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 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.
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.
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.
New Zealand’s first acclimatisation society was probably in Auckland, around 1861. Many others soon followed, including in Whanganui and Nelson in 1863, and Otago and Canterbury in 1864. Their rules were very similar to the British Acclimatisation Society, and focused on introducing all manner of new species as long as they were ‘innoxious’. 1
By 1866, the British society had merged with the Ornithological Society. But New Zealand was to be the setting for a network of regional acclimatisation societies that lasted almost 130 years – although their role later changed. Their activities received government sanction and some financial support.
In 1867, the first of a series of Animal Protection Acts protected many introduced animals and formally recognised the acclimatisation societies. The importation of trout was enabled by the Salmon and Trout Act, passed in the same year.
Committees formed to guide the societies. Many committee members had links with shipping agents, so transport of new plants and animals was often cheap or free. Animals were kept in cages on deck, so survival of more than 25% on the long voyage from England was considered a success.
Species exchange agreements were made between New Zealand societies and those overseas. At first many societies had gardens for propagating new plant species, but these were soon shed in favour of focusing on animals – for example the Auckland society handed over its gardens to the Auckland Domain Board in 1882. Hatcheries were built for breeding trout, and aviaries for raising game birds, for release into the wild.
In addition to game birds, in 1867 the Auckland Societies imported emus, starlings, yellow hammers, skylarks, chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes, Rockhampton sparrows, magpies, Java sparrows, doves, pigeons and seagulls.
Not all introductions were successful. Trout, deer and Canada geese all quickly established viable wild populations. But for some other species, such as Atlantic salmon, partridge and pheasants, considerable efforts were made at great expense for many decades even when it seemed clear that they were not suited to local conditions. Societies gave up on some species only after decades of failed attempts.
Early societies did not place much emphasis on research or science – if at first they failed to introduce a species they wanted, they just released more into the wild, again and again. Sometimes this was eventually successful; European mallard ducks did not acclimatise when they were first introduced in the 1860s, but American birds released in the Auckland region in the 1930s proved more suitable. Since then, they have colonised most of the country, although not the Chatham Islands.
Licences were sold for deer and game-bird hunting and trout fishing, and the funds raised were ploughed back into the societies. Poaching was common, and in 1891 the Auckland society employed its first full-time rangers to check licences – resulting in a spectacular increase in sales.
Many northern-hemisphere marine fish and other species such as lobsters were considered for introduction. A fish hatchery – which later became a marine research station – was set up at Portobello in Otago Harbour in 1904. It reared exotic marine fish (Atlantic herring and turbot) and crustaceans (lobster, Australian prawn and European crab) and released them into the sea in the hope that they would establish themselves – but none did.
In the early years, societies imported and liberated all kinds of animals, but by the 1870s they focused less on introducing bizarre creatures. As early as the 1880s it was clear that not every introduction was beneficial – small birds such as chaffinches and sparrows were eating farmers’ crops. Terming them ‘the small bird nuisance’, farmers poisoned them with strychnine-laced grain.
By the 1890s acclimatisation societies focused on species for hunting and fishing, such as deer, game birds, trout and salmon. They managed stocks, set hunting seasons and licensed hunters and anglers. Deer came under government control in 1930 after their numbers grew hugely and they became a pest.
It was thought that waterways had to be continually restocked with fish, so resources were poured into trout hatcheries and trout were released in many streams and lakes, even after wild populations had become established.
In the 1930s, scientist Derisley Hobbs’s studies of trout reproduction showed that hatchery releases were a waste of money, as natural spawning produced more juveniles than needed in most rivers. The Nelson society ceased hatchery operations in 1946 – but many other societies ignored Hobbs’s findings. Anglers who couldn’t catch fish blamed it on a lack of stocking rather than their lack of skill. Stocking continued, despite the expense. It was only in the 1980s that most societies accepted the wisdom of Hobbs’s studies from half a century earlier.
Game farms, mostly in the North Island, reared birds for release into the wild – mainly pheasants, but also partridges, quail, mallard ducks and Canada geese. Raising birds was a lot easier than rearing trout in hatcheries – yet there was little evidence that they added to wild populations. It seemed clear that in some parts of the country pheasants just would not become established. But pressure still came from hunters to raise and release the birds – a practice which did not end until the 1990s. In the 2000s, private game farms raise pheasants for release in areas where they can be shot for a fee.
