1997 BANKS MEMORIAL LECTURE
History and Management of Riccarton Bush
Reproduced from an article
by Brian Molloy
From The New Zealand
Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture),
Vol. 3, No. 1, October 2000, pp. 13-18.
Riccarton Bush, in the
heart of the city of Christchurch, is arguably one of the oldest
and best documented protected natural areas in the country (Fig.
1). That this 7.8 ha remnant of kahikatea floodplain forest has
survived natural catastrophes and the impact of two human cultures
is extraordinary to say the least. It has done so largely by a combination
of its own intrinsic qualities and the foresight and dedication
of committed people, beginning with the Scottish settlers William
(1816-1851) and John (1820-1854) Deans in 1843.
Today, Riccarton Bush
stands as a constant reminder of the city's natural and cultural
history, a living museum of native plants and animals, a storehouse
of information on forest management, both good and bad, and an example
of documentation by natural historians and others. Much of this
information is captured in the book Riccarton Bush: Putaringamotu
published by the Riccarton Bush Trust in 1995 (Molloy 1995). Here
I want to focus on the management and sustainability of Riccarton
Bush, but first a few historical and biological tidbits taken from
the book to set the scene.
historical facts about Riccarton Bush
- Prior to European
settlement of Christchurch (Otautahi), the Riccarton Bush area
(Putaringamotu) was occupied by Ngai Tuahuriri, an influential
sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu with headquarters at the famous pa of Kaiapoi.
- Putaringamotu was
one of a number of ridges or wakawaka in the vast swampy area
of Otautahi, occupied by the whanau who had the tribal authority
to live there.
- 1836 First
recorded European sighting of Riccarton Bush by Captain William
Rhodes of the barque Australian.
- 1840-41 First
attempt to settle near Riccarton Bush by James Herriot and party.
- 1843 William
and John Deans settle at Riccarton Bush with the permission of
the Maori owners, signing a formal lease agreement in 1846.
- 1844 First
sketch of Riccarton Bush and the Deans' farm by John Barnicoat,
followed by the first map of the same in 1845 by Charles Meryon
of the French corvette Rhin.
- 1848 Putaringamotu
passed from Maori ownership to the Crown by virtue of Kemp's Purchase,
and later that year the Deans' brothers were granted 400 acres
there, including Riccarton Bush, but the timber on one half to
be the property of the New Zealand Company.
- 1849 First
survey map of the Deans' farm and Riccarton Bush drawn by Charles
Torlesse, followed by the first photograph taken in 1860 by the
celebrated Dr. Alfred Barker, and the first published list of
plants of Riccarton Bush by John Armstrong in 1870.
- 1914 Riccarton
Bush (6.4 ha) gifted to the people of Canterbury by the Deans'
family, and the Riccarton Bush Act passed incorporating a Board
of Trustees and setting out their responsibilities and the conditions
of the Deans' family gift.
- 1947 Riccarton
House and grounds (4 ha) and the remaining 1.4 ha of Riccarton
Bush added to the reserve by purchase, followed in 1975 by the
purchase of the historic site of the Deans' original houses and
other buildings (3 roods 12 perches).
- 1989 Amalgamation
of Christchurch local authorities ushering in a new era of funding
and administration of the Riccarton Bush reserve by the Board
biological features of interest
- Riccarton Bush is
the last in line of similar forests that occupied the site of
Christchurch over hundreds of thousands of years between successive
ice ages. The remains of these ancient forests lie buried beneath
the city between layers of glacial outwash and alluvium like a
giant club sandwich.
- Over the last 15,000
years, fires, floods and changing sea level were major factors
in the history of the vegetation of Christchurch. The last major
flood of the Waimakariri River to affect the site of Riccarton
Bush occurred about 3,000 years ago, and the last major fire to
affect the Bush, presumably lit by the Maori occupants, occurred
about 240 years ago. By the 1840s Riccarton Bush covered a mere
22 ha, largely as a result of periodic fires.
- Kahikatea is the dominant
tree of Riccarton Bush, and at the last census (1978), 478 adult
trees were counted, with a mean height of 25 m, a mean diameter
of 58 cm, and a maximum-recorded age of 550 years, although some
of the larger specimens may be older (Fig. 2).
