Julian Kuzma

The winter of 1895 did not begin well for sheep farmers. New Zealand lamb sold for only five pence a pound on the Smithfield market, mutton for four pence. Merino wool reached rock bottom at six pence a pound. Fat stock sold at prices hardly worth the trouble. The summer had been dry, with a consequent shortage of feed on the low country, but storms in April and May brought snow to higher altitudes so that sheep had to be brought down onto it earlier than usual. This prompted the Otago Witness to publish an article in early May about wintering livestock, while farmers reported a shortage of feed and the failure of their turnip crops. In the Lake County, heavy frosts indicated the likelihood of a severe winter ahead.[1]

In Southland the country already had a ‘winterly appearance’. Farmers carted grain before the roads deteriorated and swaggers sought accommodation at farmhouses and back stations. Despite a spell of generally fine weather in mid May, in the Lake County ‘the mountains’ winter dresses descend lower and lower with every shower that falls.’

May-June: ‘First it rained and then it blew, then it frizz and then it snew’

Snow began to fall on the Upper Taieri on May 23 followed by heavy snowfalls throughout north-west Otago from May 25 to 27. These were not fully reported until May 30 because the storm had ‘interrupted communication on every direction.’ But as communication with isolated areas gradually improved it became clear that much of inland Otago and Southland had been severely affected, from Waihola and Milton in the east to Mossburn and Manapouri in the west.

Arrowtown, according to the Otago Daily Times correspondent, had not been so completely isolated since the storm of 1878. All outdoor work and communication with outlying districts had stopped. A Mt Pisa resident described the snow there as ‘the heaviest for years’ and property holders along the Clutha River were warned of a possible flooding disaster like that which followed the 1878 snowfall. Similar reports gradually filtered through from the Teviot district, Tapanui and Moa Flat where the station’s modern and improved woolshed collapsed under the weight of snow on the roof.[2]

A swagger who lost his way and fell in a creek on the road from Ettrick arrived at Moa Flat homestead more dead than alive. He recovered, as did a man named Oliver who lost his way near Pembroke (Wanaka). Less fortunate, a man rumoured to be Patrick Neylan, an employee at Tarras station, died of exposure, while fears were also expressed for the residents of Nevis, thought to be snowed up for the winter without adequate supplies. Similar reports of misadventure and fatalities came in from Morven Hills, St Bathans and the head of Lake Wakatipu.[3]

At Lake Wanaka, where the first snows usually arrived towards the end of June, it now lay to a depth of twenty inches, with up to thirteen inches at nearby Albert Town and Mt Barker. The absence of wind caused snow to pile up on the telegraph line from Albert Town to Cromwell, breaking the wire and the crossbars on the poles in several places. The broken wires proved a danger with at least one rider being caught by the neck at the Albert Town punt. Repairs took nearly a week.

Across the rest of the Lake County snow lay a foot deep over the lowlands. Wet snow broke tree branches and telegraph wires and those coaches that did run arrived late, the horses suffering severely from the bad state of the roads. Avalanches caused havoc in the step gullies around Macetown, Skippers and the Upper Shotover. The correspondent for the Otago Witness described the mountains as ‘a vast array of gigantic bride’s cakes.’ Tales of hardship had come to him ‘from every quarter.’[4]

At Macetown, between four and five feet of soft snow had fallen so quickly it had not had time to harden on the hillsides and came down in immense avalanches, pushing houses bodily forward, capsizing some into the creek and pushing in or smashing the walls of others. The only means of escape for the occupants of one hillside house had been to lie down on the deep soft snow and roll downhill. With avalanches continuing for much of the week a track was cut to the mouth of the Premier mine to use it as a shelter.

Similar problems occurred at Skippers where four feet of snow had damaged the drainage machinery at the Achilles mine, threatening the underground workings. Reports coming in over subsequent weeks estimated this snowfall to have been as severe as that of 1878, ‘a memorable year for the decided and rapid downward turn things pastoral took in the district.’ The Manapouri correspondent for the Otago Witness thought the bad weather demanded bad poetry:

First it rained and then it blew/ Then it frizz and then it snew/ Then there was a shower of rain/ Then it frizz and snew again.[5]

The Tuapeka Times reported that over five hundred miles of telegraph lines had been broken throughout Otago, with more than forty breaks between Lawrence and Roxburgh and another twenty between Lawrence and Milton.[6] Connections had been quickly restored, however and within a week a slow thaw set in. That alleviated fears of the Clutha River flooding from a rapid thaw. The snow gradually disappeared from the flats over the course of a week, although it remained on the hills and high country. So far there appeared to have been few, if any, stock losses. But that was about to change.

Dunedin and Christchurch had to date experienced only heavy rain but on Monday June 14 snow began to fall in Christchurch and Geraldine in South Canterbury, as well as in Southland. Until then The Press in Christchurch had not published any reports of snowfalls in the back country but as the snow continued to fall in the city it began to take an interest in the situation elsewhere. By June 20 the snow had spread into Otago from the Upper Waitaki valley with falls of several inches reported from Wanaka south to Riversdale in northern Southland and across eastern and north Otago.[7]

Snow had fallen in the Port Hills above Christchurch and at Methven on June 17, and again fell in the city itself on June 21, accompanied by heavy frosts. On Wednesday June 25 heavy snow across the North Canterbury hill was followed by heavy rain in Christchurch and the plains, causing the rivers to run high and bringing flooding to Ashburton and Cheviot. Flooding, slips and washed out roads caused the evacuation of the Little River district on June 27.

