclimate for the grasses underneath and because we are drier, they need the shelter of the tussock. It holds moisture better.”

As a pastoral lessee, he still needs to get approval from his landlord (LINZ) to cultivate, remove vegetation or build new tracks.

“It’s an issue that I find frustrating. We need some balance and that’s why I’m not a purist and think we should be aiming for integrated landscapes which enable a variety of land uses.”

He says dealing with officials is not more difficult than earlier times but the officials are more numerous.

“We used to deal with a one stop arrangement. We had pastoral land officers who would walk around the property and often had the authority to make decisions on the spot and assess the situation but nowadays we’re dealing with multiple agencies all the time. You might get approval from two but if you can’t get the third then you’re back to step one.

“What keeps me going is the beauty of the high country and its people. But the difficulty for next generation is being able to farm as we have traditionally when there is much bias towards landscape preservation. Pastoral leases were about farming, not the landscape.”

High country farmers need to diversify their income away from sheep if they are to survive. ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Helen Ivey, of Glentanner Station, has a print in her hallway of a photograph taken by Andris Apse about 30 years ago. It’s a famous image showing a mob of merinos being shepherded along the main road by a bunch of sheep dogs and two men walking beside their horses. In the background is a clear crisp Aoraki Mt Cook. The image lives on even if the typical high country farmer no longer musters much and is more likely to know more about crops than horses.

Its relevance to today’s high country farmer, who must be a savvy businessman, an entrepreneur, a compliance and consent expert and often mein host for tourists, is being stretched.

In some ways the landscape the high country people farm is worth a lot more to the country than the products they produce.

High country livelihoods need to be maintained to preserve the culture as well as landscapes and ecosystems. The balance and trade-offs will take decades to sort out.

* An earlier version of this feature said Murray Valentine, owner of Simons Pass Station in the Mackenzie Basin, did a deal with the Environmental Defence Society (EDS). This was incorrect. A settlement reached by Valentine to set aside 1800ha of land to be destocked, did not involve the EDS.

Words Martin van Beynen
Visuals Alden Williams
Layout & Design Aaron Wood
Editor Blair Ensor