On 1 May 1869, the Auckland newspaper the Daily Southern Cross reported: ‘The brig “Waverly”, which arrived in harbour last night, brought a number of monkeys and Java sparrows consigned to the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. A number of thrushes were shipped, but died on the voyage.’ 1
Predators of valued introduced species were deemed to be ‘vermin’. Native black shags and eels preyed on juvenile trout – so society staff trapped eels in streams and shot shags at known rookeries. Harrier hawks were also thought to be a threat to game birds, especially pheasants. At various times bounties were paid out on dead hawks, hedgehogs, ferrets, stoats, weasels and shags. In 1917 the Auckland society had to stop paying out the hawk bounty, or it would have been bankrupted.
From the 1940s vermin control was questioned increasingly, as research had shown that predators did not greatly affect game stocks in favourable habitats. In the 1960s societies abandoned the bounty scheme, which had cost them a lot (and provided many boys with pocket money) and did very little to protect stocks of game birds and sports fish. Anglers’ attitudes towards shags and eels remained negative for decades, and in the 2000s there were still some calls for shag control.
From the 1950s, societies became concerned about the effects of land use on game-bird and sports-fish populations. Wetlands were being drained for farming, water taken from rivers for irrigation, and rivers dammed. Acclimatisation societies became increasingly involved in working to protect these habitats.
Acclimatisation societies retained their name for almost 130 years, although their role had changed greatly and few people knew what acclimatisation was. In 1990, a government review of sports-fish and game-bird management changed the number of societies, their roles and the regions they covered. Acclimatisation societies became known as regional fish and game councils – collectively, Fish & Game New Zealand.
Like its predecessors the acclimatisation societies, Fish & Game has statutory responsibility for managing freshwater sport fishing and game-bird hunting. There are 12 fish and game councils with regional offices. The national council, with an office in Wellington, co-ordinates regional activities and lobbies government on behalf of anglers and hunters.
As land has been developed and wetlands drained, water quantity and quality in waterways have declined, and the habitats of sports fish and game birds have deteriorated or disappeared. Habitat protection work is Fish & Game’s main focus, as it had effectively been for acclimatisation societies since the 1950s. The Auckland Acclimatisation Society, for example, has acquired and managed many hundreds of hectares of wetlands since the 1940s.
A major part of Fish & Game’s work is now undertaken through the Resource Management Act as it attempts to protect waterways and wetlands from the effects of land use. The agency often opposes proposals to drain wetlands, dam rivers, or remove large quantities of water for irrigation.
In the 2000s there were very few releases of trout or other species – most populations were wild and self-sustaining. Rearing and releasing trout is not only costly, but also pointless, as the number of fish that a river or lake can support is determined mainly by the natural food supply.
In some places Fish & Game still carried out stocking – for instance in the Rotorua lakes, which have good water quality and food supplies, but lack the swift streams with gravel beds which trout need to spawn.
Many species introduced by settlers and acclimatisation societies have become major pests or weeds. The Biosecurity Act 1993 and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 aim to prevent the introduction of unwanted organisms. These laws are very strict, and Fish & Game is unlikely to apply to introduce any new species as they would face exhaustive biosecurity tests.
There are also restrictions on moving existing species. For example, Fish & Game has developed a policy to prevent the release of sports fish in a waterway unless that species is already present. In return, existing sports-fish populations are generally recognised as having recreational value in most areas, including national parks.
Introductions made by acclimatisation societies had four different outcomes:
While societies made mistakes, they also established world-class deer and waterfowl hunting, and brown and rainbow trout fishing.
Acknowledgements to Neil Deans.
Druett, Joan. Exotic intruders: the introduction of plants and animals into New Zealand. Auckland: Heinemann, 1983.
Lamb, R. C. Birds, beasts & fishes: the first hundred years of the North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society. Christchurch: North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, 1964.
McDowall, R. M. Gamekeepers for the nation: the story of New Zealand’s acclimatisation societies, 1861–1990. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1994.
Sowman, Walter. Meadow, mountain, forest and stream: the provincial history of the Nelson Acclimatisation Society, 1863–1968. Nelson: Nelson Acclimatisation Society, 1981.
Sullivan, W. A. Changing the face of Eden: a history of Auckland acclimatisation societies, 1861–1990. Auckland/Waikato Fish & Game Council, 1998.
Wellwood, Joyce Margaret. Hawke’s Bay Acclimatisation Society centenary 1868–1968. Hastings: Hawke’s Bay Acclimatisation Society, 1968.