Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 81, 1953
This text is also available in PDF
(793 KB) Opens in new window
– xliv –

The Royal Society and Conservation

Since the New Zealand Institute, now the Royal Society of New Zealand was reorganised fifty years ago it has been the custom for the President to deliver an address to the Annual Meeting on some subject connected with the work or aims of the Society. Actually the work of the Society has in the main been the publication of its Transactions, now in its eighty-first volume, and the meetings of the Society have dealt mostly with the business of the Society, that is, finance, awards, election of officers and the numerous other subjects that come before a scientific society. During the past twelve years the Council of the Society has interested itself in conservation matters, more particularly in control policy. Previously the Society seldom adopted resolutions dealing with conservation but it now has a Committee annually appointed, which discusses some aspect of the subject at each Annual Meeting, and it has published in its annual reports several statements on the control of conservation matters. Throughout the history of the Institute and Royal Society, members at the branch meetings often spoke about the destruction of our native forests and their bird life and stressed the need for better protection. Slowly ideas on conservation developed and, even more slowly, they were taken up by politicians and received legislative treatment.

The three main ideas on conservation that have been accepted in New Zealand, in order of their time of adoption, are these:

(1) Nuisances ought to be controlled.

(2) Certain mammals and birds should be protected in order to provide game for sportsmen.

(3) Native plants and animals must be protected if the species are to be saved from serious reduction in numbers or complete extermination.

There are reasons for the order of appearance of these advances in thought. Nuisances naturally protrude themselves upon the community and when they get too bad something has to be done about them. Hence they are the first to be dealt with.

Next were the thoughts of enjoyment and recreation for the growing population. Sporting was naturally the kind that affected the native fauna, which is the subject of this address, and so we find Acts of Parliament being passed to protect certain kinds of mammals and birds, both native and introduced, so that they could be shot under proper regulation.

The last thought to come into the minds of the people or at any rate the last to be acted upon was one which showed truly altruistic sentiments, namely, that of protecting the native birds so as to ensure the continuance of the species. There is no doubt too that there was here a scientific outlook, the idea of preserving the species from extinction so that future generations might have them to study.

– xlv –

The subject of conservation is a very big one and in this address I propose to deal only with the efforts that have been made by legislative and other means to preserve New Zealand's own native plants and animals both by eliminating harmful agents, mainly introduced animals, or by measures designed to stop the destruction of the native species by man. However, the processes of nature go on unaffected by legislative enactments so we can only do our best to mitigate the evils which we ourselves have brought into the country with our civilization. Accordingly I propose now to review the history of the Institute's and Royal Society's efforts towards conservation, whether by individual members or by the Council's decisions, against the background of Governmental action, which means the passing of numerous Acts of Parliament and the Gazetting of more numerous regulations thereunder.

First of all let us consider for a few minutes what we have that should be protected and why it needs protection. I do not intend to deal in any way with historical or Maori monuments.

Up to the time this country was occupied by Polynesian peoples, that is, 600 or more years ago, it was isolated from the rest of the world for almost the whole of a major geological era, the Tertiary Era. It was the age of mammals and flowering plants. During this era the only communication between the archipelago of New Zealand and the rest of the world was by sea, and only occasional wanderers like birds and plants and marine animals were able to reach the country from outside. This period of isolation was indeed a grand experiment in evolution in which the plants and animals that happened to be in the islands at the time of their isolation were, without hindrance from without, able to change their characteristics and multiply their kinds. They grew in environments that varied from warm humid regions to alpine deserts. The result is what in somewhat damaged form we see to-day. Some genera of plants like Hebe, Coprosma, Olearia, Dracophyllum and Carmichaelia produced large numbers of species, some with peculiar structures and habits. The compact vegetable sheep, the whipcord hebes, the leafless brooms, the spiny aciphyllas and other bizarre forms were evolved. And they formed plant communities absolutely peculiar to this land. Outstanding among these are the kauri forest of the north and the cushion plant formation of the alpine regions. The whole forms a wondrous orderly Museum of plant life.

Land mammals were excluded during the period of isolation. Still we have a peculiar kind of bat. Then we have the tuatara, a reptile, whose ancestry goes back far beyond the first appearance of mammals. Relatives of the tuatara lived in late Palaeozoie times. Of birds we have several very peculiar types, kiwis, kakapo, huia, takahe and others.

Besides this array of plants and animals we have many geological features of surpassing interest. They include active volcanoes like Ngauruhoe and White Island, geysers, mountains, waterfalls and so on. Associated with all these and forming part of the landscape is their plant covering. Consequently the protection of geological features and of plants is in numerous cases one and the same thing.

