The Mackenzie Basin : a regional study in the South Island high country.
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During recent years the high country of the South Island has attracted a good deal of attention from farm economists, soil conservationists, geographers and also politicians. With the present need for increased national production the problem of keeping the high country in productive occupation is the subject of justifiable concern. The purpose of this regional study is to describe one of the most distinctive areas in the high country, and to discuss the problems which have caused the recent Royal Commission on the Sheep-farming Industry in New Zealand to investigate the general economic position of the runholders. Besides being a well-defined physiographic unit, the Mackenzie Basin or, as it is better known to the local people, the Mackenzie Country has a distinctive character of its own. On entering Burkes Pass even the most casual observer cannot fail to notice how different the landscape within the basin appears compared with that outside. This large, gravel-filled intermontane depression with its vast expanse of dun coloured tussock and its clear, dry climate seems to have a special flavour which distinguishes it from any other part of either Canterbury or Otago. Probably the most striking feature of the basin is its monotonous uniformity of both physical conditions and human activities. The extensive sheep-farming economy has imposed a distinctive pattern of land use over the whole area. Not only does the landscape have a similar appearance everywhere but, because of their common int erests, the people all tend to live alike and think alike. Before 1939 the basin was solely a sheep-grazing area but, with the recent developments connected with the storage of water in the lakes for the generation of hydro-electricity, the Mackenzie Country has assumed a new importance. With the dam-building schemes at Tekapo and Pukaki an entirely new element has been introduced into the landscape - the large Public Works Camp. These camps, however, are, for the most part, temporary features and the sheep-station remains the typical unit of settlement. For this reason the major part of this study is devoted to a description of the landscape as it has developed under the extensive sheep-farming economy and a discussion of the problems resulting from the exploitation of the natural vegetation. When the early settlers first took up their runs they had the opportunity of making the Mackenzie basin one of the best merino grazing areas in New Zealand. In most cases that opportunity was lost, due partly to ignorance of proper grazing methods under sub-humid conditions and partly to short-sighted practices caused by temporary economic difficulties. Over-burning and over-stocking extracted an early toll from the vegetation cover which, in spite of numerous attempts can never be fully repaid. By deliberately introducing rabbits into the area the early runholders made their third and possibly their greatest mistake. These rabbits were allowed to multiply unchecked for nearly twenty years before it was realised what a menace they were likely to become. By that time it was too late. Today, the rabbit is generally considered to be the chief cause of the disturbing decline in the sheep carrying capacity of the Mackenzie Country. Altogether, unwise burning, overstocking and rabbits have caused such a deterioration in the tussock cover that Cumberland's description of some parts of the basin as "deserts in the making" is quite appropriate. Admittedly conditions are not as bad as in the "man-made deserts" of Central Otago but a serious problem at present confronts the Mackenzie runholders.