Summary Tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa)-dominated forest fragments on farms within the Rotorua Basin were surveyed to quantify the likely recovery processes following exclusion of domestic livestock grazing, using a space-for-time substitution approach. Vegetation structure, plant diversity and soil fertility were measured at 24 sites within 15 forest fragments on six farms, covering a range in time since exclusion from grazing of 1–53 years. The forest fragments were compared with a large area of ungrazed forest in the nearby Lake Okataina Scenic Reserve. As time since exclusion from grazing increased, indigenous plant species diversity increased (up to 30–35 years); ground fern and epiphyte abundance increased (up to 30–35 years); tree seedling and sapling numbers, and litter cover also increased (up to 10–15 years); and overall tree numbers increased, while average tree diameter at breast height and overall tree basal area did not differ significantly. The soil fertility status was highly variable, obscuring clear patterns, although Olsen P status decreased with time since grazing exclusion. Once grazing of forest fragments ceases, significant changes in their diversity, structure and soil characteristics can be expected, which indicate recovery of these plant communities towards the conditions observed in ungrazed forest.