Reports coming in from Saturday June 29 onwards indicated the severity of the snowfalls in the Canterbury back country. At Sheffield snow had fallen for four days, cutting off road and telegraph communications with the West Coast. The snow was described as being from one to six feet deep with enormous drifts of between ten and thirty feet, with fears expressed about the potential loss of sheep.[8]

Snow continued to fall on the hill country in Canterbury, the West Coast, Otago and Southland throughout the first week of July, with heavy rain along the east coast of the South Island. At Lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu, and at Arrowtown, drizzling snow and rain continued on and off for three weeks. Fortunately the snow melted as it fell causing little serious harm, but it was a different story at high altitude places like Rough Ridge and Naseby in the heart of Central Otago. There snow had fallen with little cessation from the middle of June until early July. Only the slight thaw that accompanied it prevented the depth from exceeding two feet.[9]

Stock were now beginning to show signs of starvation with many not expected to survive the winter. For the first time sheep were reported to be eating the wool off each other’s backs, a tale that would become common as the snow continued.[10]

News also came in of people getting into difficulties. George Allan, a miner at Nevis spent fourteen hours sheltering under a rock in total darkness in a snowstorm on the top of the Carrick Range, on the road home from Bannockburn. Found by the mail carrier, he had icicles hanging from his beard to his waist and frostbitten hands. Fears were also held for a party of three rabbiters, the brothers Thomas, John and Patrick Healy, who had left Naseby on May 27 to cross the Kakanui Range, via Dansey’s Pass, to Otematata in the Waitaki Valley. A twenty-five-man search party set out at the end of June and got as far as Mt Burster [sic] where they were stopped by a blizzard and four feet of snow. There they found another rabbiter named Stuart in an exhausted condition, locating the Healys the next day, safe in their camp.

At about the same time John Tait and Mr H. Lory who had left Livingstone, a mining settlement on the Waitaki side of the pass, to cross to Naseby found they could not get their horses through the deep drifts at the top of the pass. Lory turned back but Tait tried to walk through. It took him seven hours to scramble three miles. About to give up, a dog barking led him to a farm house where he arrived at eleven o’clock at night swollen all over from cold and exhaustion.[11]

In the Kakanui Ranges the grass had been covered for three weeks and stock were starving. At Morven Hills and other stations on the Otago side of the Lindis Pass snow had fallen every day in June and thousands of sheep were reported to be perishing. Of 300,000 acres only 20,000 were free of snow and even there feed was scarce, owing to the dry summer. Of the 100,000 sheep on Morven Hills it was feared only the strongest would survive. Some 10,000 wethers had been snowed in but a newspaper report that they had been offered to anyone who cared to try to rescue them was later strenuously denied by the station manager, who said attempts to rescue sheep had never been abandoned. Reports from Hawkdun Station at the head of the Manuherikia Valley also indicated high stock mortality rates.[12]

In the Mackenzie basin on the Canterbury side of the Lindis Pass things were even worse. The area had been completely under snow for a month, from the first week in June, with not a bare patch of land to be seen. The loss of sheep was feared to be enormous, in some cases amounting to a total loss. On Tekapo station, where the snow was three feet deep on the flats and ten feet on the mountains, the men had not even been able to search. Sheep were known to have been lost on Rollesby and Mt Nessing stations, although some had been rescued on Opawa station. One report suggested over 50,000 sheep had been snowed up between the Hakataramea Valley and the Mackenzie basin.

The area had been cut off by road for much of that time too. The county council’s snow plough had been busy but as fast as it cut a track it snowed up again. By the end of June mails from Timaru could get only as far as Burkes Pass where the snow was between two and three feet deep. Between Otematata and Omarama, at the south end of the Mackenzie basin, the snow was up to the hubs of the coach wheels, reducing progress to a slow laborious walk.[13]

Further north, in the Ashburton River catchment there had been five severe snowfalls in June, totalling six feet. The last fall had been followed by rain and frosts, covering the snow with a sheet of ice, and the sheep were starving. With similar reports coming in from the various stations in the headwaters of the Canterbury rivers, on July 9 The Press ran the headline ‘HEAVY SNOW IN THE BACK COUNTRY. GREAT LOSS OF SHEEP.’[14]

Conflicting reports came in from the upper Waitaki. Snow had fallen every day in June and sheep had been snowed up for three weeks without food. Sheep could survive for four to five weeks without food and providing a thaw set in those in good condition should survive. But, due to the unseasonal earliness of the storms, next year’s lambing would be poor.[15]

In the meantime, constant rain and drizzle on the lowlands lead to ‘oceans of mud and slush everywhere’ and made the roads ‘unspeakably bad.’ Flooding occurred at Outram, near Dunedin, and was widespread in the Leeston and Ellesmere districts south of Christchurch. Central Otago and the Lake County had not seen the sun for days.[16]

On all of the high country from Marlborough to Otago sheep were stuck and no thaw came. Then on July 10 another heavy snowfall came right down onto the plains.

July: ‘Animals starving and not a tussock to be seen’

Snow began falling in Christchurch at 8 am that day, accompanied by a bitterly cold southeasterly wind. Three inches fell in two hours. Towards mid day it stopped and a thaw set in leaving the streets a slushy mess. That night a heavy frost rendered them impassable. About one hundred men were employed under the city’s Winter Work Fund to clear footpaths and crossings. Tram services ran late, one being derailed by ice, and frozen pipes and pumps kept plumbers busy. Half an inch of ice formed on the inner

harbour at Lyttelton, something never previously seen.

The snowfall had been heavier across the Canterbury plains, ten inches falling at Ashburton, with similar falls reported from localities ranging from Oxford in the north to Timaru in the south. Heavy snow in the Weka Pass and fallen telegraph poles at Flaxton delayed the North train, as did snow packed under an engine, forcing the Railways Department to reduce passenger and stock traffic.

