Tending to the farm a 181-year legacy

Banks Peninsula farmers Glen and Rachael Court with their son Max. Rachael's family has farmed at...
Banks Peninsula farmers Glen and Rachael Court with their son Max. Rachael's family has farmed at Pigeon Bay since Ebenezer Hay landed from a hand-built schooner 181 years ago. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
A long farming stint dating back to 1843 by a Banks Peninsula family takes some beating, writes Tim Cronshaw.

When Ebenezer Hay first stood on his new farm at Banks Peninsula’s Pigeon Bay, he set in motion a family legacy that’s remained unbroken for 181 years.

Few farming families can rival this extended run on the land — perhaps only one other in Northland can surpass this feat.

The date was 1843 before the First Four Ships had arrived and before Christchurch was founded when the Hays found their new home. Canterbury’s oldest town, Akaroa had only just been set up in August 1840 by French settlers.

Ebenezer Hay was born in Scotland in 1814 and after marrying Agnes Orr, left Glasgow in the sailing ship, Bengal Merchant, to arrive in Wellington in January 1840.

Two years later he built a small vessel on Petone Beach with Captain Sinclair, and they set out to explore the South Island, finally settling at Pigeon Bay in 1843.

When they sailed into the quiet bay on the schooner Māori called it Wakaroa because of the many flocks of native wood pigeon living in the area.

The story goes that Mr Hay took the head of Pigeon Bay and Mr Sinclair a bay and valley on the west side now called Holmes’ Bay.

With two cows and a heifer calf brought down from Wellington, the Hays proceeded to establish the nucleus of a home and working farm.

A woolshed built from timber milled on Glencairn farm, part of the Allandale Estate still run by...
A woolshed built from timber milled on Glencairn farm, part of the Allandale Estate still run by Hay descendants since 1843. Behind is an old carriage house. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
By all accounts they lived in a tent, and then a thatched whare, while the cattle fed in the few clearings among native bush.

This was the starting point of Annandale Estate.

Boundaries and surnames have rolled with the times as family on the Innes side and more latterly the Courts took over the reins, but the descendants from the first Hay are still farming in Pigeon Bay.

Glen and Rachael Court — her grandmother was a Hay — are the latest members to take on the honour of part of the estate now called Glencairn farm.

Mrs Court said they were extremely proud to be the fifth-generation guardians and hope their children would be the next generation.

She and her two sisters were raised in the 1911 homestead and before them it was home to her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

The long run is put down to farming families being content to live and work in a close community.

"So Dad’s mother was a Hay and his father William Innes was also from here as well and they’re all in the cemetery down here. I don’t know why they lasted so long. They just didn’t go far and married within the valley which happened with some of the Hays. The peninsula is a really special place with an amazing community, there’s good schools and everyone looks out for each other."

Mr Court said they were welcomed as soon as they arrived.

Glen Court believes strong farm and family ties at Pigeon Bay explain why his wife, Rachael’s...
Glen Court believes strong farm and family ties at Pigeon Bay explain why his wife, Rachael’s family have remained farming there for 181 years. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
"The dedication to the farm and family ties to the bay are pretty strong. You can see the Kaikoura Ranges on a good day and Rachel’s Dad would talk about how they were involved in the schools, committees and a strong community. We have a fire brigade, the rugby and cricket and it hasn’t changed much — if you’re in the bay you’re in the committee, you have no choice, but that’s how you meet people and be part of the community."

The original Hay homestead was wiped out in the 1880s by a slip after heavy rain and the second Annandale home still stands in the bay further down. A remaining red wool shed at the waterfront was shared by farmers until the 1960s.

Mrs Court is the youngest of three daughters and planted the seed with her parents they would be keen to take on the farm.

About two years later the subject came up again out of the blue between her father and Mr Court.

"We were up there dagging sheep and I was pushing up and he just said: ‘You still interested?’ I was like interested in what? And he said ‘Interested with looking at the farm?’ I was like OK, yep, yeah, yeah."

Mrs Court said it was too good an offer to pass up as they were keen to farm on their own and keep Glencairn in the family.

Mr Court was working with his father in Lincoln, at one stage cropping 600ha on a small farm and lease blocks. Housing subdivisions were gobbling up the land and leasing opportunities further out to Ellesmere and Ashburton were difficult to find so the prospect of continuing was tenuous.

