Story: Dune lands

Since the early 1900s, New Zealand has lost 70% of its dune lands – rolling sand hills behind beaches. Seen as waste areas, they were planted with introduced species, or turned into pine forest, golf courses or housing. Today many remaining dunes are being protected and planted with native sand-binding species.

Full story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Dunes at Mason Bay, Stewart Island

The Short Story

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What are dune lands and how do they form?

Dune lands are hilly areas of sand, found behind beaches.

Dunes are piles of sand, built up by the wind. They form inland from beaches that have plenty of sand. As the wind blows the sand, it builds into mounds around rocks and other small obstacles. The mounds grow, and become dunes.

In New Zealand, the wind comes mainly from the west, so dune lands have mostly built up on the west coast.

Plants

The native plants pīngao and spinifex, and introduced marram grass, grow on some dunes close to the sea.

Active dune lands

Some dune lands are active – they are not completely covered in plants, so wind can blow the sand, making the dunes move around.

The main dune lands

New Zealand’s biggest active dune lands are on the west coast – Northland, Auckland’s west coast, Waikato, Manawatū, Farewell Spit, the Fiordland coast, Southland and Stewart Island. There are some smaller dune lands on the east coast.

Increase in dunes

Fires lit by Māori may have cleared land for sand to move onto. Later, European settlers cleared grasses, shrubs and trees by the coast to make farms. The wind blew sand onto the cleared land, and the dunes moved further inland and covered larger areas.

From the 19th century, people worried about sand blowing around and covering the farmland. At Waikanae on the Kapiti coast, it even buried a church.

Stopping the spread of sand

Through the 20th century, many dune lands were planted with marram grass, which stabilised the sand. Large areas were turned into pine forests.

Loss of dune lands

New Zealand’s active dune lands have been reduced by about 70% since 1900. They have been turned into forests, housing areas and golf courses.

Restoring the dunes

In some areas, marram grass has taken over and become a weed, replacing native species like pīngao and spinifex, which once grew on the dunes. Today, some people are replanting these species and protecting the dune lands.

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How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond. 'Dune lands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 11-Jun-13
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/dune-lands