Nature and conservation
The flora and fauna of Peel– Forest Park are rich and abundant. The three largest trees in Peel Forest belong to the family Podocarpaceae, a very ancient family going back in time more than 100 million years. The three large trees are kahikatea (white pine), tōtara, and mataī (black pine). Peel Forest has a graduation of vegetation from mature forest to exposed tussock and herb-field communities. The forest, predominately podocarp and broadleaf rain forest, covers the mountain slopes to about 360 metres.
Most of the big trees – lowland tōtara, kahikatea and mataī – had been felled by 1908. Some have survived and ancient giants can been seen along Fern Walk and at Dennistoun Bush.
Smaller trees include broadleaf/kāpuka, tree fuchsia/kōtukutuku, cabbage tree/ti kōuka, kōwhai, southern rātā and pōkākā. Visit in spring and summer for a continuous array of beautiful flowering shrubs. Southern kōwhai (Sophoramicrophylla) enjoys the conditions on the northern slopes overlooking the Rangitata River. The moist climate is good for the growth of podocarp forest and ideal for ferns; 36% of all the native ferns growing in New Zealand can be found in the area.
Peel Forest terrain and vegetation is diverse and supports a wide variety of wildlife. At least ten species of native bird occur in the forest including bellbird/korimako, silvereye/tauhou, tomtit/miromiro, rifleman/tītitipounamu, grey warbler/riroriro, kererū/native woodpigeon, fantail/pīwakawaka, silvereye/tauhou, shining cuckoo/pīpīwharauroa and longtailed cuckoo/koekoeā.You may see New Zealand pipits/pīhoihoi and the New Zealand falcon/kārearea above the bushline.
In contrast, the Rangitata riverbed provides habitat for a number of waders and coastal visitors such as the black-billed gull/tarāpuka and the pied oystercatcher/tōrea.
Look carefully for native spiders and beetles. Take a night stroll and look for wētā – there are cave, ground and tree wētā.
Look out for lizards/mokomoko like the jewelled geckoin the forest and shrublands, and McCann’s skink inmore open dry and rocky places.
One interesting inhabitant is peripatus, alsocalled the walking worm or velvet worm. These small animals are considered to be the evolutionary link between segmented worms and insects, unchanged in form over some 570 million years. You may find peripatus in moist places such as the forest floor and in rotting logs. They are nocturnal and carnivorous, feeding on small live insects like spring tails and also crustaceans and carcasses of larger insects.
History and culture
Tangata whenua - first people of the land
Te ārai Te Uru set sail from Tauranga in Te Ika a Maui (North Island) on a trading trip. Along the Canterbury coast the waka started listing and became waterlogged. At the Waitaki river mouth a number of crew were jettisoned to lighten the load. When the waka hit Waianakarua, they threw off te kai hinaki (foodbaskets) which became the Moeraki boulders. The waka finally ran onto Te Taki o Maru/the reef of Maru and started to break up. At low tide you can see the shape of sails of Te ārai Te Uru in the rocks of the reef.
Most of the crew got to shore safely; those that did not were burnt and their ashes hidden. The crew started the whakapapa (genealogy) of the landscape, naming it as they walked the land. Tarahaoa and Huatekerekere were part of the crew. When they walked through this part of the country they decided to stay and live in the Rangitata rohe (region). They had two children Aroarokaihe and Kirikirikatata and, as was customary then, these high-born children married and had four children. When Tarahaoa and Huatekerekere died they were turned into mountains and became Mt Peel and Little Mt Peel; their tamariki (children) are the mighty tōtara of Peel Forest and their mokopuna (grandchildren) are the Four Peaks.
Then came the Europeans
The first European to explore the foothills was Charles Torlesse. He was sent to report on the land south of the Rakaia River in 1849, in the hope of discovering coal. He called the forest ‘Gurdon Forest’. This was changed to Peel Forest as a memorial to Sir Robert Peel, an English politician most famous for establishing the Metropolitan Police Force – London policemen became known as ‘Peelers’ or ‘Bobbies’ after their founder.In 1853 Francis Jollie was granted licence for his Peel Forest run east of the forest. He built the homestead where it stills stands on the edge of the forest, as far as possible from the sheep yards as his wife did not like the sound of bleating sheep. On Jollie’s death the run passed to Edward Cooper and later to George Dennistoun.
In 1855 John B A Acland and Charles G Tripp, in partnership, obtained a pastoral lease on the north-western side, with the Rangitata the northern boundary and Forest Creek the far western. They set out to explore their new land, burning the vegetation to improve access and to allow grass-seed sowing in anticipation of the arrival of sheep the following year. Within 3 days they had burnt over 20,000 ha with a fire strip of 16 kilometres. The bush in between the Jollie and the Acland/Tripp runs was not allocated, but the settlers took timber from the edges for their requirements. By 1860 Surveyor Cass was shocked to see how many big trees had been removed. This destruction gained momentum in 1864 when 186 hectares of bush were freeholded.
In 1865 a period of milling that extended out to 1908 began. Kahikatea was the first timber tree extensively targeted and was used mainly for building. Mataī was used as a secondary building timber and tōtara as fencing material. Initially milling was done by pit sawing. The pit-sawmen worked with long cross-cut saws felling the tree. They then had to dig the pit, cut the huge trunk into workable lengths and manoeuvre them into position over the pit, ready for cutting lengthwise into planks. Pit sawing was soon superseded by mechanical means, with at least five mills operating at various times. Both Te Wanahu and Clarke Flat were sawmill sites.
Bullock teams pulled logs to the pit sites for many years. Later steam-driven saws arrived and steam engines and winches took over from the bullock teams. Once tramways into the bush were set up, hauling out logs became much easier. The remains of a bush tramway route can be seen running alongside the track from Te Wanahu to Big Tree.
In 1881 a visiting British MP, Arthur Mills (John Acland’s brother-in-law), was so horrified by the forest devastation he bought 16 hectares of un cut forest. On his death this became the embryo of the present Peel Forest Park. This forest remnant of outstanding trees is at the start of the Fern Walk.
Peel Forest is accessed from Rangitata Gorge Road and from Blandswood Road.
9.5 km north of Geraldine, turn off SH72 (Inland Scenic Route) into Peel Forest Road. Rangitata Gorge Road continues on from Peel Forest Road; Blandswood Road turns off Peel Forest Road.
Know before you go
Weather: The climate of the highcountry areas of Peel Forest Park is quite different from that of the lowland areas. The rainfall increases with increasing distance from the coast, and the winds influence the climatic cycle. Peel Forest’s diverse rainfalld istribution is particularly influenced by the dry northwest winds.
Average rainfall is 1160 mm per annum. Snow may fall at any time of the year and short-duration heavy snowfalls are often experienced between June and September.
Map: NZTopo50 map sheet: BY19, Arundel
Cellphone coverage: in this area is poor.