Ewan McGregor: Who owns the rural landscape?

By Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor

Who owns the rural landscape? Not the land itself, but the wider vista beholden to the eye.

With public land it is, naturally, the public.

But overwhelmingly our public estate is in national or regional parks and so, accordingly, public policy is to maintain it in its natural state or return it to such.

Not that this is necessarily happening, as the alarming invasion of our regenerating bush and tussock lands by wilding exotic trees evidences.

Read more: Ewan McGregor: One billion trees commendable but needs to be sensibly managed

With private land, however, landscape ownership is quite another matter. The debate over the Te Mata Peak track has brought this conundrum into the open.

With any issue that stirs the public, the first reaction comes from those who object; those that approve feel unmotivated to represent their feelings.

Publicly expressed approval follows as a reaction to the objections. Unfortunately, the inexplicable haste with which Craggy Range Winery made the commitment to restore the landscape stymied the counter-surge of public feeling.

So malcontents and political opportunists prevailed when it now appears that the public supports the track. What now?

The private landowner has very defined rights, subject to a range of laws and by-laws. But with rights go obligations, and this definitely applies to land ownership.

With an iconic landscape, and that Te Mata certainly is, the obligations are all the stronger. But two things need to be conceded here. One is that the owners followed due process, and the other is that the motive for the track was not self-interest, but a facility open for public recreation.

In the final analysis, it is private land, but it was hard to find any concession to the rights therein by those objecting.

So, who owns the landscape? An interesting case is that of Britain. That country is magnificently picturesque, and a veritable economic asset as its lure of the tourist.

It is also entirely man-made, the result of maybe eight millennia of man's activity. By comparison, around 30 per cent of New Zealand is more or less in its natural state, the remainder having been transformed by man in less than a thousand years.

The British landowner is under rather onerous legal obligation to protect the landscape character of his/her region, and heavily financially incentivised to restore such features as walls, hedgerows, wetlands and woodlands that were removed to make way for mechanised agriculture.

Indeed, the trend is to take the landscape back to something like its Victorian character. The days of the government-driven thrust toward food self-sufficiency have gone, as have the U-boat packs that excited it.

Now the farmer is not just seen as a food producer, but a green keeper, the green being the nation's privately held rural land. The British farmer responds, perhaps a little grudgingly, because he is paid to do so.

In 1955 Professor W. G. Hoskings wrote a book, The Making of the English Landscape, which traced the profound influence of man upon the English landscape through eight millennia. It is a classic for it was the first examination of the evolution of the English landscape, and thus established landscape history as a compelling area of academic study.

It has significantly advanced the culture in Britain of landscape appreciation. (A landscape culture, incidentally, that has been embraced by our twin city communities.)

As far as I am aware, no such work has been done in New Zealand, and it should be. Why has that portion of New Zealand that is under habitation and production been so dramatically modified?

What's the reason for its unique character? Should we build an ethos into our land ownership to advance landscape values when we establish our utilities and plant trees? This seems all the more urgent with the billion trees that the new Government wants planted over the next decade.

As that transformation from an uninhabited virgin landscape and ecology has happened in just one millennia, which makes this country unique. But while change has accelerated over the last two centuries with the application of economic land use, much transformation began well before that.

Maori greatly modified the landscape, mainly by fire, which destroyed the forest over the drier eastern portions of the country, especially the South Island.

In 1840 most of the forest cover of what has become the Hawke's Bay region had been burnt.

This dramatic transformation, assumedly, included Te Mata Peak, so Maori ... well, there could be an irony here given their objection the track.

Ewan McGregor is a former deputy chairman of the Hawke's Bay Regional Council. Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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