QEII Remembers
Dr Brian Molloy ONZM

The name Brian Molloy is well known at QEII and one that we will remember well.

Over his decades-long association with QEII, he worked with countless landowners, directors, regional representatives, and staff members. He made an impression on those that he worked with, and was commonly described by his colleagues as generous, captivating, and awesome.

Since hearing of his passing, colleagues at QEII have been gathering to share stories and reminisce about their time with Dr Brian Molloy ONZM. We have collected some of these stories to capture his memory and to memorialise the incredibly significant contribution he made to QEII, botany and conservation in New Zealand.

The type of man you remembered and who remembered you.

My first memory of Brian is from when I was about ten, coming home on Christmas Eve and seeing dad and Brian having a beer together. 

Brian transcended the politics of conservation, although he challenged people on both sides of the “high country divide” at times! 

The intergenerational linkages that Brian tapped into still exist on many covenants. I am now the QEII rep for Central Otago. Among the many covenants in my patch are the emanant early botanist’s, Dr Leonard Cockayne’s fenced grassland enclosure plots on Northburn Station near Cromwell which Brian along with the Pinckney family was instrumental in protecting by way of a QEII covenant. I believe these ae the oldest fenced plots in the South Island High Country.

When writing an article on Leonard Cockayne for the Canterbury Botanical Society, Brian dug out a photo of my great-grandfather, Albert Butterfield, who was on the Cromwell Development Board at the time, with Dr Cockayne visiting the plots in 1922. I always think of Brian when I am monitoring these sites. His comprehensive handwritten annotated species lists for many of my dryland covenants are very important records.

He was chuffed with the relationship that he formed with the then-Governor General, Dame Patsy Reddy GNZM. They met at a couple of QEII related events, including what was known as the Royal event where QEII hosted Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at the Carol Whaley Native Bush, which was being dedicated to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. Brian and Sir Brian Lochore were invited as honoured guests.  

When I think of Brian, I have his gravelly voice in my head. He had a very distinctive way of speaking. He was very thoughtful, methodical, measured when he spoke. Every word was a pearl of wisdom. And it was delivered, like an oracle! There was no chat.

We had a meeting once and there were high country farmers in the room; Brian was a master in how he took that room from being a little bit negative [to the conservation ideas he was suggesting], to focussing on the biodiversity, and he won them over. Before they knew it, they were all really interested in the plants. He knew his audience and he knew how to bring them on board.

Brian didn’t take an adversarial, campaigning approach to conservation. He wanted to get alongside people and bring them with him. Brian was seen as a compromiser sometimes, but his approach – both approaches – have merit; both approaches had wins and losses.

He was at his best when he was facing people who didn’t rate conservation. He seemed to like situations where he had to be the negotiator and get people over the line. He didn’t always have time for people who were real conservation advocates; he thought that they were too hard line, and that they wouldn’t take people with them.

His papers were master classes in writing on ecological subjects. They would start with the landscape, the geology, the soils, and drill down from there. Each sentence had a lot of hidden knowledge in it. Every time I have re-read his work, a couple of words will set me off in a different direction with my own research. His limestone papers and his drystone papers based on his research in Canterbury are our touchstone papers into how things were in the 90s and 00s.

His species lists were thorough and reliable, providing a trustworthy assessment of an ecological area for future reps and researchers to build on. They are a work of art in and of themselves.

The High Country was considered a man’s world, but Brian was an early advocate for me and other women to work in conservation. He would also say “whenever I talk to a farmer about a covenant, I talk to them in the kitchen, so that the wife can overhear”. He knew that it would all be decided later, and that the partnership of a family farm would influence the decision. It shows how he knew about mediation and negotiation, and deal making – he knew how decisions were made.

He wasn’t a group person, really. You didn’t call him, you waited for him to call you. He was pretty self-contained and very independent.

He would captivate an audience. It didn’t matter who he was speaking with or to whom, there would be a hushed silence, and everyone would be focussed on Brian. It was beautiful.

Brian was on the committee when I put in my application to be a QEII rep. I was lucky enough to have Brian take me around ten or twenty covenants. He didn’t want to be quizzed too much, didn’t like it if you talked too much, although he always had answers for everything. He would always say “look, listen, and see what the plants are telling you.” He wasn’t focussed on what was there, but the why plants were there and how they were there. He was looking at the whole ecological context of things and how everything was interrelated. That was what he really wanted to get across.

He was a strong advocate for QEII’s position on engaging with landowners and he would often say that QEII sinks or swims on our relationships with landowners. The Landowner has to be Number One, and QEII reps are just the lucky people who get to put landowner wishes into something more substantial.

