Landscape Ecology

, Volume 34, Issue 10, pp 2229–2244 | Cite as

The historical use of fire as a land management tool in New Zealand and the challenges for its continued use

  • Brenda R. BaillieEmail author
  • Karen M. Bayne
Review article



New Zealand’s use of fire as a land management tool has had an extensive and lasting impact on New Zealand’s rural landscapes.


We reviewed the historical rural use of fire by Māori and Europeans in NZ, discuss the challenges facing its future use as a land management tool and briefly compare with the international situation.


We conducted a search using keywords and databases to review research articles on the historical use of fire in NZ.


NZ experienced an historical two-phase anthropogenic use of fire as a land management tool since human arrival (c. 1280–1350 AD). In a forested non-fire adaptive environment, the widespread and intensive use of fire reduced natural forest cover from 85 to 90% prior to human arrival to 25% by the mid-twentieth century. Māori primarily used fire to clear travel routes, hunt for game, maintain bracken beds and clear land for crops. Europeans introduced a renewed era of burning, primarily for land conversion to agriculture, pasture regeneration, fuel load reduction, pest control and removing vegetation residues. Concerns regarding fire escapes, risks to infrastructure, environmental impacts, urban encroachment into rural environments and climate change may influence future use.


NZ differs from other countries where fire is a natural component of the landscape, limiting its application as a tool for landscape restoration and its use on conservation land remains contentious. A third-phase use of fire is emerging in the rural sector, targeting niche burning for a range of specific purposes under the challenge of increasing environmental, social and regulatory constraints.


Historical Fire Land use New Zealand Humans Māori European 



This study was funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) ‘Protecting New Zealand From Emerging Rural Fire Risks’ programme (C04X1203). We are grateful to Grant Pearce, Veronica Clifford and Brian Richardson for reviewing and providing constructive feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Scion (New Zealand Forest Research Institute Limited)RotoruaNew Zealand

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