An important point about the plants and animals of New Zealand which is pertinent to the present subject is that we really know very little about their evolution. We do not know what the antecedents of our plants and animals

– xlvi –

were nor do we know by what means they came to be changed into the existing species. We may never know the full story but a close study of our peculiar types may result in discoveries of world wide interest. Further we really know only a small part of the life histories, habits and ecology of our native birds. We have only just gathered a few fragments of knowledge about the wild life of New Zealand. And who knows whether or not the study of some bird like the kiwi or of a reptile like the tuatara will provide the key to unlock an important store of knowledge which eludes us at present.

It should be obvious therefore why all our indigenous plants and animals need carefully preserving. The dangers to their extinction are many, fire, introduced animals, introduced plants and man himself. All stem from European occupation of the country. The extinction of rare birds began soon after the white man came. Destruction of the vegetation went on apace with the advance of settlement and will continue to do so. Introduced mammals made themselves felt in still wider circles. It is against all these that we must endeavour to protect our native plants and animals, either by reducing the attackers or by keeping them from gaining access to our island sanctuaries.

The history of conservation measures in New Zealand divides itself naturally into three periods. No action at all seems to have been taken before the setting up of the Provincial Councils, and the first period, lasting seventeen years, covers most of the time of their existence. This period was marked by legislation against nuisances caused by animals and plants introduced by the settlers. There appears to have been no action taken to protect native species either for sport or to preserve them for their own sake.

By 1844 dogs had increased to such numbers that many became ownerless and some of these wandered away and bred in the bush. In this year the Legislative Council of New Zealand, sitting in Auckland, passed the Dog Nuisance Ordinance, or to give it its full title, “An Ordinance to provide a summary mode of abating the nuisance of Dogs wandering at large in Towns.” Similar Acts were passed by most of the Provincial Councils showing that dogs were getting beyond control in many places. The method of reducing the number of dogs was eminently practical. It was to seize the dog, keep it a day and a night, if claimed deliver it to the owner on payment of a fee of five shillings, and if not claimed destroy it.

Two other nuisances that instigated the passing of Ordinances were thistles and gorse, but here the method of abating these evils was not nearly so effective as in the case of dogs. The Wellington Provincial Council, in 1854, passed “An Act to prevent the propagation of certain plants known as Thistles.” This Act fixed penalties for allowing thistles to run to seed. Two years later the Taranaki Provincial Council enacted “an Ordinance to prevent the spread of Scotch Thistles.” Thistle prevention Acts were also passed by the Auckland, Nelson and Otago Councils.

The rapid spread of gorse was the reason for an Ordinance passed by the Provincial Council of Taranaki in 1859 entitled “An Ordinance to impose a penalty on the growth of Furze within the Town of New Plymouth.” Again in 1868 the Taranaki Council passed “An Ordinance to provide for the eradication of furze growing on Public Roads,”

– xlvii –

The Provincial Council of Nelson in 1861 passed “An Act to prevent the planting of gorse hedges in the City of Nelson.” Offenders were liable to a fine of five pounds, as also were those who did not keep existing gorse hedges pruned.

Natural growth, however could not be checked by the passing of Ordinances nor even by the efforts of the settlers who tried to comply with their provisions, and so we still have with us thistles and gorse. Dogs are now well under control.

The second period of conservation, namely, that of the protection of animals for sport, began in 1861 and lasted until 1907. During this period there seems to have been no thought given to the protection of native birds for the sake of preserving the species, at least as far as legislators were concerned. Instead certain species of mammals and birds, some imported, some that might be imported, and some native, were protected so that they might be shot. Similar Acts are still in force, but besides these we have comprehensive measures providing for the protection of native animals as will be shown when dealing with the third period of conservation.

In 1861 the Nelson Provincial Council passed “An Act to provide for the protection of certain animals, birds and fishes imported into the province of Nelson.” At that time there were in the Province no imported animals of any kind, except domesticated mammals and birds, but the law was for the purpose of protecting those that in the future might be imported.

The same year the Colonial Parliament passed the Protection of Certain Animals Act and during the following 46 years, or what I call the second period of conservation, 1861-1907, fifteen other principal or amending acts of a similar nature were passed. All were concerned with sporting mammals and birds, and in addition rooks, starlings, blackbirds and thrushes, introduced for their value to agriculture or for sentimental reasons, were protected. It is worth while looking at the schedules of these acts which listed not only actually imported species but others which were not at the time imported, and some, such as antelope and bustards, which apparently no attempt was ever made to bring into New Zealand. The Act of 1861 gave protection to deer, hares and nine kinds of birds.

