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.

Latitude Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS & IMAGES An­nie Studholme

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

Wil­liam Brass­ing­ton.

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.

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