From Porters Pass to Craigieburn on the West Coast road, snow varied from three to fifteen feet deep, with the roadmen struggling to maintain mail, packhorse and foot communications. Archdeacon Harper, on his way across the pass, got caught by a blizzard near Lake Lyndon and had to be rescued. A swagger named William Morris froze to death in the Acheron Valley, beyond the Clarence River. On the Torlesse run Joseph Petrie, a New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency employee who had been releasing snowbound sheep, died in an avalanche, his body being found under twenty feet of snow.[17]

In North Canterbury the snow froze, forming sheets of ice. Locals expressed fresh fears of heavy sheep mortality. Eighty percent of rescued sheep were extremely weak, surviving by eating the wool and ears from dead animals. Sheep losses continued to be reported daily and, despite a thaw in Christchurch, snow fell again on the North Canterbury hills on July 16 putting a further stop to all farming work. Severe frosts continued to cause problems with water supplies, irrigation races and roads.[18]

On some of the lower stations on the Canterbury side of the West Coast Road sheep had fared reasonably well. At Castle Hill they had huddled in the bush and, at Craigieburn, on the sunnier faces. At Cora Lyn they had been shifted from the higher country before the snow set in. But on the higher stations losses remained as yet unknown.[19]

Reports anticipated stock losses in the Mackenzie basin and the Waitaki Valley would be high. There, rabbits were also dying in large numbers, disputing with the sheep for any exposed tussock. Predicted sheep losses ran from 250,000 to as high as 800,000. Snow four feet deep completely blocked Burke’s Pass, cutting off communication between South Canterbury and the Mackenzie basin. Arthur Hope, owner of Richmond station, near Lake Tekapo, reported that the total depth of successive snowfalls there amounted to six feet. Some of his sheep had made their way to the lake edge where they wandered back and forth accompanied by circling flocks of hawks and gulls.[20]

Further south, in the Hakataramea valley snow lay to an average depth of three feet with freezing conditions throughout the day. One station in the valley estimated its losses as 40,000 sheep. On July 22 the Hakataramea River, a rapidly flowing stream, froze over at Sandhurst. On Hakataramea station, snow blocked the pass into the Mackenzie basin necessitating a two hundred mile journey to communicate with shepherds there compared to the fifty-mile direct route.[21]

The Otago Daily Times considered that the smaller settlers in the valley would be ruined. Their plight had been compounded by a plague of hungry rabbits and hares, which used the deep snow to walk over the tops of rabbit fences. On the other hand, hunger rendered them almost tame and easy targets so farmers took the opportunity to slaughter them. One rabbiter, however, came near to death himself. At Haldon station, further up the Waitaki valley from Hakataramea, a man called Home found himself caught in a blizzard. Fortunately his horse brought him back to the station where, frozen stiff, he had to be lifted from the saddle.[22]

At Otematata dogs left in their kennels overnight were found frozen next morning. The same thing happened at Benmore station, with shorthaired dogs faring the worst. Similarly, a mob of five hundred sheep had been found frozen together in groups of fifteen to twenty, the live sheep having to be torn from the dead. But the North Otago Times reported that in one instance on the south side of the Waitaki river, the loss of stock had been considerably less than supposed, the survivors eating every particle of wool off the bodies of dead sheep.[23]

Despite conflicting accounts of the extent of stock losses, all agreed on the severity of the frosts. Heavy frost continued in the upper Waitaki, the river becoming completely blocked near Kurow on July 23, caused by drifting icebergs jamming together in a narrow section, an unprecedented event in a river which normally flowed at a rate of six to seven miles an hour. Between Kurow and Otematata a creek crossing the road had frozen. The ice gradually increased until it was five feet thick, rendering the road impassable. Further upstream, at Omarama, blocks of ice had to be brought in to provide water for cooking.[24]

A heavy fog below five hundred feet shut out the sun, compounding the situation by causing intense hoar frosts in the upper Waitaki, where ‘it could be thought that the ice age had cycled round again.’ Despite the ‘great masses of rough and broken ice on the roads’, it had still been possible to cart hay in to Benmore station, where mule loads were packed out to starving stock, so tame with hunger that they would approach people, even trying to eat their clothing. But the intense cold meant that every water container on the station had broken. Water froze so rapidly that even iron buckets burst.[25]

Further south, the snow in Central Otago had driven large numbers of birds towards the coast in search of food. Swarming into orchards and fields around Dunedin in the early morning, they appeared weak and so eager for food that they would let people approach them almost within touching distance.[26]

Snow covered the roads in the Maniototo and coach drivers found it impossible to run to time. The Pigroot road from Palmerston was blocked and the mail coach could not get through for three days. At Ophir, reputedly the coldest place in New Zealand, the mailman, Ernest Love (21), froze to death while driving his trap. An inquest found that he had rolled from the seat, his frozen arm catching on the axle, in which position he had been dragged a considerable distance.[27]

In the Manuherikia valley rabbits were dying from starvation in their thousands while in the Maniototo mining had come to a standstill and curling and skating were in full swing. Snow was level with fences in the Ida Valley. Nearby, Blackstone Hill had a covering of two feet, with ten feet on the mountains, frozen hard and accompanied by a bitter wind. Rumour had it that Hawkdun station, at the head of the valley, would lose its entire flock.[28]

Heavy frosts prevailed throughout Central Otago and the Lake district, with coal in short supply. Mines at Kyeburn and the Ida valley had been flooded and another near Arrowtown had been closed due to an accident. It was so cold in Arrowtown that the ink froze at the telegraph office, both in the inkwells and on the pens.[29]

A newspaper report from Blackstone Hill commented that there would be little or no shearing later in the year because the sheep that did not perish ate the wool and ears off each other and few would live to shearing time. ‘A change of weather would be welcome for animals starving and not a tussock to be seen. The winter of 1895 will long be remembered, and the effects of it will be felt both directly and indirectly for a very long time.’[30]

