Transforming the land
On his visits to New Zealand between 1769 and 1777, Captain James Cook introduced a number of northern-hemisphere plants and animals, including potatoes, cabbages, pigs, goats and rats. They were the first of many exotic introductions, and their progeny survive to this day.
From the early 1800s there was a trickle then a flood of mainly British immigrants. Most hoped to farm their own land. Timber milling, wetland drainage and clearing the land destroyed expanses of forest and many animals. Naturalists recorded the country’s unique plants and animals, but initially there was little concern for the effects of widespread changes.
Attempts to save forests
Concerns were being expressed in the 1860s about the devastation of forests and the dwindling of native bird populations. In October 1868, Canterbury MP Thomas Potts made what was probably the first conservation speech in Parliament, asking the government ‘to take steps to ascertain the present condition of the forests of the Colony with view to their better conservation’. 1 He was supported by James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum, who reported that over 20% of forest had been cleared between 1830 and 1868.
The Protection of Animals Act 1867 aimed to safeguard introduced game rather than native animals. Nevertheless, later conservationists can be pleased it outlawed the importation of predators such as foxes, venomous reptiles, hawks and vultures.
In the summer of 1873–74, Premier Julius Vogel toured the South Island and was disturbed to see the damage caused by the milling and burning of native forest. He made several attempts to pass laws controlling deforestation. His State Forests Act was passed in 1884, allowing forest reserves to be created, and a conservator to be appointed. However, within two years funding was withdrawn by the next government as an economy measure.
Parks and reserves
In 1887, Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, gifted the peaks of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu in the central North Island as ‘a sacred place of the Crown, a gift forever from me and my people’. The mountains became the nucleus of Tongariro National Park (1894), one of the world’s earliest national parks. Egmont National Park, encompassing the upper part of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont), was created in 1900.
Growing tourism led to the preservation of important scenic areas. The Scenery Preservation Act 1903 ensured the protection of existing reserves and allowed the Crown to establish new ones. Although forest clearance continued for some years, many significant areas were gazetted as reserves, including strips of native forest along main roads. Many early reserves were created by the government on Māori-owned land, leading to long-standing grievances.
Declining bird numbers
New Zealand’s native birds, especially the ground-dwelling species, were badly affected by forest clearance and introduced predators such as rats and cats. Their decline was hastened by hunters, who shot birds by the hundreds to send to collectors and museums.
New Zealand’s first Arbor Day – a day for planting trees – was held in Greytown on 3 July 1890. It gained widespread public support, and in 1892, 4 August was made the official national date. This day was presumably chosen for political rather than forestry reasons – it is rather late in the year for tree planting. Since 1977, New Zealand has celebrated Arbor Day on 5 June, which is also World Environment Day.
The dwindling of bird life was obvious by the 1860s, but it would get worse. A plague of rabbits in the drier eastern areas led farmers to call for the introduction of mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels). Despite warnings from local and British scientists, mustelids were imported in the 1880s (and classed as protected animals until 1893). As predicted, bird numbers dropped further.
Responding to the likely extinction of many species, in the early 1890s the government designated mustelid-free island sanctuaries – initially Resolution Island in Fiordland and Little Barrier Island (Hauturu) in the Hauraki Gulf, later followed by Kāpiti Island, north of Wellington. Large numbers of birds were relocated to the islands. However, stoats were seen on Resolution Island in 1900, and it was subsequently abandoned as a sanctuary. Some birds survived in other sanctuaries, but it was too late to save the huia – its last confirmed sighting was in 1907.