Unknown to them, her parents had gone to a discussion group for advice to carry out a smooth succession plan for all involved and invited them to attend the second workshop.

As uncomfortable as this was opening up to farmers they had never met, the advice helped her parents work out how to get them on the farm in an early inheritance as fair as possible for her sisters.

Glen and Rachael Court work with son, Max, to pick out tail enders ready to leave Glencairn,...
Glen and Rachael Court work with son, Max, to pick out tail enders ready to leave Glencairn, which has been in her family for 181 years.
Other Hays farmed in the valley with the last remaining family with the surname still owning land now living outside Pigeon Bay.

The stories still live on.

"One of the main stories Rachael’s dad tells is up Pettigrews and Shadbolts roads there’s all these apple trees," Mr Court said.

"The peninsula was known as a dairy farm and all the milk was taken down to the wharf to get taken to Lyttelton by boat to go to Christchurch. Every morning the farmers would take their milk on their wagons down there and all the kids would catch a ride as there were three schools around here. The kids would be given an apple and they would chew it along the way and throw the core out. Some of those trees are still there up those side roads."

Another favourite is when a local farmer bringing his milk cans to the original wharf found the school ground covered in fish after a tsunami.

By all accounts he filled his wagon up and the family had fish for dinner the next few nights.

Family folklore goes that Ebenezer Hay and his family were sitting having their lunch on the deck and watched the First Four Ships go past.

True or not, there’s no denying his legacy at Annandale Estate which once extended over more than 3000ha, carrying upwards of 10,000 sheep and 1500 head of cattle.

In 1852 Ebenezer Hay introduced cocksfoot grass into Banks Peninsula — a grass that was to be a mainstay of peninsula farming. Interested in establishing a dairy industry on the peninsula, he made butter and cheese in the earliest days.

Rachael Court and her two sisters were raised in the 1911 homestead and before them it was home...
Rachael Court and her two sisters were raised in the 1911 homestead and before them it was home to her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents at Glencairn, on land run by Hay descendants since 1843.
In 1863 aged just 49-years-old he lost his life as a result of an accident and his son, James, continued to farm Annandale with brother, Tom, until 1897. The farm was then split between James’ only child James Campbell Hay and his nephew Ebenezer, son of Tom and his wife, Hannah.

In 1911 about 590ha of Annandale Estate was sold in seven lots with 115ha — now part of Glencairn — bought by senior James Hay’s cousin — Robert Steel Hay.

That was Mrs Court’s great-grandfather and he came to New Zealand in 1871 in the sailing ship, Crusaders, along with shorthorn heifers, sheep and dogs.

After staying a few weeks at Annandale, he went to the North Island to work for Sir Walter Buchanan in Wairarapa district, returning to take up land near the Akaroa lighthouse and farmed there until about 1895.

A year later he married Euphemia Simpson and went to live at Pigeon Bay, farming on a lease block until buying part of the Annandale estate.

He named the farm Glencairn after a place near his home town of Kilmaurs in Scotland. A house was built for the couple and their only child Rino Lillian — Mrs Court’s grandmother.

No farm sheds were built on Glencairn as all the sheep were driven to the Annandale woolshed for shearing and dipping. Fat lambs were taken on foot to Little River Railway to be trucked on the train to the freezing works.

Often, farmers would mix their lambs together, sometimes in big mobs escorted by three or four drovers with good dogs. The first day they would get as far as the Hilltop Hotel where there were accommodation paddocks and rest up overnight before arriving the next day at Little River station.

Unable to carry on with the heavier farm work, Robert Steel Hay brought in George McKay to carry this out, before dying a few years later at 80 in 1931.

With their only child unable to carry on the farm, Mrs Hay went to a home in Auckland with Mr McKay looking after Glencairn under supervision of a trustee until 1941 when Rino and her husband Charles Innes came back from sharemilking in the North Island to run the property.

Robert Steel Hay was among the first few generations of the Hay family to farm at Pigeon Bay. The...
Robert Steel Hay was among the first few generations of the Hay family to farm at Pigeon Bay. The first to land were Ebenezer and Agnes Hay in 1843. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
He thrashed cocksfoot on Glencairn for other farmers when it was at its height and winter dairy grazed for neighbours, milling totara and clearing bush tracks and farmland with an old Oliver crawler tractor.