A lot of landowners still ask how Brian is doing, even though they worked with him long ago. He had a very good way of asking for a cup of tea and would focus on getting to know the landowner as well as the covenant.

Whenever I went out with Brian, I realised how little I knew. He was lucky to have an office at Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR) next to a whole lot of experts in different, but allied, fields and he could connect all of those fields together. He knew how the soils and the plants interacted etc. Someone could answer his questions. He had an all-encompassing knowledge of how everything came together and how everything is interrelated.

One of the reasons that Brian got away with being able to work as a rep well into his 80s was that one of his landowners had a helicopter and loved taking him up to his high-country covenants. I strongly suspect that one or two of the photo points (used in regular site visits to capture the changes taking place on the covenant) that Brian established at the tops of massive hills elicit a response from younger reps; “how on earth did he get up there?!”

In his early covenants, he would write a short precis of the attributes of the covenant and create a word picture that would very easily convey what it was that you were dealing with and what were the important things were that you needed to look at. They’re a delight to read.

He had such a character-filled face, with his wrinkles and shock of white hair. He provided some ecological advice to the film makers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and apparently got roped into being a dwarf! He was quite proud of it at the time, although I could never pick him out when watching the films. They wouldn’t have needed much make up!

He used to ask for samples “while you’re up there, I’m just looking for a little bit of this!” He was still writing papers well into his retirement and had his favourite Leptinella plants growing outside his cottage at Ngaio Marsh Retirement Village.

He was a “seed sower”; he had the luck of going around Canterbury looking at potential reserves. Maybe some of those places didn’t get protected straight away, but he sowed the seeds with landowners and some of those places are now coming up for protection by QEII covenant.

I first came across Brian in the early 1990s when farming was adjusting to Rogernomics. After decades of government assistance, farming without incentives and subsidies was causing massive economic hardship and farming systems were being subjected to scrutiny and change.

Brian was the first reputable scientist/botanist I heard defend high country farming practices. He often stated that no plants in the high country had ever become extinct during 150 years of pastoralism, and nobody ever disproved that statement. That quiet accolade probably did more to shift high country farmer attitudes towards embracing conservation than the more extreme green activism, which was beginning to emerge at the time. I found his quiet but confident presentations and discussions compelling, as did my farming contemporaries.

Years later, I chaired the Canterbury/Aoraki Conservation Board and had more direct contact with Brian. We would meet at field days; farm discussion groups and board meetings and he would often telephone me to seek action or reinforce a point he was passionate about. Around that time, Brian contracted stomach cancer and underwent major surgery to remove a lot of his stomach, after which he would proudly proclaim himself as ” the original gutless wonder”.

When I retired from the Conservation Board, Brian presented me with a small pot containing a specimen of the extremely rare Button Daisy (leptinella filiformis) which I took home and duly planted in a tufa pot outside our veranda. About ten years later, Brian and I were enjoying a cup of coffee on the veranda when he suddenly spotted the Button Daisy (he had extraordinary eyesight) and became quite excited thinking he had just discovered another locality of this almost extinct plant. I strung him along for a while before I reminded him, he had given me the parent plant years earlier. I think he enjoyed the irony.

I enjoyed his eloquence, passion, charm, and humour which was epitomised in two anecdotes.  Some years before I was appointed to the QEII board, Miles Giller organised a field day here at my property High Peak Station and Brian Molloy was one of the presenters. Sir Brian Lochore was chair of the Trust at the time and the two All Black Brians seemed to have a running banter most of the day. They were travelling home together and when they came to leave BJ got into the driver’s seat and started the car. Brian M was still taking his boots off and putting them in the rear hatch when BJ put the car into reverse and started backing. Brian leapt out of the way and quick as a flash announced to everyone ” Typical bloody No 8 – always backing over the halfback”

In 2017 QEII celebrated its 40th anniversary and the Trust’s patron, Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy hosted an event at Government House to which special guests, including Brian, were invited. After the formalities, I introduced the Governor General to Brian who immediately proceeded to clasp her hands in both of his and then tell her she was one of the most attractive women he had ever met. Other guests were amused at the sight of the charming elderly scientist sitting on the Vice Regal sofa chatting up the Head of State. Dame Patsy seemed highly amused by the encounter and Brian was equally nonplussed with his behaviour that could be seen as a breach of protocol.

His immense contribution to the botany of native plants is well documented but he left an even greater legacy to conservation by using his persuasive advocacy to change attitudes, challenge accepted wisdom and encourage landowners – high country farmers in particular – to see their surroundings in a different light. He had great social radar, enjoyed people and read them well and was the embodiment of the principle of cooperation before coercion. He was fun to be around and taught me much.