- Kahikatea trees are
wholly male or wholly female throughout their life. In Riccarton
Bush the ratio of males to females is 1:1, the sexes are evenly
dispersed, and male trees are larger than females.
- At the last census
(1993), 71 species of native trees, shrubs, lianes, and herbs
were recorded from Riccarton Bush compared to 73 in 1870. There
is also a good representation of ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens
- Riccarton Bush is
the southern limit in eastern South Island of hinau, and along
with Banks Peninsula, the southern limit of titoki and the native
passion vine or kohia.
- Lying within the "Garden
City", Riccarton Bush is open to constant invasion by introduced
plants, some recorded here as naturalised plants for the first
time in New Zealand. At the last census (1994), 188 species were
listed; more than twice the number of native species, although
most occur in very low numbers.
- About 300 species
of moths and butterflies have been collected from Riccarton Bush
between 1859 and 1996, and the Bush is the type locality for several
genera and species. The Bush also has a rich scale insect fauna
and still harbours a few geckos.
- Between them John
Deans and Charlotte Godley, who lived alongside the Bush, recorded
the following native birds in the 1850s: kaka, kereru, tui, bellbird,
South Island robin and kakariki. Today the kereru, fantail, warbler
and white-eye are the hardy survivors.
and protection of Riccarton Bush
When the Canterbury Pilgrims
arrived in December 1850, Riccarton Bush and four similar patches
at Papanui, Woodend, Kaiapoi and Rangiora were the sole survivors
of a former widespread forest reduced by floods and Maori fires.
By July 1851 that part of Riccarton Bush available to the Pilgrims
by agreement had been cut down, and by the early 1860s little remained
of the other remnants.
From the beginning, the
Deans' brothers used the timber resources of Riccarton Bush judiciously.
When William died in 1851 the responsibility for safeguarding the
Bush fell upon his younger brother John, and when he died in 1854
the stewardship passed to his young wife Jane. On his deathbed,
John expressed the wish that every effort should be made to preserve
the Bush from destruction. That Jane carried out this wish implicitly
is now well documented, and we owe this somewhat frail but determined
woman our deep gratitude (Fig. 3).
Some doubt has been raised
over the motives of the Deans' brothers in retaining the Bush. As
both have been dead now for almost 150 years, we can never know
their personal motives. But let Jane speak for the brothers on this
matter (Deans 1882):
"The remaining part
of the Bush has been preserved as well as possible, in accordance
with the late John Deans' wishes, no timber being now cut up except
fallen timber, which is used for fencing purposes, the aim being
to preserve the Bush as long as possible; it has been planted
round and throughout with forest trees wherever timber has been
cut for building purposes, the gaps being filled with oaks, ashes,
elms and gums, etc, as the soil appeared suitable for one or the
other. This was done before Sir J. Vogel enunciated his "Native
Forest Preservation' scheme." (italics mine)
There is no doubt in
my mind that conservation was the real motive behind John Deans'
wish, and in this he showed remarkable foresight. The same motive
was undoubtedly behind the purchase of 40 acres of untouched bush
at Peel Forest, South Canterbury, in 1881 by Arthur Mills who was
appalled at the wanton tree-felling there. Indeed, conservation
began very early in New Zealand's history, and we should freely
acknowledge that. The formal protection of Riccarton Bush in 1914
was spearheaded by prominent citizens of Christchurch, among whom
Harry Ell of Summit Road fame and the eminent botanist Dr. Leonard
Cockayne were foremost. Thus the deathbed wish of John Deans had
finally come to pass.
management of Riccarton Bush
During the Ngai Tuahuriri
time of occupation, Riccarton Bush or Putaringamotu was a much-valued
resource of plants and bird life. The likely impact of Maori use is
difficult to assess and is very much open to speculation. Judging
by early European descriptions of the Bush, the impacts appear to
have been minimal, apart from the reduction in area by fires.
