A Farming Legacy / Mount Peel: Farming with future generations in mind
For more than 150 years South Canterbury’s Mount Peel has been home to one family. Now into its sixth generation, Johnny and Rose Acland are doing their part to ensure they leave it in good heart for future generations.
Driving inland alongside the mighty Rangitata River, below the towering hills and up the shingle drive to the imposing homestead with its parklike gardens and family-built church, it’s easy to see why generations of Aclands have been touched by this land.
Today’s Mount Peel stewards, John Barton Arundel Acland’s ( JBA) great-great-grandson, Johnny Acland and his wife Rose, hold the station’s history in high regard. They are proud of all that’s gone before them and the sacrifices previous generations have made to make the station the intergenerational business it is today. ‘Every decision we make is directed toward being able to pass the station down to the next generation of Aclands,’ says Johnny. ‘We see ourselves here just for a passage of time in the station’s history, we are merely just the current-day custodians and we are focused on doing the best job we can. We feel incredibly privileged to be responsible for this very special place.’
Mount Peel’s story begins with JBA, the sixth son of a Devon baronet. JBA emigrated in 1855 with life-long friend Charles George Tripp, both having abandoned professional careers in favour of a colonial adventure. But on arriving in Lyttelton, the pair found Canterbury’s flat plains and low foothills were mostly taken up. Tripp convinced JBA that the uninhabited hills to the west where no white man had set foot offered enormous possibilities.
The pair each applied for 23,300 ha of land on the south of the Rangitata River, taking in the area on both sides of the Mount Peel Range right from the plains up to Forest Creek. It was a bold move for the pioneering pastoralists. Amidst heavy criticism, JBA and Tripp forged on through the rugged country and immediately made their mark.
Farming in partnership, they lost little time getting their station established, lighting huge fires to burn off the scrubby vegetation so new grass might grow to feed their sheep on the following year. In three days they had burned about 20,200 ha; the fire could be seen up to 100 km away. ‘Men laughed at us three years ago for going into the backcountry,’ JBA wrote. ‘We were the first to do so in Canterbury…Now we are looked on as having a pretty convenient site.’
Both men married daughters of the Bishop of Christchurch, Henry John Chitty Harper. With their families growing, the decision was made to dissolve the partnership in 1862. At its height they had 121,000 ha. It was agreed that Tripp was to say how the property would be divided, and JBA
would have first choice. JBA chose Mount Peel, leaving Tripp with Orari Gorge and Mount Somers.
JBA was there for the long haul. With dreams of turning Mount Peel into a small settlement, he built an elegant 18-room two-storeyed gabled home using bricks and timber produced on the station in 1865. Followed by a small church, high on the hilltop across the stream from the homestead to service the community he hoped would come. Construction was undertaken by eminent Christchurch stonemason
Named the Church of the Holy Innocents in remembrance of four infant children who died and were buried in the churchyard cemetery between 1864 and 1869, the church was consecrated by his father-in-law Bishop Harper on 12 December 1869. It was constructed partly of river stones and limestone blocks brought across the river from Mount Somers by bullock teams, while the interior is made of native pit-sawn timber and the altar rails are knotted totara.
JBA also set about replicating the park-like surroundings of his ancestral home of Killerton in Devon. Renowned as one of the first arboreta in England made by the famous Exeter nurseryman John Veitch, JBA grew up surrounded by trees from all continents except Antarctica, instilling a love of trees. ‘I hope, if I live, to do my share to reproduce England in this Southern Hemisphere,’ he wrote.
He planted huge stands of deciduous trees including oaks and elms, as well as cedars, firs and blue gums, and notably the first Pinus radiata in New Zealand. There were also rhododendrons, Himalayan lily, bluebells, primroses and violets. Many of the trees, shrubs and plants crossed the world as seeds or saplings in Edwardian cases that came directly from Veitch’s own nursery.
JBA and wife Emily Harper had nine children – three sons and six daughters. JBA ran Mount Peel until his death in 1904, by which stage the station was firmly on its feet, running 51,000 sheep. But it wasn’t without its tough times, including the crippling wool price slump of the 1880s and the disastrous snow of 1895, which wiped out 40 per cent of their flock.
On JBAs death, the station was inherited by his family. With no one keen to farm, the homestead sat empty for several years while managers ran the farming operation, with son Henry D Acland, a lawyer in Christchurch, acting as administrator.
Running the station as a whole became increasingly difficult with the introduction of the government’s subdivision scheme in 1912. ‘The [western] boundary used to be at Forest Creek between here and Mesopotamia and we used to farm Lochaber and Dry Creek. Then the farm was split up by the government. They took five properties up the Rangitata but left us with Lochaber and Dry Creek which were very cold, inaccessible and snow prone. Of the 56,000 ha we retained, less than a third was sunny country.
It was considered a liability, so they decided to sell off the backcountry in 1938,’ explains Johnny.
By this time Jack Acland ( Johnny’s grandfather), surgeon Sir Hugh Acland’s eldest son had returned home from working in Western Australia to manage the station, steering it through the Great Depression and World War II. At one time three families were living in the homestead; times were tough. But with the wool boom of the 1950s, development on the station continued.
Like his grandfather and father before him, Jack distinguished himself in public affairs, and with more and more of his time being taken up off-farm, he eventually handed the running of the property over to sons John and Mark in 1962.
The two brothers ran Mount Peel in partnership successfully for many years with John managing the stockwork and Mark taking care of development. They introduced fertiliser and lime, and also brought in sheep breeds less sensitive to foot rot than half-breds and merinos, while continuing to improve the beef herd. John and Mark also purchased back Waikari Hills. ‘My father ( John) always says it was like a couple of boys in the sandpit developing it,’ says Johnny. The partnership was split in 1982 with Mark initially farming at Waikari Hills before selling it to purchase Mount Somers.
