Author and naturalist Down Under

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w.h.guthrie-smith_copyA YOUNG man who left Helensburgh in 1880 and died in 1940 is revered to this day in New Zealand as an author and naturalist.

William Herbert Guthrie-Smith was born in the burgh on 13 March 13 1861. His father was John Guthrie-Smith, from Mugdock Castle, Stirlingshire, who had married into the well known Dennistoun family and was partner in a firm of insurance brokers.

Herbert was taught at home by a tutor, then went to an English preparatory school and then to Rugby School, where he gained no special distinction either at work or play.

His parents thought of sending him to Cambridge, but the idea was shelved in favour of allowing him to go to New Zealand where, it was believed, a moderate fortune at least might be won within a reasonably short time.

So in 1880, accompanied by Arthur Cunningham, a Rugby friend, he sailed for New Zealand, where he went to work on the estate of his uncle, George Dennistoun, of Peel Forest Station, South Canterbury.

Two years later the two friends bought Tutira estate in Hawke\s Bay for £9,750, the amount for which it was mortgaged.

The estate's 24,000 acres were covered mainly with bracken, and grass grew only in small patches. The merino sheep with which the station was stocked were not suitable for the type of country.

An enormous annual death rate reduced their numbers and, after three or four years of unprofitable partnership, Cunningham paid £600 in reduction of the joint liability and relinquished his share in Tutira which was then taken over by Thomas Stuart.

During the next two decades the partners defeated the bracken, grassed the land, and greatly increased and improved their flock. By 1903 when Herbert bought out Stuart, the estate had 38,000 sheep and was debt-free.

After the First World War he sub-divided the greater portion of it for soldier settlement, and the 2,000 acres remaining at the time of his death was left in trust for the nation.

It was as an author that Herbert won most distinction. In 1891 he wrote and published a drama entitled ‘Crispus’, but it was not a success. He also tried to write fiction, but then realised that his talent lay in another direction — articles on natural history.

Several were accepted by a well known magazine, and was printed in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1895. But it was only after having reached middle age that he was able to devote much time to writing.

The management of Tutira, especially during the long period when its financial success was in doubt, demanded his constant attention. The ties of family life were an added distraction, as during one of his regular visits back to Helensburgh in 1901, he married Georgina Meta Dennistoun-Brown, and two years later their daughter and only child, Barbara, was born.

In 1908 Herbert turned to bird photography. Two years later his first book, ‘Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste’, well illustrated by the photographs he had spent so much time and trouble in obtaining, was published.

The title, he afterwards admitted, should have been ‘Birds of a New Zealand Sheep Station’, since it dealt only with species to be found locally, but he soon began to watch and write about birds in other areas.

When World War One broke out he was in Scotland. Too old for active service, he took charge of the garden of the Third London General Hospital, and ran it with a staff of volunteers also unfit for the armed forces.

Back in New Zealand after the war he made use of the notes he had been taking “for half a lifetime” to write Tutira, which was published in 1921 by William Blackwood and Sons, of Edinburgh.

Having acquired a moderate fortune, he was now able to leave his much-reduced estate in charge of a manager and spend more time studying ornithology.

Expeditions ranging from Stewart Island in the south to Little Barrier Island off the Hauraki Gulf provided him with material for another book. ‘Bird Life on Island and Shore’, also published by Blackwoods, in 1925.

Not long before his wife's death in 1927, he visited various islands of the sub-Antarctic — the Snares, the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty groups — and in 1929, accompanied by his daughter, he made two more voyages to the Snares and Auckland groups, and to the Kermadec islands.

As the years went by, his literary output diminished, and not until 1936 did his last book make its appearance.

‘The Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist’ was a commentary on the effect of European occupation on various districts of the South Island and some account of the fauna and flora of the sub-Antarctic island groups. In this, as in all his previous books, he pleaded for the preservation of New Zealand's native forests and native birds.

Three editions of ‘Tutira’ were published, the last in 1953. Beginning with an account of Tutira\s geological origins, Herbert described its occupation by Maori tribes, their feuds, battles, and cannibal feasts.

In their day great fires destroyed much of the primeval forest, and when the Europeans appeared they burnt both forest and scrub wherever possible to clear the way for stock and prepare the land for grassing. But bracken took possession of the burnt land and took years to replace.

His powers of observation were acute, as was his interest in changing natural conditions. He was specially interested in the establishment of alien fauna and flora, and their effect upon indigenous conditions.

Considered his best book, ‘Tutira’ has an honoured place among the very few really first-class works to have come out of New Zealand.

A Canadian geography expert, Graeme Wynn, wrote as recently as 2002 that the book was an idiosyncratic but fascinating work which illuminated the bio-geographical processes by which New Zealand was transformed.

In 2005 a one hour documentary about him was produced in New Zealand, describing him as “a landmark figure in New Zealand’s environmental history”.

When Herbert was no longer able to pursue and observe wild life, he reverted to one of the enthusiasms of his boyhood and became a keen gardener until his death at Tutira on July 4 1940 at the age of 79.