The Māori name for Mount Peel is Tarahaoa. The park has a long association with Māori legend and early pioneer history.
Tarahaoa is still sacred to Ngāi Tahu. The mountain is part not only of their heritage, but part of their family.
Legend has it that Chief Tarahaoa and his wife Hua-te-kerekere were washed up ashore at Shag Point while trying to migrate north from South Otago. They wandered inland and lived the remainder of their lives where they could always see the sun go down. They prayed to their gods that on their death they should be changed into mountains.
The Gods obliged and Big Mount Peel and Little Mount Peel/Huatakerekere are really Tarahaoa and Hua-te-kerekere, inseparably linked to each other. Their grandchildren became the Four Peaks, the mountain range adjoining Big Mount Peel and Little Mount Peel/Huatakerekere. This illustrates that to the Maori history and legend are seamless.
In 1849, Charles Torlesse was the first white man to explore the foothills hoping to discover coal. He called the bush Gurdon, but it was later changed to Peel Forest as a memorial to the British Prime Minister, Peel.
From 1865 – 1908 Peel Forest was a busy saw-milling village. Kahikatea was the first big timber to be felled and used for building. Tōtara was cut for fence posts and building. Bullock teams dragged the felled timber to sawpits where they were cut into boards. Steam engines, winches and tramways were built to make the log extraction easier.
By 1908 it was cheaper to import wood from Australia and the timber boom was over. Today the remains of several sawpits are still visible.
The park was established in 1909 when 94 hectares of Crown land was set aside as a scenic reserve. Further additions have led to its current size of 773 hectares.
A large variety of New Zealand ferns
are found in Peel Forest Park
The flora and fauna of Peel Forest Park are rich and abundant. The three largest trees in Peel Forest belong to the family “Podocarpaceae”, which simply translate to “seed foot” because of the arrangement of the seed on the ends of the branches. It is a very ancient family with a line of descent going back in time more than 100 million years. The three trees are kahikatea (white pine), tōtara and mataī (black pine).
Peel Forest Park has a wide range of vegetation, from dense virgin stands to exposed herb-field communities. Peel Forest enjoys a mild moist climate - ideal conditions for ferns. Thirty-six per cent of all ferns that grow in New Zealand occur in Peel Forest Park.
Spring and summer present a continuous array of beautiful flowering shrubs.
The southern kowhai (Sophora microphylla) enjoys the conditions on the northern slopes overlooking the Rangitata River.
The forest also has an abundant bird life. Native birds most frequently seen and heard are wood pigeon/kererū, the rifleman/titipounamu, bellbird/korimako, fantail/pïwakawaka, grey warbler/riroriro, silvereye/tauhou and tomtit/miromiro. Occasional rare visitors include both kākā and kākāriki
The Rangitata riverbed provides a habitat for a number of waders and coastal visitors such as the black-billed gull/karoro and the pied oystercatcher/tōrea.
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