Altogether five species of mammals and thirty species of birds are listed in the Acts passed between 1861 and 1907. Thirteen species of native New Zealand birds are mentioned, all evidently because of their sporting and eating qualities. They included the tui and the pigeon, bush birds which to-day public opinion demands must be strictly protected, and they included curlew, a rare migrant to New Zealand. Besides protecting the mammals and birds scheduled the Acts, beginning in 1865, prohibited the importation of foxes, venomous reptiles and birds of prey.

There are some oddities of classification in the schedules. For instance, wild geese are classed as native game, and scorpions, first prohibited in 1895, were classed as noxious reptiles until 1910.

Rabbits and small birds early became nuisances and so in 1876 appeared the Rabbit Nuisance Act and in 1882 the Small Birds Nuisance Act. Many Rabbit Acts have since been passed.

The Birds Protection Act of 1862 prohibited shooting on Sundays but the clause was dropped in 1868 and was never afterwards revived.

The efforts made by members of the New Zealand Institute, during the second period, 1861-1907, to prevent the introduction of noxious mammals, such as

– xlviii –

ferrets and stoats, and to place on the Statute Book laws to protect native birds, contains some interesting points.

A few ferrets were introduced in the seventies. Protests were soon forthcoming against any more being liberated. One of the chief objectors was Sir Walter Buller. When the Government rejected the proposed measure to prohibit the introduction of ferrets, stoats and weasels, Buller published a warning in the Institute's Transactions of the “danger of our being over-run with one of the worst of predacious vermin.” This was in 1877. The grave question to be considered, he said, is whether in the attempt to put down one evil you are not permitting a larger one to grow up in its place. The real point, said Buller, is whether the object in view cannot be attained by other equally efficacious means and without the introduction of the pestilent polecat. Meanwhile sheepfarmers brought pressure to bear on the Government and as a result ferrets, stoats and weasels were imported and released in very large numbers between 1882 and 1886.

Buller also protested about the importation of sparrows saying, in 1877, that the irrespressible sparrow nuisance appears to occasion almost as much anxiety among our agriculturists as the rabbit nuisance does among the run-holders. But Buller himself had to plead guilty of being accessory to the importation of the sparrow in 1865, “having in that year, on behalf of the Wanganui Acclimatization Society, advertised in the London newspapers offering a reward of £ 100 for 100 pairs of House-Sparrows delivered alive in the colony. The advertisement and the importation alike succeeded; and at the present day (i.e. 1865) myriads of these birds in all parts of the country attest the fact, and in the grain-season especially they elicit even from their strongest partisans the admission that they are not an ‘unmixed blessing.’”

Buller also tried to establish owls. In 1873 he sent out from England a pair of Wood-Owls (Syrnium aluco). They arrived safely at Napier and were turned loose some distance inland. The Superintendent of the Province gave orders for their protection under the Act but, said Buller, “the unfortunate immigrants fell victims to popular prejudice.”

In 1886 Mr. Hugh Martin published a paper on the protection of birds in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He gave a list of 43 species which he said ought to be preserved in island reserves. They included several kinds which have since become very rare, for example the Laughing Owl, Stitchbird, Piopio (two species), Kokako (two species), Saddleback and Takahe; and four species which since then have become extinct, namely, the Huia, Merganser and two rails formerly living in the Chatham Islands. Martin also mentioned the Tuatara and concluded his paper in these words: “Although reiterating previous remarks, I would again call attention to the necessity of immediate action, on account of the opening up of the back country, the rapid increase of population, and last, but by no means least, the introduction of the weazel and other vermin, which must on the mainland certainly lead to the destruction of all ground-birds, and probably water-fowl also, as these nest in places easily accessible to them.” It was twenty-one years after Martin provided this blueprint for bird protection that the first general Act for the protection of native birds was passed. It included about half of the species mentioned by Martin and as many more which he did not list.