Even so, it was by no means clear at this stage just how extensive losses might be. One Central Otago station reported 4,000 out of 16,000 sheep missing, but another indicated losses might not be as bad as first anticipated. Snow on the lower levels had begun to disappear and for the first time in a month it had been possible to get onto the higher country. Low country losses so far were only what might be expected in an ordinarily severe winter.[31]

Southland generally appears to have fared better than its northern neighbours, although in some of the higher country to the north, in the vicinity of Nokomai, snow lay up to thirty feet deep in the gullies. Although there had been no reports of sheep losses farmers remained worried about possible lambing losses in the next month, and being unable to plough the land in time for spring sowing.[32]

Sunday July 28 brought a warm nor’wester on the Canterbury plains. It appeared a thaw had started and spring was on its way. Clouds lifted, ice melted and the boom of avalanches in the mountains could be plainly heard. But it was only the warming that sometimes precedes snow. On Monday July 29 fresh snow fell across the South Island, again one of the heaviest falls ever seen.[33]

August: ‘Relief is in many cases urgently needed’

The snowfall extended from Invercargill to Nelson and reached as far as Taranaki in the North Island. Tram and rail traffic was again disrupted in Christchurch and Dunedin. This time Southland received one of the heaviest falls ever known. Across Canterbury, driving winds caused the snow to drift. By now, lambing had begun on the plains and both the ewes and their lambs succumbed to the cold. The Canterbury agricultural columnist for the Otago Witness estimated that along the main ranges no less than two million sheep were buried or starving.[34]

Along the east coast and on some of the lower ranges the snowfalls ceased on August 1 and a rapid thaw set in. But it was a different story in the high country, where The Press estimated it would take a week of nor’westers to remove the large quantity of frozen snow.[35]

In the Mackenzie basin and the Waitaki valley attempts continued to rescue snowed-in sheep and get them down to lower country. A newspaper reporter described the area as ‘one vast stretch of frozen snow and ice’, with only a few windswept spots of bare ground. At Athol, in northern Southland, the earth had been bare of snow for only two days since May 26. The Otago Witness farming columnist, comparing the disaster to the drought then affecting Australian pastoralists, wrote that ‘Snow lies over the greater portion of the interior and the frost has sealed it up so that it will lie until the sun gives strength to conquer frosts … the actual loss will never be known till the snow disappears and the sheep are mustered.’[36]

But it now began to emerge that newspaper estimates of losses, at least in Otago, may have been ‘greatly overstated’. On most of the stations in northwest Otago steps had been taken to keep the bulk of sheep off dangerous country and to rescue many of those snowed in. Nevertheless reports from the Mackenzie basin indicated that while some sheep had been rescued, in other cases station hands were skinning what they could of hundreds of frozen carcasses so far found. As well, many of those that had survived were expected to die off in the spring.[37]

Faced with these uncertainties, but recognising that substantial overall losses would be inevitable in the circumstances, pastoralists began to consider petitioning the Government for a remission of the sheep rate, due in September, and the current half-year rents. The Otago Daily Times stated that ‘The Government should send some capable person to see the Mackenzie country in its present condition, and later, to report from a disinterested standpoint on the disaster.’[38]

On August 10 the committee of the Otago Agricultural and Pastoral Association unanimously agreed to ‘respectfully urge the Government to forego the sheep tax due on 1st September and collect the same on 1st February, to be taken from the actual number of sheep shorn, and that all returns in future be computed on that date.’ Hitherto, the tax had been based on April flock numbers, which did not take into account normal winter losses, let alone those likely to emerge from this disaster.[39]

In the following week, Crown tenants in Central Otago and South Canterbury petitioned the Minister of Lands, John (Jock) McKenzie, for a remission of rent. The Press commented that, especially with regard to the Mackenzie and Geraldine counties, ‘There can be no doubt that this relief is in many cases urgently needed.’[40]

The Mt Ida Chronicle was more outspoken:

It is needless to point out that this deplorable condition of affairs amounts less to an individual than a national disaster. The wool trade is by far the largest business of the country, and the leasing of areas for the production of that staple is one of the largest departments of business in which the colony itself is engaged. The question now arises whether, in view of the calamities which have become so distressingly apparent, the State is to exact its pound of flesh and complete the ruin that Nature has herself so nearly consummated.[41]

Meanwhile, the snow and frost continued to take their toll on beasts and men. Reports came in of 1000 dead sheep skinned in a week on one station, and of sheep being frozen to the snow by their wool. Some had between four and six inches of ice on their backs and could only move their heads up and down ‘like armadillos’. Those sheep which had eaten the wool from others could not digest it and had been virtually poisoned as well as starved. The Otago Acclimatisation Society reported that the winter had been very hard on ducks and pukeko, the latter nearly dying out. Fowl of all types suffered from the frost. Turkeys at Omarama froze by their feet to the roost and around Pukaki birds were dropping out of the trees.[42]

In Dunedin, the Otago Daily Times reported an inquest into a death from exposure in the snow at St Kilda. The verdict was that the deceased had met his death through a shock to the system, caused by exposure to frost and snow, and accelerated through having been in a state of intoxication. Further north a rescue party from Sandhurst met a man whose feet were completely frostbitten and it was supposed he would eventually lose them. Then, on August 26 the spring thaw allowed a search party from Ashburton to reach Fred Duncan, a shepherd, in his hut at Lake Heron. Duncan had been last seen on June 30 trying to rescue sheep. He had, as hoped, reached his hut, where he had plenty of provisions and firewood, but even so, when found he had been six days without food and was close to death.[43]