Growing up with Mount Peel as his playground, Johnny was destined for a life on the land. ‘I never thought of doing anything else,’ he says. At 23, he returned as stock manager and three years later took over its management, freeing up his father to continue a career in public service, following a family tradition.
The property Johnny inherited is vastly smaller than some 80,000 ha his great-great-grandfather JBA once ran. Today it comprises of 5500 ha of freehold land, and Johnny and Rose also share fifty-fifty in a 1200-cow dairy farm. Mount Peel is an intensive farming operation. They run 9500 breeding ewes, 2800 hoggets, 900 breeding cows and finish all their progeny, as well as running 300 Friesian bull beef and grazing 250 dairy heifers from the dairy farm.
Growing up with Mount Peel as his playground, Johnny was destined for a life on the land. ‘I never thought of doing anything else,’ he says.
The property also draws its income from some 6000 deer through venison and velvet, as well as from Rangitata Rafts, a tourism venture which runs rafting trips down the Rangitata River during the summer months attracting between 3500 to 4000 clients annually.
But like those before him, Johnny has continued to develop the station. With most of the lower country developed, he has focused on spraying and oversewing the hill blocks, improving about 100 ha a year, doubling the stocking rate from three to four stock units a hectare to eight.
After marrying Rose, the couple lived in a house on the property for their first 14 years – and brought up the first four of their five children – before moving into the homestead in 2004. Youngest child Arabella was born just a year later. ‘It is a lovely family home, and it was a huge privilege to live and bring up our family here,’ says Rose.
Undaunted by the prospect of taking on this grand old home, Johnny and Rose set about stamping their own mark on the Category 1 Heritage New Zealand listed building, bringing it up to speed without detracting from the original design. ‘First and foremost, it had to be a family home,’ continues Rose.
After years in the planning, not to mention a hefty capital injection, the homestead went through a major refurbishment in 2009/2010 which included the addition of a central heating system and earthquake strengthening. Any changes were deliberately very sensitive. Although the layout remains largely the same, they doubled the width of the verandah and closed it in to make way for a large, contemporary open-plan kitchen and sunroom on the north side, which has been the making of the house, explains Rose.
‘The Acland daughters were instrumental in planting large stands of oaks. Since then, every Acland wife has loved and cared for the garden and enhanced it.’ Inspired by her forebears, Rose has been no different. She has a huge love for the garden, and in recent times has continued to develop the colourful picking borders and a kitchen garden, together with continued replanting. ‘We spend a lot of time in it; it is a big
In December people flock through the gates for the biennial Mount Peel Lily Day to witness the giant
lilies in full bloom.
thing for us. Every winter we plant more stands of deciduous trees around the garden and on the farm. It’s important to us and we love to look after the land,’ she says.
Blessed with a beautiful backdrop of mature trees thanks to the foresight of JBA and his descendants, coupled with a favourable climate (wet summers), the garden continues to be one of Mount Peel’s greatest attractions. But it’s the giant Himalayan lilies for which it has become especially known.
In December people flock through the gates for the biennial Mount Peel Lily Day to witness the giant lilies in full bloom. Originating from forest floors in the Himalayas of India, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, China and Myanmar (Burma), the giant lilies ( Cardiocrinum giganteum) were originally confined to pots in the homestead’s conservatory until the roof blew off and the lilies’ seeds escaped. They have flourished in the garden under the trees since the 1890s, explains Rose.
With flower spikes that easily reach 3 m in height, the giant lilies are a sight to behold. Curiously, they take seven years to get from germination to flowering; once flowered, the bulb dies soon after setting the next crop of seed. They prefer cold, dormant winter and summer rain.
This year’s Lily Day on Sunday 15 December 2019 will also coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Church of the Holy Innocents, which has been lovingly restored after sustaining massive damage in the September 2010 earthquake.
Originally built during JBA’s time in and gifted to the community, the earthquake reduced the church’s east gable to rubble, smashing the stained-glass window into thousands of tiny pieces. While a portion of the funds came from insurance, the rest came through community fundraising, led largely by the Acland family.
A slow project, the restoration took seven years and 850,000 (approx.) to complete, including repairing the east gable and strengthening the roof. The stained-glass window was also painstakingly restored, piece by piece. The church was re-dedicated in September 2018. ‘It was a huge community effort,’ says Rose. ‘The church means so much to so many people, with donations, large and small, coming from around the world.’
Looking back, JBA would be pleased with his legacy, given he could have lost the station when the government put the land up for auction again in 1888. Mount Peel has stood the test of time, overcoming snows, price slumps and depressions. Like JBA, the Acland family is here for the long haul; committed to leaving it in good heart for future generations. Mt Peel Lily Day is being held on Sunday 15 December from 10 am – 4 pm at 775 Rangitata Gorge Road, Peel Forest. $15 at the gate, children free. All proceeds go to the Anglican Parish of Geraldine.
Current custodians of South Canterbury’s Mount Peel, Johnny and Rose Acland hold the station’s history in high regard.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP / Sitting proudly in its parklike surroundings, the homestead was built in 1865; like those that have gone before them Rose and Johnny have developed a strong love of trees; since moving into the homestead Rose has continued to develop the colourful picking borders and loves arranging flowers; despite its age the homestead and surrounds have been transformed into a wonderful family home; having just set out on his big OE, son Arthur looks set to follow his father onto the land.
ABOVE RIGHT / This December the family-built Church of the Holy Innocents celebrates its sesquicentennial.
ABOVE LEFT / Originally confined to pots in the homestead’s conservatory, the Himalayan lilies now flourish throughout the garden.