– xlix –

During the next twenty years, that is to the time of the passing of the Animals Protection Act, 1907, there were many controversies over bird protection and some notable things done. But there were advocates for the importation of polecats, stoats and weasels for the purpose of reducing the rabbit population. Coleman Phillips and Taylor White published articles in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute attempting to justify the importation of these animals. But Buller in 1895 returned to the question of the introduction of stoats, ferrets and weasels in strong terms. Forest reserves, he said, are being defined and proclaimed and the law is being invoked for the protection one after another, of our rarer species of birds. “The only danger to be apprehended now is that by continuing the insane policy of introducing predatory animals, such as stoats, ferrets and weasels, in the vain hope of suppressing the rabbit nuisance, the good that is being accomplished may be to a great extent counterbalanced. To my mind it is impossible to exaggerate this evil: it is so easy to introduce these bloodthirsty little animals, and so difficult to extirpate them when once fairly established and the mischief of their presence has become manifest.”

I must now say a few words about the setting aside of bird sanctuaries which took place in this second conservation period. A beginning was made during the time the Ballance Government was in power. The Governor of New Zealand at the time, 1892, Lord Onslow, in a memorandum of considerable length directed the attention of the Cabinet to the fact that many of the native species of birds, under the changed conditions of existence, were passing away; that some had already disappeared, while others were verging on extinction. He pointed out that it would be a lasting reproach to his generation of colonists if no attempt was made to save some of the expiring forms for the students of the future. The Hon. Mr. Ballance promptly reserved Little Barrier Island and Resolution Island and made arrangements to have them put in charge of caretakers. A few years later arrangements were made by the then Minister of Lands for acquiring the Island of Kapiti. This was duly done except for the northern part which was privately owned.

We now come to the third period of conservation, namely, 1907 to the present time. This period has now lasted 46 years, that is, the same as the whole length of the second period. The third period begins with the passing of the Animals Protection Act, 1907. This Act covers imported game and native game as before, but it introduces an entirely new clause, Clause 25 section 1, which reads: The Governor may from time to time by notification declare that any animal or bird mentioned in the Fifth Schedule hereto, or any animal or bird in addition to those mentioned, shall be protected absolutely or from a specific time,… The passing of this clause was a greater advance in conservation in New Zealand than had been made at any time during the previous 63 years when enactments had been passed to get rid of obnoxious plants and animals or to give protection to desirable ones. It marked the beginning of a new epoch in bird protection. In due course Regulations were Gazetted under Clause 25 naming specifically or generically 36 kinds of native birds, the tuatara, and the Australian opossum. The bird list includes all the peculiar groups such as kiwis, kakapo, kokako, piopio, tui, saddleback, stitchbird, blue duck, fernbird, huia, kaka.

The next important step in the protection of the Birds of New Zealand was the passing of the Animals Protection and Game Act, 1921. Besides bird

– l –

protection it covered bats, the tuatara, native frogs, opossums, game, acclimatization districts and societies and other matters. Altogether 168 species and subspecies of native birds are listed in the First Schedule. Clause 3 section 1 refers to this schedule thus: The animals specified in the First Schedule hereto are hereby declared to be absolutely protected throughout New Zealand. Five introduced species are included in the schedule, Australian magpie, martin, little owl, lapwing and starling. Of these the martin and lapwing never became established and the protection has since been removed from the magpie, the little owl and the starling.

Wild Life Control

The first action to be taken by the Council of the Royal Society in the interests of wild life control was the passing of a resolution at the Annual Meeting of May 16, 1934, setting up a committee to consider proposals that a Royal Commission be set up to inquire into the whole question of wild life control. The New Zealand Forestry League asked the Royal Society to support a request to the Commissioner of State Forests to set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the destruction of forests by plant eating animals. The Native Bird Protection Society also wrote stating that if a Royal Commission were set up the whole question of wild life should be considered. The committee set up by the Royal Society met on February 27, 1935, and recommended that the Government set up a Fauna and Flora Board to advise on matters concerning wild life in New Zealand. This proposal was considered by the Royal Society at its Annual Meeting held in Dunedin on May 30, 1935, which adopted the following resolution:—

“That this Council approves of the proposal that the Government set up a Board to preserve the native flora, fauna, and other natural monuments of New Zealand, to advise the Government on such matters, and that a Committee be appointed to draw up a scheme for carrying out this objective”

A considerable amount of discussion followed. This was fully reported in the newspapers in Dunedin and Auckland and leading articles approved the action of the Royal Society. Opposition, however, strong opposition, came from the Acclimatization Societies. The President of the Otago Acclimatization Society said that if effect were given to the Royal Society's proposals it would mean nothing less than the eventual abolition of the acclimatization societies in the Dominion. Commenting on this the “Otago Daily Times” said: “There can be no question that the protection of the country's fauna and flora is of the first importance, and it cannot be seriously argued that the success of efforts in this direction should be thwarted by considerations of mere sport.” The Dunedin “Evening Star” of the previous evening defends the acclimatization societies but says: “There is no reason why the Government, the acclimatization bodies, and the new board that is proposed should not work together in a common cause—to protect our native feathered life, to introduce and conserve birds and fish, and to take concerted measures so that a reasonable balance shall be kept between our own indigenous wild life and that introduced from overseas.”