Things warmed up in the last week of August, clearing the lower snow fairly rapidly and, in Otago, giving rise to fears of flooding. The Post and Telegraph Department set up a flood warning system, with postmasters upstream on the Clutha, Taieri, Mataura, Oreti and Aparima rivers alerting offices lower down by telegraph. Following north-west gales at the end of the month, rivers in Canterbury and Otago did indeed rise rapidly but the snow on the hills had frozen so hard that it melted very slowly during September. Despite some flooding at Arrowtown and Cromwell, and the Manuherikia bridge at Alexandra being swept away, the disastrous floods people had feared all winter never materialised.[44]

With the onset of dry weather, by the middle of October lambing was reported to be going well on low country runs, but on those high country runs that had suffered the worst from snow there was no lambing. While run owners and lessees were generally reticent about losses, the Canterbury agricultural correspondent for the Otago Witness could confirm some of the earlier worst reports. Some runs in the Mackenzie basin had been partially cleared of sheep, in one case only three hundred remaining of a flock of sixteen thousand, while in the upper regions of the Rangitata, Rakaia and Amuri districts, those who had lost only a quarter of their flocks were fortunate. On other stations, losses were not as severe as had been feared, many escaping the disasters that had overtaken their neighbours.[45]

The Pastoral Tenants’ Relief Act: ‘The measure should serve a necessary and humane purpose’

Meanwhile, with shearing time approaching, the Government had taken heed of earlier representations with regard to the sheep tax and pastoral rents and towards the end of September the Pastoral Tenants’ Relief Bill had begun its relatively expeditious passage through Parliament.

The process had begun in the House of Representatives on August 27 when Hon. Frederick Flatman, the Member for Pareora, asked John McKenzie, Minister of Lands, whether he favoured extending the time for payment of the taxes and rents where there had been an excessive loss of stock due to the unprecedented snowfalls. McKenzie replied that as soon as the Government had decided what to do he would take the House into his confidence.

In the meantime, Bernard Tripp, the lessee of the Orari Gorge run in South Canterbury, is reputed to have sought, through Flatman, a meeting with the Premier, Richard Seddon. Tripp had lost an estimated twelve thousand sheep and feared the loss of his run to his bank if he could not extend the lease from two to seven years to give him time to recover. Despite Flatman’s nerve failing him when it came to dealing with ‘King Dick’, Tripp waited on Seddon in Wellington and described the plight of the southern runholders.

Seddon took him to see McKenzie, and then told Tripp that he would have a Bill through the House within three months that would settle his difficulties. Several weeks later, a deputation of several runholders, sceptical that Seddon, no friend of the landholding classes, would do anything, also waited on the Premier, who asked them what they were worrying about as he had already fixed it all up with Tripp.[46]

During September, McKenzie fielded a number of questions from Members about remission of taxes and rents, both of which had long been bones of contention among the pastoral community. McKenzie told his opponents to leave the matter with the Government, accusing them of seeking cheap popularity. He also made it clear that the situation could not be used to attack sheep taxes and pastoral rents generally. Any relief granted would apply fairly and honestly only where sheep had genuinely been lost by snow.[47]

When a deputation from the Otago Agricultural and Pastoral Association met McKenzie in early September about the sheep tax, he promised that while it would not be collected from those affected by heavy snow until after actual losses were ascertained, elsewhere it would have to be paid at once. The Otago Witness took the view that McKenzie was right in not letting sheep owners generally trade on the misfortunes of others. The tax needed changing but while it existed it had to be paid and the same went for rents.[48]

McKenzie introduced the Pastoral Tenants’ Relief Bill into the House on 26 September and, during the Second Reading Debate on 18 October, took the opportunity to discomfit his political opponents:

This Bill, I am sure, is one which will not require much advocacy on my part, especially as I am sure I shall have for once the support of the honourable gentlemen opposite … I am sure honourable members will admit, so far as I am concerned, these people [sheep farmers] cannot be said to be friends of mine, and I would not bring down a Bill of this description if I did not think it was in the interests of the colony to do so.

The Bill provided for the Land Board to inquire into and recommend, where appropriate, tax relief, rent remission and extension of leases. Mortgagees, bankers and agents were also expected to make concessions to ensure tenants could continue working their runs successfully. According to McKenzie, extensions to leases would allow runholders the time to provide for their financial security and to acclimatise new merino stock. Without assistance, large areas of the country would be abandoned, with the Crown having to control the rabbits that would otherwise take over.[49]

The Bill received a third reading on 23 October when it was referred to the Legislative Assembly. There it was read for the second and third times and passed into law on 26 October. The Otago Witness considered that ‘Properly administered the measure should serve a necessary and humane purpose.’[50]

The Land Board began its inquiry in November, sitting continuously until February 1896. In Canterbury alone, which, with Otago, experienced the greatest losses, the Board spent forty days taking evidence and enquiring into one hundred and sixty applications for relief from runholders and selectors, sitting at Christchurch, Timaru, Fairlie, Sandhurst and Tekapo. The Board found that the actual excess sheep losses in Canterbury amounted to 344,734 or thirty two percent of the flock. The Board estimated the value of the stock lost there to be £101,278 and granted rent remissions totalling £4,915, £423 in sheep tax remissions and an annual reduction of £6,316 in rents.[51]

From the outset the Board adopted a system of giving rent remissions equal to about half the cash value of the stock lost. Many lessees would not give an estimate, saying it would be impossible to tell until after shearing and the Board soon found that it could not rely on sworn estimates of stock losses. In one case an estimated loss of the entire flock of ten thousand proved to be only a quarter of that, in another only 1,500 rather than half of a flock of eleven thousand, and so on.

