Letter from Professor Newton, of Magdalen College, Cambridge, addressed to Sir Walter Buller, at whose request it was read by Mr. Travers:—
I have received from New Zealand the report of the Surveyor-General for 1897–99, which contains some interesting particulars as to the preservation of birds in the islands lying off the coast. But it seems to me that there is some danger of these islands being overstocked, for as many kakapos, kiwis, and others as can be got seem to be turned out; and overstocking would be sure to produce many evils. I do not like reading that on one of the islands hawks, which have come over from the mainland, have been destroyed because they naturally preyed upon the introduced birds! Now, I feel pretty sure that the presence of the hawks would be the best safeguard against one at least of the mischiefs to be expected from overstocking—that is, the outbreak of some disease which might carry off a large proportion of the bird population which it is desired to encourage.
When we begin to interfere with the workings of nature we cannot be too careful, for we really know so little about them that something unexpected is almost sure to turn up. Bacon said we can only conquer nature by obeying her, and it is certainly not in accordance with her laws to abolish the checks that she has instituted.
Far be it from me to say what ought to be done in circumstances of which I am so very ignorant. I would only ask you, if you have the opportunity, to put the people concerned on their guard as to what may come to pass in this matter.
I am rather sorry to see that there is an acclimatisation society still in full swing. I look with grave suspicion upon all the doings of acclimatisers, though after rabbit and sparrow experience perhaps they have grown a little wiser. I notice, too, that on one of the islands pigs (feral, I presume) are spoken of as existing. They would be the great enemies of all birds that breed on the ground; and, indeed, I quite believe that it was the wild hogs that extirpated the dodo in Mauritius. I well know how hard it is to persuade people, even in this country, that such birds as hawks have their use, not only farmers, gamekeepers, and the like, but even men who have some knowledge of natural history—and actually bird-protectors ! Thus the local association for protecting the birds of the Faroe Islands destroys, or a year ago did destroy, the great black-backed gulls because they took the eggs and perhaps the young of the other birds, wholly forgetful of the fact that for untold ages these birds had managed to get along very well notwithstanding the existence of the “plunderers,” and that it was only when “cheap trippers” and so-called naturalists began to multiply that the numbers of other birds began to dwindle.