Story: Landscapes – overview
Page 2 – Vegetation – the green mantle
New Zealand was one of the last major land areas to be settled. Before humans arrived, more than 80% of the country was covered in evergreen forests, consisting mainly of plants found nowhere else in the world.
Most of the forests were a conifer–broadleaf mix, found mainly at lower altitudes. Conifer–broadleaf forests have a layered canopy, with large species such as rimu towering over smaller trees and shrubs. Giant kauri trees grow only in the subtropical north. New Zealand beech (Nothofagus) forest can be found from valley floors to alpine regions.
The treeline is often sharply marked, at around 1,450 metres above sea level in the North Island, and as low as 500 metres on Stewart Island. Seen from a distance, the colour changes sharply at the treeline, from dark green forest to brownish grasses and alpine plants.
Remaking the landscape
After Polynesians arrived in New Zealand around 1250–1300 AD, they burnt large areas of forest.
European settlers arriving in the 19th century destroyed more forest, clearing both lowlands and steeper hillsides. In the early 2000s, about 30% of New Zealand was covered in introduced pasture grasses. There are also large areas of exotic forest, mainly radiata pine (Pinus radiata), which grows much faster than native trees.
Painting the landscape
In 1956, Auckland businessman Sir Henry Kelliher set up annual awards of up to £500 for traditional and realistic paintings of New Zealand landscapes. The awards drew criticism from some in the art community, who saw them as a bulwark against modernism. But there was widespread public support, and landscape painters appreciated the funding.
As more forest was cleared, there were calls to preserve distinctive landscapes. The Scenery Preservation Act of 1903 signalled government acceptance of the need to protect areas of natural beauty.
Some smaller areas became scenic reserves, and a number of larger regions have been protected by law as national parks. In 2006, there were over 1,700 scenic, historic, nature and scientific reserves, and 14 national parks covering a third of New Zealand – mainly mountainous areas. Although lowland New Zealand is intensively farmed, large areas of the country remain roadless and uninhabited, the domain of only hardy outdoor enthusiasts.