Words by Richard Rennie, images by Lucy Hunter-Weston
Amongst the casualties of North Canterbury’s devastating 2016 7.8 earthquake was a landmark woolshed that meant as much to the Waiau community as it did to its owners.
The distinctive Highfield woolshed, owned by the Northcote family sits alongside State Highway 70, the Inland Road between Waiau and Kaikoura, just a few kilometres from the Waiau township. It is one of the oldest functioning woolsheds in New Zealand, with a history stretching back to the founding days of not only sheep farming, but the country itself, having been constructed in 1877.
The big wooden structured T shaped 24 stand shed took a massive hit from a ruptured fault running under it, and the November 2016 quake shoved the entire building off its piles. The roof collapsed along the southern wall and the floor was extensively damaged, with the entire structure looking buckled and bent.
After three generations of storms, other earthquakes and heavy snow, this event may have marked the end of the shed’s life.
“But I think after I first wandered through it and saw the damage, I felt I always wanted to fix it. My father had died two months before the ‘quake and he was very passionate about the woolshed and there are a lot of memories and history tied up in it” says Michael Northcote.
It is a history that has also been recognised nationally, with Heritage New Zealand giving it its highest “Category 1” rating – classed as a historic structure that is of special or outstanding historical or cultural significance or value.
The Highfield shed is the oldest surviving woolshed in the Hurunui district, and one of the oldest in New Zealand.
It represents the country’s era of early extensive pastoral runs, and also played an important role in Waiau’s development as the venue for the Amuri district A&P Show for many years, used to display produce and provide shelter for show goers.
The shed was originally built to serve the wider Highfield run, this extended from the Conway River to the north, and over to Mendip Hills to the east. Back in 1892 it was the first shed to use machines, driven by a traction engine.
Michael admits the process of getting the woolshed repaired seemed more arduous than the process of actual repair, and a full year passed before things got moving to rebuild it.
“We were very fortunate – Heritage NZ made a generous grant to help the rebuild, and we took the FMG insurance amount for replacement, and the family topped up the difference which was not too great in the scheme of things.”
But it proved to be no minor engineering feat to restore the shed to its former glory.
Michael ended up engaging a highly capable team comprising of Dave Pearson of DPA Architects, Win Clark, a Wellington structural engineer and Lindsay Smith of Heritage House Re-levellers in Christchurch.
Over the year the shed had to be lifted, re-piled, repaired, strengthened and painted.
Just lifting it broke some records for the number of hydraulic jacks the house movers had to use.
“Their previous highest number had been 25, but we needed 44 jacks, lifting the shed to the height of 1.8 metres.
“It was not the oldest and heaviest building they had lifted, it was more about its sheer size and getting the jacks in the right places to lift it cleanly.”
The company inserted fifty big steel beams under the shed and over the course of three hours the whole structure was inched up.
“We cleaned out from under it with a bobcat and found a heap of interesting things, dancing shoes, old combs, cutters and many empty bottles.”
Lowering the shed onto its 326 new piles was followed by tying the beams to the piles.
“We had joked that morning about not wanting an earthquake that day, and sure enough we got one, a 4.2 hit while there were about 10 of us under it. Some ran, some stayed and just turned white!”
Michael says the advice from Win the structural engineer and site foreman Simon Clark who had also farmed proved invaluable throughout, with good compromises between retaining the building’s historic lines and incorporating modern materials that respected that.
Come early November and the family decided to hold an official opening for the woolshed, given its prominence in the district.
Over 400 people attended the Highfield woolshed opening party in what proved to mark a turning point for a community repairing itself emotionally and physically from such a damaging event.
“It was a great event, I think everyone was keen to see what sort of job we had done, and we put on a bit of entertainment. People could come along and have a go at shearing, and compete at turning a hand driven comb. It was also a chance for us to repay the people who had been so supportive, and those who had done such a great job getting the shed back together again.”
With its final coat of “Scoria” red paint applied by Day Brothers Painters, the wool shed is very much back to its original look, and one that draws many visitors spotting it from its prominent position near the main Inland Kaikoura road.
“We get quite a number of people through from the North Island, they may have been shearers earlier in their lives and appreciate the shed’s history.”
The possibility of integrating a form of farm tourism using the shed as its centrepiece has crossed Michael’s mind, but he admits he’s got enough on his plate running the farm and overseeing the post-‘quake work that continues to be challenging him.
“Overall though, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy getting it to where it is now. It is a local landmark that we have rescued, and it has overall proven to be a very positive experience from what was a pretty shocking event.”
Waiau success borne from farms’ strengths
It is not every farming operation where two brothers can work together well, but Hugh and Michael Northcote have been doing just that for some time, helped by each having their own operation but working under the family business and adapting to the challenges the North Canterbury climate has presented in recent years.
Michael runs Highfield farm comprising 700ha, while further up the Inland Kaikoura road Hugh overseas the 4,000 ha Whalesback.
“I think the beauty of it is there is some difference between the two operations, Hugh manages what is largely the breeding block that supplies us with lambs and stock for finishing and trading on the easier country here at Highfield” says Michael.
“We each have our own interests and operation, but the system itself is quite a complex dance between the two that works well.”
While Michael spends considerable time on the phone dealing with stock agents for selling stock, the majority are sourced from Hugh’s operation. Michael runs 2,800 ewes, selling all their lambs in an early November sale on farm, enabling paddocks to be shut up for silage and hay to be harvested for the winter.
“Then when Hugh weans in January the majority of his lambs come to us, which is about 3,500. Similarly, with the cattle, when all the calves are weaned in autumn they come down to us, so it makes winter a pretty intensive time for us and we really start planning now (early summer) for the feed demand that winter brings.”
The brothers catch up regularly and lend a hand between farms as needed over the busy periods.
“Whalesback is a very good breeding property, with good summer country, while we tend to be a bit more prone to drought at Highfield, but lend ourselves well to winter stocking.”
Winter crops play a vital role, including kale and fodder beet which is capable of delivering some massive yields of up to 36t drymatter a hectare, but at a relatively high establishment cost.
“The biggest advantage it does offer however is being able to graze the same number of cattle on a relatively small area. Compared to kale the beet yields 2.5 times more dry matter a hectare.”
The drought conditions that have hit North Canterbury in recent years have prompted Michael to look at expanding the irrigated area, currently at 200ha with water sourced from the Waiau and Mason rivers and delivered through a centre pivot system.
They initially started from 67ha 15years ago with irrigation, expanding over time from a source that has proven reliable over that period.
Lucerne also plays an increasing role in summer crop supplementation, balanced by the use of kale and beet over winter.
“We tend to farm for drought, and that works well between the two properties – it’s the reason we have our own early summer on farm sale, allowing us to take the Whalesback stock when they are weaned later in summer.
“We are constantly looking for the best mix of stock, and ways to add value to that stock using the two properties.”