When I first started working for QEII as a junior advisor, doing some contestable fund admin, he was the most patient, respectful, and kindest person. I was just one of many in succession in that role at the time, but for all his standing in the world he always had the time and patience to answer any questions. It was super intimidating to work with Brian Molloy! But he was lovely.

The main thing I learnt from Brian that has stuck with me has been his appreciation of the land. He would state that it is essential to listen to, and see, what the land is trying to tell you. A bit mystical I know for a scientist, but what he meant was that you should spend 20 minutes or so just staying still in the middle of the block, listen, take your time to observe in the fullest sense of the word, to what is happening around you. This quiet time gives you the ability to think through what the issues are, where the land is heading if there is no intervention and then you will be much better informed about what course of action is needed.

There are lots of other little bits like his scorn of “possible habitat” for various rare species in write ups of the area and his love of a good debate around many issues. Brian may not have been the largest man but he could carry a very big stick easily.


Brian was known for his ‘botanical eye’; he once collected an orchid for growing on, and then discovered a new species of cress that was only 6mm high, growing below it (Cardamine cubita). He was known as a ‘splitter’ rather than a ’lumper’; he could see the minute differences between specimens. He kept meticulous notebooks with details of his site visits.

He had his name attributed to many species, predominantly native orchids. Plants named after him include Sophora molloyi (kōwhai/‘dragon’s gold’), Gastrodia molloyi (Molloy’s potato orchid), and Molloybas cryptanthus (Corybas cryptanthus). He also applied several tag-names to porcupine shrubs (Melicytus alpinus agg.); yet to be formally described and not always easily distinguished by botanists in the field.

A lot of Brian’s species are captured in the “green books” created by DSIR, of many of which he wrote or contributed to.

He found a rare daisy (Leptinella conjuncta) on a covenant, giving directions that pre-dated GPS. Regional representative Alice Shanks struggled to find it but persisted with multiple site visits. She eventually discovered it and was able to harvest about ten seeds from the plant. She deposited the seeds with the DOC nursery where they have been able to grow about six plants. The Clyde Nursery now has the plants and regional representative Rob Wardle is supporting a project, under Jobs for Nature, to re-establish the daisy in its original habitat.h

Mount Cass, an area of limestone forest just north of Christchurch near Waipara, is the best remaining piece of limestone forest in the eastern South Island. When a power company decided to put a windfarm there, Brian did a lot of research focusing on a small species of grass that only lives under forest in limestone (Australopyrum calcis subsp. optatum). He went into battle and gave his time to presenting at the hearings, writing submissions, all while retired. Unfortunately, he did not win, but that was Brian at his best. Trying to save something that he cherished.

Alice Shanks remembers, “Once, we somehow managed to invite ourselves to an old homestead in Waitaki Valley and the homeowner was there. She was in her 90s and one of the highlights of her life was establishing the covenant at Awahokomo. She was so proud of all the interest and effort that had gone into this special site on her farm.”


Brian was involved with QEII in several ways, including sitting on the Board of Directors as well as holding the role of high-country regional representative. Previous board chair James Guild remembers the impact that Brian had “when I joined the QEII Board it was soon obvious how much he had done for the Trust both as a Board member and as the high-country rep. So, it was not surprising that QEII honoured him with a special retirement event in 2012 and the establishment of the Brian Molloy Trust.”

During his time as a high-country regional representative, Brian registered over 40 covenants, with a land area of more than 9,725 hectares. He also contributed to many others, creating species lists for landowners and encouraging many to care for their land.

He was also a major contributor to the establishment of the Mahu Whenua covenants, that protect 53,000 ha of contiguous landscape over most of Motatapu, Mount Soho, Glencoe, and Coronet Peak stations. The stations cover a large part of the country between Lake Wanaka and Arrowtown and are bordered by the Shotover River and the Cardrona Valley.

Near Ashburton, Harris Reserve was once reduced to little more than a kanuka shelter-belt around a lambing paddock, which is now the only stand of kanuka left on the Ashburton Plains. Miles Giller recalls “Brian persuaded the landowner to put a QEII covenant over the remnant. In his precis, he covered the history of the site and why it is so important. Quite a few people have dedicated their lives to protecting this covenant; and thank goodness Brian could see the future for this site, whereas most people wouldn’t.”

Joanna and John Blue worked with Brian during his time as a QEII high-country representative. Brian helped them place a covenant on their station near Lake Ohau in the McKenzie country and at that time, it was one of the largest open space covenants.

John recalls that working with Brian on protecting part of their high-country station was a wonderful experience “from the very beginning, we were on the same page, and we shared a passion for the high-country.” Their connection remained after Brian left his role at QEII “We stayed in touch and even visited him a few times when he moved to Christchurch. He was great to talk to about anything, and over the years we had great yarns. Brian was a great man.”