• Ray Salisbury

Amazing Grazing

Updated: May 25, 2020

This article describes cattle and sheep grazing on Mt Arthur, on the adjacent Tableland, and in the Cobb Valley, from 1875 til 1951. While my gt-gt-grandfather was the first grazier, it was his son's mate Cyprian Brereton who wrote up their work history in his book No Roll of Drums.

In 1854, the three Salisbury brothers initially settled in the Pokororo district, near the mouth of the Graham, a tributary of the Motueka River. Others joined them, including colourful personalities such as Edward Mytton, who settled there in 1869; James Haycock, who built the Pokororo School and a footbridge across Motueka River; Tom Heath put down roots; and John McGaveston turned up in about 1878. These pioneer settlers of Motueka Valley embarked on wild pig and cattle hunts, then on Sundays, the community would assemble at Ngatimoti for church services.

Meeting of the Motueka & Graham Rivers. (Sketch by E.A.C. Thomas, 1879).

These first farmers felled the forest with the axe and saw, burnt the logs and sowed grass seed among the smouldering ashes. Long story short, their short-sighted demolition of the native beech forest led quickly to erosion of the river banks. Floods were a regular threat to settlers’ homes. In 1872, tragedy struck when the hotelier George Harding drowned in the flooded Motueka River. Paddling his old

dugout canoe, John Park Salisbury managed to save Harding’s father, wife and son, who were still stranded inside the deluged hotel, plus a digger who was clinging to a tree.

The final blow came in The Great Flood of 1877, which devastated the district. The economic and psychological damage was hard to estimate. Salisbury penned his own account:

‘Everything else went, houses, land, stacks, horses, sheep, and cattle, fences and out-buildings. In a few short hours all vanished, leaving for miles a scene of desolation which could hardly be described. ... where the land was not bodily washed away (leaving only shingle beds) it was covered over twelve feet with mud, logs, and strata of all sorts.’

In addition to losing their precious farmland, the Salisburys' cattle succumbed to tutu poisoning.

And enthusiastic gold-diggers were bothersome to their Baton Valley flocks. John desperately needed to find greener pastures, and in 1872 applied to lease the Tableland which his brother Tom had 'discovered.' Alas, this was still registered as a 'goldfield', but by 1875 Salisbury obtained the right to lease the golden tussock heights of the Tableland. Accompanied by his eldest son, the pioneer moved 100 sheep up the Graham Valley, over into the Flora, and eventually pushed through to Salisbury's Open. In his memoirs, After Many Days, John explains:

‘We drove all day, and camped at night, and the third day, with some help from a table-land digger, we had the satisfaction of viewing our little flock spread out contentedly in the valley. We then got hold of another four hundred sheep, and drove them also up, without loss, so the valley run was in measure set afoot.’
Max Polglaze & party at Dry Rock Shelter in 1987.

Where did Salisbury stay on the Tableland? Initally, he sheltered under the Dry Rock Shelter (above), which is adjacent to the Open. Today, there are still musterers’ monograms to be found carved into the cold stone walls of this neolithic bivouac, but these days one can relax on mattresses on the capacious sleeping platform (thanks to the efforts of NZFS ranger Max Polglaze.)

Salisbury also recorded a couple of lonely nights storm-bound inside dilapidated diggers' huts, while lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the tussock plateau. He made sketches of these thatched shanties. It seems that he also erected his own hut, as later on, Brereton stayed in 'Salisbury's hut' during his family's holiday in 1882, as well as surveyor Charles Lewis and Henry Washbourn the following year.

On The Cobb

Salisbury's Cobb Valley whare was built around 1883. Pictured in 1923 with either Salisbury or Mytton men.

The 'valley run' that John mentioned was the Cobb Valley, where Salisbury built the first two huts, and eventually had 1,000 ewes grazing where the Cobb Reservoir is now located. Three of his sons continued the family lease (John Jnr, Roger and Frank) until selling the rights in 1920 to the Mytton family, who took over their rustic whare, but were forced out in 1949 by the hydro scheme.

Meanwhile, Isaac Gibbs was the first of three generations to farm the upper reaches of the Cobb Valley, with his descendants William and Frederick Gibbs holding licenses until 1908. That year, Fred teamed up with John Salisbury Jnr, and cut the 12-kilometre-long Bullock Track, a shortcut providing quicker access to their leasehold land. Other names on the grazing register included the Winns, Groobys, Hodges, Greens and McGavestons. These Motueka Valley locals were assisted by younger lads who were employed to assist with the musters, moving stock back to the Graham Valley farms for shearing or fattening over winter. Amongst these teenagers were Dan Tomlinson and George Beatson.

During the 1900s, Martin and Ken Thorn purchased land further up the Cobb Valley, and ran their stock there, taking over the Salisbury's second whare further upriver on the true left. By the late 1950s, trampers were burning remnants of this hut for campfires. The Thorns were assisted by youngsters such as Godfrey Grooby, Eddie Wells, Murray Brunning and Mike Brereton. The government eventually forced them out in 1951 prior to the lower valley being flooded.

Painting of sheep grazing by Iron Lake by J.P. Salisbury

Grazing Mt Arthur

In 1875, 'Greenhill Tom' Grooby leased the slopes on Mt Arthur, running 25 head of cattle on Gordons Pyramid, 500 sheep on Mt Arthur during summer, and about 30 cattle above the Pearse River basin. When his herd vanished in 1880, cut his losses and replaced the cows with sheep. The big man was a hardy bushman; a master of dog management, keen in dealing but strictly honest and deeply religious. Greenhill Tom rode his horse up Mt Arthur until he was 80 years old.

No Roll Of Drums book illustration
Greenhill Tom (Thomas Tertius Grooby)

By the mid-1900s, the Thorn brothers had the Crown lease of Mt Arthur, grazing about 1000 sheep on the tussock slopes in summer, then mustering the flock before winter set in. They learned that snow-blind sheep were hopeless to handle. Some livestock fell into potholes around Horseshoe Basin. Thankfully, when dogs disappeared into the depths, they were rescued with a rope.

The Thorn family stopped grazing the mountain in 1951, but left a legacy of huts, including the diminutive Mt Arthur Dogbox above the bush-line, which Max Polglaze repaired during the 1970s. Thorns Hut was rebuilt in the 1930s, and still squats beside the Graham Valley Road today.

Mt Arthur Dogbox (Beatson Collection)

The Lovely Leslie

Tom Brereton at the original Leslie Clearing Hut, built by John Salisbury Jnr. and his men in the 1890s.

The Salisbury brothers chased their wild cattle as far north as the Waingaro catchment, and as far south as the Crow River, a feeder to the Karamea River. As a base, they erected a log cabin at Leslie Clearing in the 1890s, becoming derelict by 1931. It was replaced by a prospector named Collins. In 1953, the Takaka Scouts built a hut further upstream at the junction of Wilkinson Stream. Snow Meyer apparently enlarged this during 1981. The last hut at Leslie Clearing burnt down in about 2003.

Scouts Hut built in 1953 at Wilkinson Creek. (Photo by Jocelyn Winn, 1965).

In conclusion, 75 years of livestock grazing and burning the fragile sub-alpine plants and tussock grass will take time to heal. Thankfully, the creation of Kahurangi National Park in 1996 has given the region a measure of protection from the intrusions of man, and especially the farmer's dogs which decimated the native bird populations.

Please leave comments below - your feedback is valuable.

Read a more detailed account in Ray's 70,000-word book titled Tableland - the history behind Mount Arthur. The coffee-table-style book is to be published by Potton & Burton in October 2020. Sign up to WIN a free copy.

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