The following extract from the “Auckland Star” shows that there was a good deal of public opinion in favour of the Royal Society's proposals. “There appear to be only two ways by which New Zealand may be enabled to reverse

– li –

the present drift. The first is through a declaration, by the head of the Government, that the national policy will be to utilise all available knowledge, and profit by all experience, in preserving, and as far as may be possible restoring the natural heritage, and in checking for all time its destruction or damage by any sectional interest, whether that interest be well intentioned but mistaken, or merely selfish. But such a lead from the Government has been awaited too long. The other possible action is that suggested by the Royal Society.”…

The Royal Society's resolution was duly forwarded to the Minister for Internal Affairs with a request that he give consideration to the Society's proposals. The Royal Society in its letter suggested firstly that the administration of the Protection Acts be brought under a separate Department of Wild Life Control, directly responsible to a Minister of the Crown and secondly that in order to make use of existing expert knowledge a permanent committee be set up to assist the Government by advising the new Department. The Minister replied, September 11, 1936, that the representations of the Society would receive his consideration.

Nothing further was done either by the Royal Society or by the Government until the Annual Meeting of the Royal Society in May, 1939, when the question of a biological survey, or a scientific inquiry into all aspects of the problem needed to guide both legislative and administrative action was discussed. Recommendations drawn up by members of the Wild Life Committee were duly forwarded to the Minister of Internal Affairs who replied, June 19, 1939, that the terms of the Royal Society's resolution had been duly noted and would receive careful consideration. As before the Royal Society's activities were noticed by the Acclimatization Societies. The President of the Wellington Acclimatization Society, evidently expressing his own wishes, said that ten years from the time he was speaking all wild life control will be vested in a non-political board on which fishing and shooting interests will be given adequate representation. The Acclimatization Society, it was reported at a subsequent meeting, was still apprehensive of the Acclimatization Societies disappearing if the system of wild life control was altered.

After the war the Royal Society resumed its efforts to bring about reforms in the control of wild life. In 1945 the Wild Life Committee of the Royal Society presented a report with a definite statement concerning the establishment of a National Wild Life Control Council with details of representation. It was suggested that the proposed council include the Prime Minister (Chairman), a Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Deputy-Chairman), representatives of eight Government Departments (Public Works, Marine, Agriculture, Forestry, Lands and Survey, Tourist, Internal Affairs, Scientific and Industrial Research), the Acclimatization Societies, the Royal Society and the Chief Executive Officer of the Council.

The Royal Society's report further stated “That the Council have the responsibility of considering all problems of wild life control and the conservation of the natural resources of the Dominion and its dependencies; of determining the problems requiring investigation and preparing and administering a co-ordinated research plan; and of formulating a national resources and wild life control policy.”

– lii –

A copy of this report was forwarded to the Prime Minister. In due course a reply was received from the Minister of Internal Affairs who stated that, although he approved of the principle of the formation of a Wild Life Advisory Council, his Department was not yet in a position to proceed with the scheme but it would be proceeded with as soon as circumstances permitted. That was six years ago and although the Government has not set up the kind of council envisaged by the Royal Society, the Department of Internal Affairs has been actively pursuing a policy of wild life research and control. A Wild Life Branch of the Department has been established, many deer and opossums and other animals have been destroyed, and more attention has been paid to native birds. When the takahe was discovered on the Murchison Range the Government immediately responded and tightened up the protection over a large area.

In May 1949 at the Annual Meeting of the Royal Society the report of the Wild Life Committee took the form of a general statement on reserves for the protection of native plants and animals. It dealt briefly with present protective measures and administration and made recommendations for further action. The recommendations repeated the proposal to establish a National Wild Life Council. After discussion the Royal Society Council resolved that the report be forwarded to the Departments concerned and to the Prime Minister.

The 1951 report of the Royal Society's Wild Life Council, submitted to the Annual Meeting of the Society in May, included a statement by Dr. Archey reviewing present administrative machinery and again brought forward the proposal to establish a National Wild Life Council but with the title changed to National Conservation Council. The report was forwarded to the Prime Minister who referred it to the Ministers concerned, but no definite action has yet been reported.