During the 70 years of
occupancy by the Deans' family, certain events and decisions taken
were to shape the future of the Bush. Foremost was the felling of
half the Bush by the Canterbury Pilgrims by agreement one
of the country's first examples of cutting rights. This clear-felling,
together with the selected removal of kahikatea, totara and matai
for building purposes, created a fresh boundary to the Bush and
several large canopy gaps in the interior. To help offset the exposure
of the Bush to the elements and to encourage the re-growth of native
species, Jane Deans arranged for introduced trees, mainly oak and
ash, to be planted along the boundaries and in the internal gaps
from the late 1860s onwards. As Jane Deans noted, the introduced
trees did well in the Bush, but instead of protecting young native
plants, they tended to smother them out by their shade and fallen
sixty years of trust board management
- 1914 Riccarton
Bush Trust Board took over the responsibility of the Bush, appointed
its first ranger and decided not to open the Bush to the public
until boundary fencing was completed, gates installed, a preliminary
walking track put in place, and unwanted debris cleared.
- 1917 Riccarton
Bush opened to the public on 24 February 1917 by the Governor,
Lord Liverpool. That same year the first plan of the Bush showing
its present and former boundaries and the initial system of walking
tracks was drawn up for the public's benefit.
- In 1914, and for many
years afterwards, the Bush was in a dilapidated state (Fig. 4),
and where trees had been extracted the associated debris and rapid
growth of smothering climbing plants required much attention.
Unfortunately, the Bush was treated like an English woodland,
much of the debris was gathered up and burnt on the spot, and
grassy clearings and the forest floor were regularly mown to produce
a 'tidy' appearance.
- Initially the Bush
was bounded by farmland. From 1925 onwards, this farmland was
sold and sub-divided for residential housing. Over time, gates
appeared along the boundary, private tracks were formed, garden
refuse was dumped in the Bush, and excess runoff water accumulated.
Apart from draining the excess water, these problems remained
unresolved for many years.
- When the Trust Board
took over in 1914 parts of the Bush were over-run by undesirable
plants such as elderberry, blackberry, sycamore and many others.
Disturbed parts of the Bush provided an ideal environment for
this alien flora and the control of these unwanted plants has
been an ongoing but important task.
- The initial track
system became a permanent feature of the Bush and required constant
care and attention. Some parts were systematically built up with
hardfill, which introduced drainage problems in later years.
- Exotic trees planted
in the Bush interior by Jane Deans were gradually removed, and
by 1952 the last of these trees were felled. Some of the rotting
stumps can still be seen today. The main border of oak and ash
along the Bush boundary remained intact.
- The most extensive
damage to the Bush during this period occurred in July 1945 when
45 cm of snow lay upon the ground in the city and suburbs. The
debris in the Bush resulting from this storm was still being cleaned
up in the late 1950s.
- The introduction
of native plants to the Bush was one of the most critical activities
carried out in this first phase of management. Sadly, it lacked
adequate guidance and documentation, with the result that species
not native to the region were often planted, in many cases the
sources of plants were unknown, and hybridisation occurred between
resident and introduced plants. One of the more invasive species,
the North Island lacebark (Hoheria sexstylosa) became
firmly established, displacing many of the local native trees
and hybridising with the resident narrow-leaved lacebark (Hoheria
last twenty-five years
From 1974 the Trust Board
adopted a fresh approach to the management of Riccarton Bush in
an attempt to turn around the unnatural and damaging effects of
the previous 'woodland' phase, and to address other problems. As
each project was undertaken, the public was kept fully informed
and their support has been consistently strong.
- The boundaries of
the Bush have now been secured by new fencing, thus eliminating
private gates and walking tracks and the dumping of rubbish.
- A thorough soil and
groundwater survey of the Bush has been completed, and the legal
boundaries re- surveyed; both essential for management purposes.
- The problem of surplus
water from adjoining properties has been resolved, and the ponding
effect of the network of compacted tracks corrected.
- In 1974 the Bush
was grossly over-tracked to the detriment of the forest environment
and public use. Many of the tracks have now been closed, parts
receiving the greatest use were replaced with concrete paths to
provide an all-weather surface, especially for disabled folk,
and a new boardwalk was constructed through the least disturbed
part of the Bush.