Nevertheless, appreciation of the exhaustiveness of the Board’s enquiries and recommendations is illustrated by the fact that of the twenty-two cases assessed in Southland in 1895, twenty accepted the relief offered without demur. Overall, the Board remitted over £11,000 in rents and extended one hundred leases for up to twenty years.[52]

Environmental consequences: ‘These stations are stocked far beyond their capacity’

The 1895 snowstorm had several immediate consequences. Initially, in some areas the snow had a considerable effect on the rabbit population, which had been an increasing problem for high country farmers. As the 1910 Commission on Canterbury Pastoral Runs Classification stated: ‘Just previous to the year 1895 the rabbits had practically taken possession of some of the runs in the Mackenzie Country, and, had it not been for the abnormally heavy fall of snow in 1895, which decimated them, the runs would not have the flocks depasturing on them at present.’ Farmers also benefited from the toll the winter took on small birds and insects.[53]

Although deep snow had allowed surviving rabbits to easily cross some rabbit proof fences, both the snow and the high toll it took on the population put many rabbiters out of work, and eventually led to the abandonment of plans for a £10,000 rabbit proof fence across Canterbury. But the decline proved to be only temporary, with the population largely recovering by 1899. In that year rabbiters killed fifteen thousand on Rhoborough station alone.[54]

The snow also affected mining. Early snow-melts augmented water supplies for sluicing and crushing. The later snowfalls, combined with frosts, brought some alluvial mining to a standstill, with miners at places like Bannockburn and Naseby being unable to work for months. On the other hand, dredging and underground mining continued. With the snow locked up by frost, falling river levels on the Clutha exposed hitherto untouched ground, providing good pickings on the exposed beaches. The Shotover fell so much that miners were able to reach ground never touched before. Two of them, Cameron and Payne, made from £100 to £150 a week.[55]

The gradual snowmelt meant, too, that the floods feared by both miners and farmers did not eventuate. The New Zealand sheep industry, however, suffered the most obvious, albeit short term, consequences of the 1895 snowstorms, a light wool clip and low lambing rate adding to the losses from sheep deaths. Surviving sheep were wretchedly thin, with great numbers either partially or totally bare of wool through being frozen to the snow, any remaining wool being light, fluffy and broken. But fears that sheep would die off with the spring growth proved unfounded. They recovered rapidly and by January had become quite fat. On the other hand, lambing fell well below average, between twenty and thirty percent of the usual rate in some cases, with none at all on some runs.[56]

The fact that the sheep lost were only worth a few shillings a head mitigated the effects of the snowstorm to some extent. Undoubtedly, as we have seen, runholders were well treated by the Government and replacement stock could be purchased relatively cheaply, a measure of the continuing difficult times for the sheep industry. James Preston, for example, restocked his Mackenzie Country runs, which had lost 45,000 sheep, with animals from areas that had escaped the snow, spending only £6,790 to purchase 25,205 sheep (an average of just under 5 shillings a head). Significantly, the snowstorm affirmed the suitability of the merino for the high country; they recovered quickly after weeks of starvation.[57]

Of further significance, the 1895 snowstorm highlighted the limits of pastoralism. By 1895 the high country was already approaching an environmental crisis and the snowstorm brought this to popular awareness. Letters appearing in the newspapers during the late months of the snowstorm reflected a growing concern about degradation of the high country.

One, from Reginald Foster, which appeared in The Press on July 20 and was reprinted in the Otago Witness, compared the 1895 event with that of the 1867 snowstorm. Foster estimated that the sheep mortality would be far higher than in 1867. ‘The greater part of the snow grass and rougher herbage has disappeared through continuous burning’ and as a result the bulk of sheep, already weakened by snowstorms in April and May, had had little or no feed for several weeks.[58]

Another, which appeared in August over the pseudonym ‘Kea’ in both the Witness and the Otago Daily Times, deplored current land tenure policies and the effects these had on pastoral farming practices:

There are in Central Otago and Waitaki hundreds of thousands of acres, which at one time represented the very pick of grazing land, now changed into barren waste from the ravages of rabbits, indiscriminate burning and the dryness of the climate. Almost the only vegetation found in these desert-like localities is confined to the mountain tops, which is seldom available for stock in winter.

To counter this, the writer suggested giving graziers security of tenure for 21 years, with the right to cultivate winter feed-crops such as turnips on suitable areas. These areas could afterwards be sown with permanent grasses and counted as improvements for valuation purposes. Thus encouraged, lessees would take energetic steps to remove rabbits.[59]

Similarly, G. Lawrence wrote to the Otago Daily Times: ‘It is well known, Sir, that many of these stations are stocked far beyond their capacity, and that the sheep all through winter are in a half starved condition, while thousand die outright.’ He blamed the stations for not providing enough feed in summer months to prevent the ‘helpless creatures’ starving in winter. This elicited a response from ‘Sheepfarmer’ to the effect that graziers would be only too happy to grow winter feed if permitted to do so. Pastoral leases only entitled tenants to use the grass on the land. They could not legally plough an area to grow crops of any kind.[60]

Then, on 3 September 1895, the Otago Daily Times ran an editorial advocating exotic forestry in Central Otago. Among other things, the paper expressed the opinion that because of the severe winter many high country runholders would have been ruined. The government could utilise some of the abandoned country for afforestation, for although too high for the successful carrying of stock through a severe winter, much of it would not be too high or too cold for such a purpose.

