early christchurch

The acclimatisation affair (or how we learned not to underestimate the power of the possum)

The first feeling that strikes everyone on coming to New Zealand is its intense want of animal life. Mountains, plains, rivers, - mere features without a soul; for you can hardly dignify the miserable ground lark, the wailing weka, or the ghoul-like eel with such a title.

- Lyttelton Times 18/02/1864: 5

When I first read the above quote, taken from a letter to the editor of the Lyttelton Times in 1864, I will admit to doing a double take. Then, to a sense of outrage and a strange urge to defend the ‘soulless’ landscape and wildlife of New Zealand from this 150 year old attack on its very being (despite the author of that sentence being unable to hear – or, I suspect, care about – my opinion). It’s such an odd, jarring statement to read about a country that now considers its natural landscape and native wildlife to be a source of pride, a country that places its mountains and plains and rivers at the heart of its national identity. Yet, this sentiment and others like it formed the impetus for one of the most influential colonial endeavours of the 19th century, one that irrevocably changed the land in which we live – to an extent that most of us don't fully realise.

The wailing weka and the ghoul-like eel. Just not good enough, apparently. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It went by the name of ‘acclimatisation’ and consisted of the deliberate introduction of “beasts, birds, fishes, and vegetable productions, of such species as may be acclimatised with probable advantage to this province and to the colony” (Lyttelton Times 8/03/1864: 2). In New Zealand, and the rest of the British colonial world, the acclimatisation movement was largely driven by ‘Acclimatisation Societies’, who made it their mission to improve the plant and animal life of the lands they had chosen to settle. Basically, they imported a bunch of animals into the country from all over the world in a venture that seems to have been part scientific curiosity[1], part hunger[2], part boredom[3] and part an apparently inescapable need to rectify the “remarkable deficiency” of local wildlife.

There is perhaps no country in the world the natural zoology of which supplies so little to the subsistence or enjoyment of its inhabitants, as New Zealand. Of game there is almost none; quail, formerly plentiful, have nearly disappeared; pigeons and kakas are to be found only in the woods; ducks, eels and wild pigs complete the list. And if there are so few useful animals, those which add to the grace and enjoyment of life are scarcer still; of singing birds there are but the tui tui and the bell bird; neither of them ever heard, except in the neighbourhood of the forests…If, however, we turn from land to water, the inducements to engage in this enterprise are greater still. Our great snow rivers are absolutely without fish…At present, such rivers as the Waimakariri, the Rakaia or the Rangitata are worse than useless, obstructing travelling without assisting navigation.

- Press 17/08/1861: 1 (emphasis mine)

The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society was first formed in 1864, modelled on the example of the London society, which aimed to introduce animals from the colonies into England, and the Victorian society, which aimed to introduce English and other colonial animals into Australia. Societies already existed in Auckland and Otago and the Canterbury branch followed in their footsteps, with the same stated intention of improving the fauna of the new colony (Lyttelton Times 8/03/1864: 2).

Excerpts from a letter about a proposed Acclimatisation Society in Canterbury.

Early supporters and members included some of the more well-known names of the early settlement, including Edward Wakefield, Sir John Cracroft Wilson, William Guise Brittan, Joseph Brittan, W. L. Travers, William Rolleston, William Sefton Moorhouse and John Edward Fitzgerald. Some of these men had already made their own individual efforts to introduce new species to New Zealand. William Guise Brittan had imported several ‘English singing birds’, as had John Watts-Russell. Sir John Cracroft Wilson had apparently made “an attempt…on a scale of oriental magnificence to introduce the game from the North of India” (Press 17/08/1861: 1). While their stated intention included the practical provision of food for the colony, their emphasis seems to have largely been on the aesthetic and sporting (i.e. hunting and fishing) advantages of acclimatisation.

crazy menu image

It is worth noting – in fact, important to note – that the acclimatisation societies of New Zealand weren’t the first to introduce new animals into New Zealand. Sealers, whalers, missionaries and early European visitors to the country brought with them chicken and pigs and sheep and other animals for food and companionship. Sir George Grey, the early governor of the colony, had his own collection of exotic birds and other creatures that he had imported into the country. And, of course, long before all of this, Māori had brought kiore (the Pacific rat), kurī (dog), kūmara and the ‘Polynesian suite’ of cultigens with them when they first arrived on these shores. For as long as humans have been moving around the world, they’ve been modifying the fauna and flora of the places they visit. The thing about the acclimatisation societies, though, that I think is worth emphasising, is that they were part of an organised, concerted and deliberate effort to change – to improve – the ecology of the country. It wasn’t just a hobby or a side effect of human migration. It was a bonafide movement.

Here in New Zealand, the species they introduced (and must take the blame for) include a selection of birds, fish, mammals, rodents and other creatures (bees!) - many of them now considered pests. Many of them were considered pests within a one or two decades of their introduction, to be honest. Some of them were creatures you might not have thought of as imported species, such as Ligurian bees (from Italy), bumble bees (sometimes referred to as ‘humble bees’) and lobsters. The article I found on lobsters begins with the sentence “Mr Purvis, chief engineer of the Iconic, has succeeded in bringing nine lobsters alive out of twelve” (Star 19/10/1892: 3). Well done, Mr Purvis, well done.

