Acclimatisation is the adaptation of animals or plants to an environment or climate where they are not naturally found.
Polynesians were New Zealand’s first acclimatisers – around 1250–1300 AD they introduced kiore (Pacific rats), kūmara (sweet potato), gourd, kurī (dogs), taro, yam, paper mulberry and the Pacific cabbage tree (Cordyline fruticosa). Early European seafarers liberated pigs and introduced potatoes in the late 1700s. In the 1800s Pākehā settlers arrived in New Zealand, bringing with them farm animals, crops and a flood of other species.
The ideology of acclimatisation
The acclimatisation movement had its origins in Europe in the mid-1800s. While the practice of taking animals and plants on migrations is thousands of years old, the mood of the mid-19th century was one of great interest in the plants and animals of the New World. It was a time of taxonomic description of species new to science. There was an almost religious fervour for introducing animals and plants to new lands where they might be of use.
Acclimatisation was not just about taking species from Europe to the New World – it was an exchange. For example, bison were introduced to Britain in 1847. Wealthy English people built up collections of strange animals, either roaming their estates or kept in cages.
A letter to the Colonist newspaper in 1873 suggested that its writer knew a suitable location ‘where a few young leopards might find comfortable residence, their board being convenient on the poultry and porkers of too confiding ratepayers; and being near a public school, occasional opportunities of even racier diet may be arranged.
‘I am, etc., A Disbeliever in Too Much Acclimatisation.’ 1
An acclimatisation society was formed in France in 1854, and a British one in 1860. There was a real push to import all kinds of species. Some suggestions bordered on fantasy. Richard Owen, a palaeontologist at the British Museum, envisioned eland and kudu (African antelopes) wandering England’s green fields, providing meat for the inhabitants. Edward Wilson, a founder of the British Acclimatisation Society, suggested that the Australian wombat might be just the right size to provide meat for the middle-class British family.
In the early 1860s, acclimatisation was official policy not only in Britain but also in the British colonies. Immigrants arrived in New Zealand believing in acclimatisation. The colony was an escape from class constraints and an overcrowded and industrial Britain – a clean slate. Settlers saw the forests as being empty of game animals, the rivers devoid of fish. They hoped to improve upon nature.
Societies in New Zealand
In the 1860s, acclimatisation societies were set up around New Zealand; they had close links with their British and Australian counterparts. Societies formalised what settlers had been doing for decades. They saw themselves as benefactors who would provide the colony with farm animals, foods, timber, insect-eating birds, songbirds, pets, decorative plants, and fish and game for hunting and fishing – as well as familiar animals and plants from the old country.
Settlers and societies had diverse reasons for introducing new species. Silkworms and sugar beet were introduced in the hopes of establishing industries. Domestic animals such as cats and dogs were brought for company, horses and bullocks for transport, possums for a fur industry, and trees for nuts and fruit – and for their familiarity. Some birds that are not hunted, such as blackbirds, were introduced for nostalgic reasons, or to catch insects.
Stoats, ferrets and weasels, introduced to prey upon rabbits (which had been introduced for shooting), instead found native birds to their liking and became major pests. Some importations were bizarre. Governor George Grey built up a menagerie at his Kawau Island home which included kangaroos, wallabies, antelopes, monkeys, zebras, gnu, emus, peafowl and kookaburras.
Attitudes to acclimatisation
The societies did not envisage their introductions causing damage. There was some very early opposition, especially to the more bizarre species. Some Māori, such as the pacifist Te Whiti, were opposed to introducing species such as the pheasant, and the sparrow which ate crops. Still, acclimatisation societies were largely supported by the people of the time. Many settlers imported new species themselves.