Citing examples from Germany, Spain, England, Scotland and North America, the editorial asserted that exotic species would grow faster than natives, could be planted closer together and would give better returns. Planting on mountainsides would improve adjacent open country, increasing its value for pastoral purposes, as well as moderating the scorching summers and chilling winters, conserving rainfall, preventing floods and maintaining higher than average river flows. Central Otago, treeless and dependent on irrigation, could only benefit.[61]

Letters and article such as these reflected a growing awareness of the environmental consequences of excessive pastoralism and a need for change in high country land use practices, culminating in a Royal Commission investigation into land tenure and land settlement. The Commission’s 1905 report stated:

On pastoral tenure the Commission reported indigenous grasses of the high country have greatly deteriorated through indiscriminate burnings, rabbit pests and overstocking. The question of restoring these mountain pastures is very important as they are the natural breeding ground of the merino and hardy crossbred sheep, from which the settlers of the lower country draw their supplies of ewes for replenishing their flocks. Various suggestions have been made in evidence towards accomplishing this object, such as giving greater security of tenure and full valuation for improvements at the end of the lease, so as to encourage the holders to surface-sow new grasses and to irrigate and cultivate for winter feed.

Regardless of the extent of the high country environmental crisis, in those areas worst hit by the snowstorms runholders never again stocked to 1895 levels. For example on Matakanui station in Central Otago, Laidlaw, the runholder, took advantage of the concessions of the Pastoral Tenants’ Relief Act, especially security of tenure, to reduce his stock numbers to less than 23,000. Similarly, on Morven Hills, in the Lindis Valley, where the snows reduced stock numbers from a peak of 103,773 to 66,768, numbers slowly increased to 82,834 by 1899, but never went above this.[62]

Overall, in the South Island, in the period between 1906 and 1919 sheep numbers remained stable at between 10 and 12 million. In contrast, those in the North Island continued to increase, surpassing the South. This suggests recognition, resulting from the snowstorms, that the South Island had reached its safe sheep-carrying capacity.[63]

The 1895 snowstorm not only exposed an environmental crisis in the high country, but also helped to determine the pattern of future high country settlement. After 1895, any runs that became open for selection for closer settlement were carefully assessed for their susceptibility to snowfalls. When, for example, a million and a half acres of pastoral runs, principally in the Mackenzie and Ashburton counties, came up for disposal in 1910 the Runs Classification Commission paid careful attention to this factor and to safe winter carrying capacities.

It concluded, in the light of the stock losses of 1895, that it would be unwise to offer any of the land to small-holders, stressing the unsuitability of the Mackenzie Country because of its proneness to snow. The commissioners also suggested that permanent residence should not be enforced in the Mackenzie and Upper Ashburton country. ‘These localities are not places for women and children in the winter months.’

Assessments by individual commissioners also laid considerable stress on the safety of the high country runs in winter, the ability to shift sheep during snowstorms and the suitability of the land to grow winter feed-crops. Such concerns effectively stopped land subdivision in areas considered prone to snowstorms and determined the present pattern of settlement in the Canterbury high country.[64]

Conclusion: ‘The environmental consequences of overexploitation’

While the 1895 snowstorm was in itself of limited environmental significance it did show the ecological fragility of the high country, bringing to public attention concerns about deterioration of the land through overstocking, burning, loss of natural vegetation, erosion and rabbits. The damage was not irreversible, but concern that such a disaster could occur again led to adjustments to the system of land settlement and tenure, aimed at restoring high country pastures.

In the longer term, the 1895 snowstorms helped to determine the present pattern of high country settlement. Unsafe winter runs in North Otago, Canterbury and the Mackenzie country were declared unsuitable for subdivision. Guidelines were set for them to limit stock carrying capacities and to make provision for winter country. At the same time, it is evident that runholders in these areas had already learned their lesson, as the worst hit high country was never restocked to 1895 levels.

It is also worth comparing what happened here in 1895 with the aftermath of the 1885-86 snowstorms on the Great Plains of the United States. The latter destroyed the cattle industry of the ‘cowboy’ era, leading to an uncontrolled, individualistic, capitalist push into the complex ecological realities of the empty grasslands. This resulted in the creation, by 1935, of the 33 million acre Dust Bowl. In contrast to that, New Zealand fortunately had a concerned Government, prepared to regulate land use to prevent similar over-exploitation.[65]

Closer to home, the 1895-1903 drought in Australia had some parallels with the New Zealand situation, including Government intervention. There too, economic depression had preceded the onset of the drought. Similarly, decades of overstocking, over-clearing and the introduction of rabbits contributed to the collapse of the pastoral industry and an environmental crisis far more advanced than that caused by the snowstorms in New Zealand.[66]

Within these wider contexts the New Zealand snowstorms of 1895, and the responses to them, may be seen to reflect a growing global awareness of the environmental consequences of overexploitation of the land.



[1]R.M. Burdon, High Country: The Evolution of a New Zealand Sheep Station, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1938, p 157; Otago Witness (Dunedin) (hereafter OW), 2 May 1895, p 6, and 9 May 1895, p 15.

[2]OW, 16 May 1895, p 22; Otago Daily Times (Dunedin) (hereafter ODT), 30 May 1895, p 2.

[3]OW, 30 May 1895, p 22, 6 June 1895, p 22, 27 June 1895, p 22; ODT, 31 May 1895, p 2.

[4]OW, 6 June 1895, p 22.

[5]OW, 13 June 1895, p 22, and 20 June 1895, p 22.

[6]The Press (Christchurch) (hereafter Press), 17 June 1895, p 5; OW, 6 June 1895, p 22

[7] Press, 21 June 1895, p 3.

[8]Press, 29 June 1895, p 8.

[9]Press, 3 July 1895, p 5 and 4 July 1895, p 5; OW, 4 July 1895, p 22.

[10]OW, 4 July 1895, p 23.

[11]Press, 3 July 1895, p 5; OW, 11 July 1895, p 23; Mt Ida Chronicle and St Bathans Weekly News (Naseby), 27 June 1895; ODT, 9 July 1895, p 5.

