Story: McCaskill, Lancelot William

Page 1 - Biography

McCaskill, Lancelot William

1900–1985

Agricultural instructor, lecturer, conservationist, writer

This biography was written by P. J. Perry and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Lancelot William McCaskill (registered at birth as Lancecot) was born at Winchester, South Canterbury, on 8 May 1900, the son of Janet Bisset and her husband, Daniel McCaskill, a wool scourer. His father died when he was five. After attending Winchester School and Timaru Boys’ High School, he went to the Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln, where he gained a diploma, and then to Christchurch Training College.

McCaskill began his career as an itinerant agricultural instructor with the Auckland Education Board in 1923. During this time he was involved with a Thames valley nursery in a joint venture with a Waitoa dairy farmer, Jack Mackay, who was a great advocate of totara shelter belts. On 19 August 1925, in Hokitika, McCaskill married Isobel Murray Aitken, a teacher. He was a lecturer in agriculture and biology at Dunedin Training College between 1928 and 1932, and at Christchurch Teachers’ Training College from 1933 to 1944. He gained an MAgrSc in 1930 after studying part time. In 1932 he assisted in forming the first of New Zealand’s Young Farmers’ Clubs at Palmerston, Otago; he would eventually become the movement’s grand patron. These first two decades of his career provided the basis for McCaskill’s extensive knowledge of New Zealand environments.

McCaskill became aware of soil erosion problems in 1929, through work on deer damage in Otago forests; his knowledge was extended by contact with the geographer Kenneth Cumberland and geologist Norman Taylor, and culminated in a period of travel in the United States in 1939 on a Carnegie fellowship. While there he studied rural education and soil conservation, two interests which occupied the rest of his life: at the Canterbury Agricultural College (later Lincoln College) between 1944 and 1965, and during a long and active retirement. At Lincoln he lectured in rural education, becoming an associate professor in 1949 and director of the Tussock Grasslands and Mountain Lands Institute in 1961.

It was in the area of soil conservation that McCaskill first became a national figure. He argued and publicised the case against downstream engineering solutions, in favour of a wider approach that combined research, training of soil conservators, and management of high country catchments and their land use. He succeeded (not least by means of slide shows to parliamentarians) in incorporating this approach into the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941. He became a foundation member of the North Canterbury Catchment Board (1944–56, 1959–60, 1966–74) and was on the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council from 1952 to 1957. He wrote numerous short books, pamphlets and articles on scenic reserves, national parks and soil conservation, and was a frequent correspondent to newspapers, often under the pseudonyms ‘Putangitangi’ and ‘Tane’.

A passion for native plants began during his earlier involvement with the Thames valley nursery. It later took such practical forms as preservation of Ranunculus crithmifolius paucifolius at Castle Hill, and the regeneration and management of Riccarton Bush. He was a foundation member of the National Parks Authority of New Zealand (1953–68) and a member of the Arthur’s Pass National Park Board (1948–67). In his early years on these bodies he was prepared to risk unpopularity through emphasising the scientific role and significance of the parks, a position that led him into conflict with the mountaineering lobby. It was through the National Parks Authority and the New Zealand Native Bird Protection Society (of which he was an original member) that he led New Zealand into the worldwide conservation movement and eventual membership of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

McCaskill’s position has sometimes been misinterpreted as a hostility to people using parks or ecologically sensitive areas. This view is hard to reconcile with his generally good relationship with the New Zealand Forest Service and foresters in general. In 1971, the year he became an honorary member of the New Zealand Institute of Foresters, he was chosen to sum up the discussion on multiple-use forest management at the institute’s conference. In the inter-war period he was on good terms and actively involved with both the forestry community and the Native Bird Protection Society (later the Forest and Bird Protection Society). His relationship with the Department of Lands and Survey was similarly fruitful, although the same cannot be said with respect to the Department of Agriculture – probably because of differences over rural extension.

Compromise was not part of McCaskill’s intellectual or personal make-up; realism was. He was a man of energy, determination, tenacity, unpredictability and even occasional belligerence, attributes that were central to his capacity to get things done. While his work received public recognition in New Zealand – he was made a CBE in 1969 and received a number of academic and professional awards – in many respects he received greater recognition internationally, notably the Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit in 1984. However, the many honours of his long years of retirement are less significant than the maturing of his scholarship in two important books: Molesworth (1969) and Hold this land (1973), a history of soil conservation in New Zealand.

Lance McCaskill died in Christchurch on 9 August 1985, survived by two sons and a daughter. His wife had died in 1980. One son, Murray, was foundation professor of geography at Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide. McCaskill was not New Zealand’s first or foremost environmental scientist. Belonging rather in the older tradition of natural history, he was one of its greatest and earliest environmental publicists, and an outstanding field teacher. His achievement was to place the environment high on the public agenda, and to do so in terms that ensured high-quality and well-informed debate rather than shouting of slogans and shibboleths. That the debate would proceed along these lines – that there would even be rational debate – could not be taken for granted in the 1920s. McCaskill deserves much of the credit for the very different ethos that enveloped these issues during the second half of the twentieth century.