"Think of New Zealand farms, not as a series of cultivated fields planted in various crops, but as perfect lawns or golf courses dotted with sheep and dairy cows."

Thus, in 1928 E V Wilcox lauded our pastoral landscape in the U S publication The Country Gentleman.

In the 90 years since much has changed, but essentially that observation remains true, especially in springtime. Drive through the New Zealand countryside and celebrate it!

This country, in which it is our great good fortune to live, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. Traditionally it is most noted internationally for its natural beauty, but our man-made landscape is increasingly a lure to the tourist.


While lacking the ancient placements that so enrich the Old World, our productive land is generally well manicured and picturesque. Moreover, unlike the continental landscapes, (Australia for instance), it is wonderfully diverse; rounding every bend reveals a new vista, and every region a distinctive character.

The productive landscape is a child of commercial opportunity as the decisions affecting the landscape are primarily economic ones, so commercial dynamic is represented in the changing landscape.

The most profound changes are to be observed on our flat or near-flat land, but most of our stable hill country remains in pasture, as its productive opportunity is in growing meat, and to a greatly lessening extent, wool.

Trees, however, have been integrated over the pastureland, cultivated for varying reasons.

The eroding hill country is another matter, and much has gone into blanket forest, and more yet needs to be. As long as it is in private ownership, and the costs of that ownership have to be met, it will be predominantly radiata pine.

Our radiata is extraordinarily productive and forestry interests will choose it as the most proven and commercially safe species, (though, obviously, they need to brush up on their harvesting etiquette). For good reason there's a maxim in the farm forestry fraternity that the forester grows pine woodlots to finance his indulgence in other species.

But blanket forestry sweeps aside the vital social infrastructure of our pastoral traditions which impulse country life and character – and landscape.

The eroding hills apart, what's the future of this land; too hilly for annual crop production, and generally beyond the dairying frontier?


To my mind it is secure. With wool a by-product the focus is on high-quality meat; lamb, beef and to some extent, venison. We cannot dismiss the rise of vegetable "meat", but there will always be a craving for the real thing for its taste and goodness.

Our open-range practice meets high environmental and animal welfare standards where the animal does its own harvesting. Yes, there are plenty of bad images involving intensive cattle systems, and they prove that not all is well.

This lets the industry down, as a few seconds on the evening news of cows knee-deep in mud or trampling a stream margin will always make a more enduring impression than sheep and cattle grazing peacefully over our tree-dotted green pastures featured on a calendar or a travel brochure.

So how much of this land is going to be engulfed by the billion trees to be planted over the next decade? Do forestry interests want to acquire this expensive land for forestry?

Obviously not, because they aren't.

How about farming landowners converting to blanket in pines? Obviously not, because they aren't.

It is true that we need more trees, and government policy is generally correct in promoting forestation.

We must meet our obligations as environmentally responsible global citizens, but we need to be careful about how we go about it. Our colonial forebears, in their ignorance, plundered our forests to grow food and fibre, though this had been a traditional and accepted global process for centuries.

Still, our modern forestry practice and ethic is very enlightened. Our old growth natives are protected down to the individual tree, while virtually all our timber needs are sourced from our plantation forests, with more besides exported to a timber-hungry world. This we can proudly proclaim.

A billion is a lot of trees. Even if around half go into pines (the rest being non-commercial species - who pays the bills for that?), then at 300-400 to the hectare there will be an enormous appetite for land. Where's it coming from?

Our stable, productive and picturesque stable hill country? Shane, don't even think about it!

* Ewan McGregor is a farmer and former Hawke's Bay regional councillor.