The couple raised three children with youngest son David Innes — Mrs Court’s father — coming back after a Christchurch education to run Glencairn alongside his father.

In 1966 David bought 59ha at the top end of Pigeon Bay from the Pettigrew family, financing this by shearing sheep around the district.

Macrocarpa and oregon from Glencairn was sawn on a home-made mill to build a new woolshed and stock yards.

A few years later he and his wife, Sandra, bought the Glencairn block from his parents at $608/ha. In 1972 they moved into the farmhouse with the parents building a house on Pettigrews Rd where they retired.

By 1988 another 130ha was leased at the upper end of Pigeon Bay called the McKay block and stocked with 92 head of rising-one-year-old steers and heifers which was eventually bought in 1994.

About 700 Merino wethers were brought in from the Awatere Valley for their fine wool revenue until the heavy snow storm of August 1992 decimated their numbers and they returned to Romneys.

By the 1990s Glencairn and the additional block, Fairview, were running 1400 breeding Romney ewes with a 90% lambing percentage, 700 hoggets and 80 head of Angus cows.

The baton was exchanged for the fifth time when the Courts initially leased the farm in 2016.

They bought the Glencairn and Fairview blocks in 2020 from her parents who have retired to a lifestyle property in Pigeon Bay.

Charlie and Rino Innes at Glencairn. Rino is from the Hay family who have farmed at Pigeon Bay...
Charlie and Rino Innes at Glencairn. Rino is from the Hay family who have farmed at Pigeon Bay since 1843. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Her father, who has built up a knowledge of the property over nearly 80 years, would arrive daily for the first five years to help them out.

Otherwise, he let them get on with the way they wanted to run the farm.

"We have been coming over for weekends and holidays so know the farm and a lot of the things he’s said he always wanted to do was stuff we were going to be doing like planting up 20ha and put a crop in and get in more cows," Mr Court said. "He was happy that we were going on the same track."

He said the blocks balanced each other on the 320ha farm of medium hill country and valley floors.

"This is earlier country and that’s a bit later and wetter up there on top of the summit so it’s a bit colder and has a longer summer. We have Romneys with Wairere rams and my father-in-law when we took over he had been dealing with them for probably 20 years. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing and we’ve carried it on. Originally we had about 1600 ewes and about 80 breeding cows. We have leased the block next door here for a full year now so we are up to just under 3000 ewes with the cows still around that mark."

Through the introduction of grazing management, genetics, cultivating paddocks, ram selection, and more precise fertiliser applications they have increased the average lambing percentage to 140%.

A good autumn saw this raised to 150% and they believe running fewer stock per hectare also helped.

The cultivated paddocks help to put weight on the bottom end of the hoggets and ewes. In the first few years they tried rape, but prefer to put in better grasses.

Being a cropping farmer, Mr Court had hopes they could finish the Glencairn stock themselves, but this proved difficult.

"The first few years we tried, but the drought brought us back to reality and we get rid of them now at weaning in December and keep the light ones to put more weight on them. Our late ones we are selling now probably half are prime and half are stores. Usually the price is pretty good now, but at the moment it’s not."

Pigeon Bay’s old cemetery is the final resting place of many of the Hay family who have been...
Pigeon Bay’s old cemetery is the final resting place of many of the Hay family who have been farming at Banks Peninsula for 181 years. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Apart from the cows fed on some hay and barley brought in during drought, they are raised on a pasture diet.

He said they were enjoying spending more time as a family.

Working for themselves, they can make time to watch their children at country rugby, netball and cricket games or take the boat out in the bay.

On a voluntary register run by Century Farms there appears to be just one known family ahead of them farming continuously since 1839 in Northland, with others in Nelson coming close.

The Courts and their predecessors are among the organisation’s latest intake of farming families who have owned and worked their land for 100 years or more.

Mrs Court, who works three days a week managing the Akaroa golf club at Duvauchelle Bay, put her hand up for this.

"We have always been interested in the history of the bay and family and Mum has done a lot of research. I might have read previous stories on this and thought let’s have a go at that."

Their children Thomas, 13, Lucy, 11, and Max, 9, help out with farm work.

While it is too early to tell and they will not push them, the Courts would love it if they come back to carry on the legacy.