[12]OW, 11 July 1895, p 16 and 1 August 1895, p 11.

[13]Press, 8 July 1895, p 6, and 9 July 1895, p 5.

[14]Press, 9 July 1895, p 6.

[15]OW, 11 July 1895.

[16]OW, 4 July 1895, p 22; ODT, 6 July 1895, p 2; Press, 6 July 1895, p 9.

[17]Press, 11 July 1895, p 6; 12 July 1895, pp 4, 6; 13 July 1895, pp 6, 8.

[18]Press, 16 July 1895, p 5.

[19]Press, 20 July 1895, p 8.

[20]ODT, 11 July 1895, p 2 and 13 July 1895 p 4; Oamaru Mail, 10 July 1895; Timaru Herald, 10 July 1895; Press, 15 July 1895, p 2 and 17 July 1895, p 6.

[21]Press, 16 July 1895, p 5; OW, 25 July 1895, p 17; ODT, 27 July 1895, p 4.

[22]ODT, 22 July 1895, p 3; Press, 24 July 1895, p 5.

[23]OW, 25 July 1895, p 5; ODT, 22 July 1895, p 3.

[24]ODT, 27 July 1895, p 4.

[25]ODT, 30 July 1895, p 3.

[26]Press, 18 July 1895, p 3.

[27]Mt Ida Chronicle, 11 July 1895; ODT, 13 July 1895, p 4.

[28]OW, 18 July 1895, p 28.

[29]Mt Ida Chronicle, 18 July 1895; ODT, 13 July 1895, p 4.

[30]ODT, 25 July 1895, p 6.

[31]OW, 1 August 1895, p 13.

[32]Press, 29 July 1895, p 5; OW, 1 August 1895, p 13.

[33]Press, 30 July 1895, pp 5-6.

[34]ODT, 30 July 1895, p 3; OW, 1 August 1895, pp 16, 23; Press, 30 July 1895, p 5, and 31 July 1895, p 5.

[35]Press, 2 August 1895, p 5.

[36]Press, 31 July 1895, p 5, and 1 August 1895, p 6; OW, 8 August 1895, p 4.

[37]OW, 8 August 1895, p 22; Press, 5 August 1895, p 5.

[38]ODT, 6 August 1895, p 6.

[39]OW, 15 August 1895, pp 4, 8.

[40]Press, 16 August 1895, p 4.

[41]Mt Ida Chronicle, 29 August 1895.

[42]ODT, 30 July 1895, p 3, 9 August 1895, p 2, 13 August 1895, p 3; OW, 22 August 1895, p 5, 29 August 1895, p 4; Press, 29 August 1895, p 5.

[43]ODT, 3 August 1895, p 7; OW, 8 August 1895, p 3; ODT, 9 August 1895, p 2; Press, 29 August 1895, p 4.

[44]Press, 29 August 1895, p 5; OW, 5 September 1895, p 36.

[45]OW, 17 October 1895, p 12.

[46]New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (hereafter NZPD) (27 August 1895), p 89; Burdon, High Country, pp 159-60.

[47]NZPD 89 (6 September 1895), pp 91-2.

[48]OW, 12 September 1895, pp 22, 27.

[49]NZPD 91 (18 October 1895), pp 467-9.

[50]OW, 3 October 1895, p 12; NZPD 91 (23 and 24 October 1895), pp 585-97, (26 October 1895), pp 685-6.

[51]Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (hereafter AJHR) (1896) I, C-1, p 22.

[52]Johannes C. Andersen, Jubilee History of South Canterbury, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1916, pp 118-9; AJHR (1896) I, C-1, p 34.

[53]AJHR (1910), Canterbury Pastoral Runs Classification, 1910 (Report of Commission on) C-12, p 7; Press, 16 July 1895, p 3; OW, 8 August 1895, p 4.

[54]Robert Pinney, Early South Canterbury Runs, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1971, pp 68, 112, 195, 218; W.H. Scotter, A History of Canterbury, III: 1876-1950, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1965, p, 94; OW, 1 August 1895, p 5.

[55]OW, 30 May, 6 June, and 11 July 1895; Southland Times, (Invercargill) 19 September 1895.

[56]Anderson, Jubilee History of South Canterbury, p 118.

[57]E. Yvonne Speirs, ‘Preston Runholding in the Maniototo and the Mackenzie, 1858-1917’, MA dissertation, University of Otago, 1987, p 136; OW, 29 August 1895, p 23.

[58]Press, 20 July 1895, p 10.

[59]OW, 8 August 1895, p 16.

[60]ODT, 14 August 1895, p 4; 21 August 1895, p 4.

[61]ODT, 3 September 1895, p 4.

[62]Robert Pinney, Early Northern Otago Runs, Collins, Auckland, 1981, pp 131, 145.

[63]The later introduction of fertilisers to improve grasslands would change this.

[64]AJHR (1910) C-12, ‘Canterbury Pastoral Runs Classification, (Report of Commission on)’, pp 1-8.

[65]Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plain in the 1930s, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979), pp 83, 94; Richard White, ‘It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own’: A History of the American West, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1991, pp 224, 226.

[66]K.C. Tai, ‘Coping with the devastating drought in Australia’, in Coping with Droughts, ed. V. Yevjevich, L. da Cuha, and E. Vlachos, Water Resources Publications, Colorado, 1983; Kevin Frawley, ‘Evolving visions: Environmental management and nature conservation in Australia’, in Australian Environmental History: Essays and Cases, ed. Stephen Dovers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p 63; Eric Rolls, ‘More a new planet than a new continent’, Ibid., p 30; Kenneth Fry, ‘Kiola: A history of the environmental impact of European occupation, 1830-1980’, Ibid., p 108.