- From 1974 the practice
of gathering up litter and burning it in the Bush was stopped
and all litter, including large fallen trees, is now left to rot
naturally. The resultant buildup of forest litter has had a marked
beneficial effect on the flora and fauna of the forest floor especially,
and the micro-environment generally.
- From 1974 the practice
of mowing grass clearings and the forest floor was also stopped.
This practice was responsible for eliminating native climbing
plants such as the white rata and white clematis, which were never
abundant, and had caused considerable damage to the butts and
large surface roots of kahikatea in particular. Fortunately most
of this damage has callused over, although a few trees are now
suffering from advanced butt rot.
- New entrances, signs,
brochures and other items of interpretive value have been put
in place, and a variety of studies are encouraged and supported.
- A consistent approach
to the control of troublesome weeds and pests such as "urban"
possums and domestic cats has been adopted, with considerable
help with weed control by local groups.
- In 1975 the felling
of oaks and other introduced trees on the Bush boundary was begun,
and completed in 1984. This project, not without controversy from
some neighbours, was carried out in stages and the cleared areas
were prepared for minimal planting, allowing the Bush to spread
naturally to the boundary of the reserve in the years ahead.
- In 1975 work began
on the establishment of a nursery for propagating plants from
seed sourced entirely from the Bush. Over the following years
numerous plants of understory trees such as karamu, ribbonwood,
matipo, mapou, lemonwood and others were planted in clearings
and along the boundary to provide initial shelter for naturally
spreading trees to establish and to suppress the growth of grasses
and other weeds.
- Initial plantings
in 1975 were monitored from fixed photo points, and their subsequent
growth proved to be rapid and dramatic (Fig. 5).
- More recently a large-scale
project removing the North Island lacebark from the Bush has been
undertaken with considerable success and with the help of local
organisations and interest groups.
- It is anticipated
that the practice of new planting in gaps throughout the Bush
will continue for several years yet, and to this end the nursery
has been re-organised to cope with the demand, and also to supply
surplus plants for other projects around the city.
In the last 25 years
Riccarton Bush has demonstrated the remarkable resilience of small
forest remnants and their inherent capacity to respond to simple
and sensible management practices. The lessons learned throughout
the Trust Board's stewardship are now embodied in a management plan
adopted in 1991 and reviewable at the Board's discretion. In my
time I have been astounded by the rapidity and magnitude of the
changes in Riccarton Bush in response to the management practices
put in place. Substantial parts of the Bush are now difficult to
distinguish from undisturbed forests elsewhere in the country. There
is still a way to go before the Bush becomes completely self-sustaining,
but I am confident this will happen if the present management continues.
We all realise that Riccarton Bush is now completely isolated from
normal processes of replenishment and the direction of change it
will take will differ accordingly. Our main object is to restore
the Bush to a state where natural processes can take over. Compared
to its earlier open woodland condition, the Bush now has a continuous
cover of woody plants, herbs and ground ferns, and in places is
quite impenetrable. The dramatic increase in vegetation generally
now places greater demand on soil moisture, particularly during
exceptionally dry summers, and also increases the risk of fire.
With this in mind, the Trust Board's next major project is to install
a permanent, dual irrigation/ fire protection system as an insurance
against fire, and more especially for the maintenance and enhancement
of the Bush.
Over the last 25 years
my association with Riccarton Bush, representing the Canterbury
Branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand, has been a most fulfilling
experience. I thoroughly recommend a similar commitment to forest
remnants elsewhere in the country.
Deans, J. 1882. Canterbury
past and present. New Zealand Country Journal 6 (6): 381-392.
Molloy, B. (ed) 1975.
Riccarton Bush: Putaringamotu. Riccarton Bush Trust, Christchurch.
Other sites that feature Riccarton Bush
article "Riccarton Bush A City Treasure" from Our
Environment: Issue 25, Summer 2000 is available at the Christchurch
City Council website.
on the Riccarton Bush Trust is available at NZERN the New
Zealand Ecological Restoration Network website.
More Journal Articles