Ligurian bees and a picture of Patrick Stewart in a lobster costume (barely relevant, yet hilarious). Images: Wikimedia Commons and Twitter.

Birds seem to have been a particular area of interest and focus, which seems odd for an ecosystem already constructed around avian life. As well as game birds, like pheasants, quail, ducks and geese, there was an effort to introduce singing birds (clearly, Joseph Banks’ deafening dawn chorus of 1770 had lost its voice by the 1860s) and, to be honest, as many birds as they damn well could. Interestingly, the introduction of birds wasn’t a one-way street: there’s at least one account in 1872 of a shipment of 1000 tui, wax-eyes and parroquets from New Zealand to England (and a return shipment of English birds to this country).

Some of the birds introduced to New Zealand included the chukor (an Indian game bird), the magpie (thanks Australia, thanks a lot), the laughing jackass (amusingly mentioned in the papers as the Australian jackass), Virginian quail, Canadian geese, Teneriffe grouse, chickens from Kansas, swans, sparrows and German owls. The German owls are possibly my favourite, because the acclimatisation of German owls in the 19th century had turned into the GERMAN OWL MENACE by the 1930s (and yes, the caps are entirely necessary). So much so that the Canterbury association was indignant when the papers suggested that they were responsible for releasing more owls into the wild. A close second would have been the “peculiarly inoffensive” emu named Jack, who terrorised horses by trying to fraternise with them all the way back in 1865.

GERMAN OWL MENACE

There was also a strong emphasis on the introduction of fish, especially trout and salmon, into the otherwise “useless” rivers of the Canterbury plains. Millions of fish were “liberated” into the streams and rivers of the district , born from ova shipped into Lyttelton from all over the world and raised in purpose-built fish ponds in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We excavated the site of the fish-ponds a while back, but there was nothing left of what was once the gateway for Canterbury’s freshwater fish populations (the Otago ones do still exist, though, and have been the subject of some cool archaeological projects over the last few years).

A survey plan of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society grounds in 1913, including the fish ponds.

As well as the birds and the fishes, however, there were the beasts. Let us not forget the beasts. Possums and rabbits and deer, oh my. Polecats, even. There appear to have been wildly differing levels of success with mammals and rodents. Some, like the kangaroo or the “game from the north of India” attempted by Cracroft Wilson, weren’t hugely successful. Others, like rabbits (described as ‘evil’ as early as the 1870s), possums, hares, deer and, of course, sheep, took to New Zealand in a flash. Most of them were imported as game, rather than food (with a couple of obvious exceptions). Yes, that’s right. We have so many possums and rabbits because it seemed like a fun idea at the time.

TS18930819.2.45-a2-424w-c32

And when I say ‘in a flash’, it’s almost an understatement. Some of their greatest successes very quickly became their greatest headaches. By 1876, the New Zealand government had to pass the Rabbit Nuisance Act in response to the success of that species. By 1882, societies were recommending that hares be killed all year round rather than just during specific seasons. By 1898 they were suggesting that people could do so without a license. By the turn of the century there were suggestions for some measure of governmental control over the power of societies and individuals to import “animals or birds that might become nuisances to the community” (Press 23/05/1894: 5) and by the mid-20th century it was generally acknowledged that many of these introduced species had done irreparable damage to the native and other introduced species of New Zealand. Let’s not forget the German Owl Menace, everybody. At the same time, despite the increasing awareness of the problems of introduced species evident among acclimatisation societies as the decades progressed, they didn’t stop doing it, even importing other species to deal with problematic ones (why hello, stoats and ferrets).

I find the whole notion of acclimatisation societies quite weird to wrap my head around, to be honest. Especially in light of the biosecurity that is now so much a part of New Zealand life. Yet, the effects of their work are everywhere. If we look at it from an archaeological perspective the efforts of these societies are present in every assemblage of animal bones we excavate from 19th century sites in Christchurch - chicken, duck, sheep, cow, pig, horse, turkey, cat, rat, goose or dog, they’re all there.

bones

We don’t even blink at them most of the time, because we’re so used – so ‘acclimatised’ – to having these species around. They’re a part of our normal, a statement that says as much about how much the Acclimatisation Society of Canterbury (and its brethren throughout the country) changed and constructed our present day world as anything else I’ve written here.  Because 150 years ago, like the settlers who brought them here, these animals were very much strangers in a foreign land. And their impact, like the impact of the colonial settlement itself (and all colonial settlements), has changed this land forever, for better or for worse. You be the judge.

Jessie Garland

[1] “Hmm, I wonder if these ones will survive?”

[2] “They wanted practically to benefit the country by increasing the food of the people, and a plant or an animal that would not thrive on the ordinary conditions of English life and cultivation was of no use to them” (Lyttlelton Times 4/12/1861: 4).

[3] “What ho, old chap, where’s all the fish and game at?”