The Wither Hills Farm Park is an area of just over 1100 hectares extending over the majority of the area of the Wither Hills, within the Wither Hills Ecological District, immediately to the south of Blenheim. The park is owned by the Marlborough District Council and operates both as a recreational area and a working farm.
History and Natural Features
The Wither Hills run between the Dashwood and Taylor passes and are situated directly to the south of Blenheim. Formed by tectonic movement, the underlying rocks are gravel conglomerates and wind blown Wairau loess greywacke. They are named after C.B.Withers who took up a sheep run on them in 1848.
In pre-colonial times the hills were extensively covered in manuka, kānuka and totara forest supporting a large population of moa and other bird species. The arrival of fire with Polynesian explorers resulted in large fires raging across most of eastern Marlborough in the tinder dry conditions. After this deforestation a tall tussock grassland established, building a layer of humus and sustaining the loess of which much of the hills are made.
On European settlement the hills were once again burnt and sown with exotic grasses more palatable to sheep. This started a long period of erosion which scoured out long underground tunnels and left scars visible for some distance. The area became notorious as one of the most erosion prone parts of New Zealand, and posed significant risk to Blenheim. In 1944 the first block of land was acquired for the purpose of flood and erosion control. After World War 2 a soil conservation project was begun at the western end through extensive tree planting and improved stock management. Over the years, additional land was acquired until the park attained its current area.
On December 26, 2000, a devastating fire swept through the Wither Hills, destroying farmland, and much of the efforts at reforestation. Some estimates suggested that it would take at least ten years to recover from the damage.
Although the Wither Hills are a highly modified environment, a remnant of native vegetation reflecting the ecology at the time of European colonisation can be found in a covenanted area of the Sutherland Stream catchment. Kānuka, flax, two species of sun orchid, patotara, kowhai, porcupine bush, silver tussock, tauhinu, and matagouri are some of the plant species present. A variety of ferns including mamaku, button fern, bracken, necklace fern, and others can also be found. Many species of fungi are also present.
The Wither Hills are home to a wide variety of invertebrates including crickets, locusts, nurseryweb spiders among others. Bird species found in the park include skylark, fantail (piwakawaka), tui, harrier hawk (kāhu), spurwing plover, cirl bunting. Rabbits and feral cats are also present.
During the summer, the grassy hills usually dry off given them their characteristic golden brown colour. In winter higher rainfall and cooler conditions tends to green the hills with fresh grass growth. Although the hills are mostly bare grassland, there are the occasional stand of pine trees, and in the bottom of valleys a mixture of indigenous and exotic vegetation.
Mount Vernon is the highest point in the park at 422m.
The Marlborough District Council owns and manages much of the Wither Hills as a working farm and recreational park and have constructed a network of walking and cycle tracks and implemented a conservation and restoration programme for the remaining bush remnants.
Extensive planting of native species has been done from the Redwood Street entrance to the farm park up the Sutherland Stream catchment. Species include harakeke (flax), hebes, lancewoods, coprosmas, cabbage trees, manuka and Marlborough's iconic rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) among others.
Extensive exotic planting has occured further west around Quail Stream with various Pinus species, walnuts, accacias, willows, tree lucerne, eucalypts, oaks among the vegetation present.
Ongoing control of a number of pest plant species including gorse, nasella tussock, and Chilean needle grass is undertaken by the council or contractors.
A section of the western end of the Wither Hills off Taylor Pass Road also is the site of the Blue Gums landfill which provides a location for burial of household and industrial waste from Blenheim. Access to the site is restricted to the public. The council operates a roadside collection and transfer station for members of the public to dispose of waste.
The Wither Hills have an extensive network of over 60km of walking and mountain bike tracks. The first tracks were established by council in colaboration with Blenheim South Rotary in the 1970s.
There are several entrances to the park with car parking available; from Cob Cottage Road, the south end of Redwood Street, Forest Park Drive, and Rifle Range Place off Taylor Pass Road. It is also possible to access the park from Harling Park by following a track up a spur. A gate at the south end of Weld Street also provides access, however there is no car park. For mountain bikers, there is access from Taylor Pass Road at the mountain bike park entrance.
An annual King and Queen of the Withers race is held by the Marlborough Harriers Club within the park. The inaugural event was held in 1977 catering for male runners only, but was opened up to women in 1992.
An annual Walk in the Park in the Dark event is held annually on, or close to the shortest day, with the 2018 event featuring a fireworks display for the first time.