New Zealand’s Biota Barons: Ecological Transformation In Colonial New Zealand[1]

Paul Star[2]

What trees and birds does a New Zealander most often see?  Of trees, maybe manuka and kowhai, but more likely poplar and gum. Of birds, maybe tui and piwakawaka (fantail), but more likely starling and blackbird. New Zealand’s landscapes, particularly on the eastern side, have been utterly transformed, with the removal of many indigenous species and their replacement by exotic biota. The process of change has largely been a deliberate one, and it took place most notably in the second half of the nineteenth century. This paper considers people who were instrumental in bringing about this change. More specifically, it heralds Henry Matthews and Richard Bills as ‘biota barons’.

Biota Barons

We have become used to the word ‘baron’ being applied not just to someone of a certain rank in the nobility, but to others who are ‘powerful or influential’, or ‘great merchant(s) in a specified commodity’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary comes up with the phrase ‘beer baron’ to exemplify this, though Australians might be more likely to think first of ‘press barons’ like Murdoch, Fairfax and Packer. I propose the phrase, ‘biota barons’, to describe those who were influential in the business of shifting biota from place to place.

‘Biota’, as defined by the Dictionary, is the ‘animal and plant life of a region’. Nineteenth century New Zealand settlers were not only active in altering the make-up of their biota by bringing in new species, but also thorough in recording the process. When it came out, there was nothing else quite like G.M. Thomson’s 600-page volume on The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand, published in 1922. In his introduction he noted that ‘It had never been attempted before … for any country … [and] New Zealand was the only country in which such a bit of history could be attempted with any prospect of success’.[3]  Given that it is also the country that has experienced the greatest degree of rapid biotic modification in modern times, New Zealand is an appropriate place to identify ‘biota barons’ who have played a key role both in environmental change and biotic exchange. Nurseryman Henry Matthews was, I suggest, one such baron.

Perhaps the nearest we have to a theoretical framework in which to place our ‘biota barons’ is ‘actor-network theory’, as recently applied by Eric Pawson to botanical exchange.[4]  Following this terminology, the plantsman Henry Matthews appears as an ‘actor’ engaged in the ‘translation’ of ‘actants’, which in Matthews’ case were the floral components of various ecosystems. These are helpful concepts, but the language is flat. Calling Matthews an ‘actor’ doesn’t make his actions sound any more significant than those of a drain-layer. Calling him a ‘biota baron’, however, immediately implies that his actions had the same importance as those of a country’s more recognised movers and shakers.

The term also has a further suitability, given that the archetypal antipodean biota baron was, indeed, a baron – Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, Victoria’s government botanist and, until 1873, the director of Melbourne’s botanic gardens. While von Mueller was intimately involved with the collection and identification of the indigenous flora, his overall vision, as Ian Tyrrell has noted, was one of ‘a grand ecological transformation, not respect for the wild’.[5] He was a prominent member of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, the flourishing colonial offshoot of a withering parent. Not only did he bring countless exotic plants into Australia, but in a ‘reciprocal exchange’ he also promoted the spread of eucalypts to California and throughout the globe.[6]

Von Mueller was tireless in his facilitation of this kind of plant transfer. He only once visited New Zealand, in 1891, when he told a reporter he ‘receive[d] a great number of letters, more than three thousand in the year; and as my friend Baron Liebig could say when asked for his address, “Europe”, I can say “Australia”’. Many of these letters were about the transfer of plants, which he saw as a multi-directional endeavour. ‘Plants and trees are being distributed through many countries now’, he noted. ‘The east is sending to the west, the west to the east, the Old World is sending to the New, the New to the Old … It is a good thing to see that the public of different countries are not now contented merely with their own flora. About San Francisco there are many Australian trees, and about Melbourne there are many Californian trees, and in New Zealand you have both Australian and Californian trees.’[7]

Nurserymen and professional foresters

While von Mueller was a botanist, many of his fellow peers were colonial nurserymen, who operated in the ‘pioneering’ stage, before professional foresters dominated timber production and before stock and station agents took over the provision of agricultural supplies.[8] They dealt in a wide range of plant material, largely determining not only which flowers and vegetables European settlers had in their gardens, but also which grasses they grew and which trees they planted.[9]

Eric Pawson[10] has highlighted the role of Arthur Yates, an English nurseryman who set up branches of the family business in both Auckland and Sydney, in effect creating a ‘multinational’ corporation which continued to grow on the Empire’s edges while its English core wasted away. Even for nurserymen whose businesses did not extend beyond one colonial area, however, the ecological impact of their activities would be extensive. Consider, for instance, the effect of Thomas Lang’s actions in bringing almost a million trees and shrubs to his nursery in Ballarat between 1858 and 1870, which he then sold throughout Victoria.[11]

Nurserymen formed a non-governmental network right across the British Empire, not so well-studied by academics as the quasi-governmental activities of botanic gardens or acclimatisation societies but equally important.[12] Among the shrubs received by Lang in Ballarat were variegated hollies in 1863, sent to him from New Zealand by the Scottish nurseryman George Matthews of Dunedin. Matthews’ original stock may well have arrived with him from Ireland, where he gardened for nine years before emigrating in 1850 to the new settlement of Otago. His Dunedin nursery quickly became established as the leading source of introduced plant material in the province.

By 1879, when the nursery advertised along the lines shown in the Otago Witness of 27 August,[13] the business was already passing into the hands of George Matthews’ energetic young son, Henry. At least by the end of the 1880s, he was also selling plants well beyond the local market, and often to overseas gardeners for whom New Zealand species had strong appeal. In 1889 Henry exhibited alpine plants and ferns which he had collected throughout the lower South Island.[14] Later that year, he sent to Japan ‘nine cases, weighing about four tons, and containing tree and other ferns, nikau palms, [and] mountain lilies’.[15] This was his fourth shipment of native plants to Japan, and followed on other large consignments to Britain and Australia.[16] By 1892 Henry Matthews had ‘a magnificent collection of New Zealand flora … quite unequalled in the colony’ and he distributed  ‘a special descriptive catalogue of native plants’.[17]

With this catalogue, Matthews sought to gain a niche within an extensive international market. The Veitch dynasty were the leaders in that market, English nurserymen who, from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century, collected, propagated and distributed plant material throughout the world.[18] Their activities were not limited to the British Empire. Their most famous representative, John Gould Veitch, collected plants in Japan in the 1860s,[19] and Philip Pauly, in his study of ‘the horticultural transformation of America’, specifically refers to their wholesale supply of plants to their fellow-nurserymen in the north-eastern states.[20]

Sir Thomas Acland had brought the founder of the firm of Veitch from Scotland to England, and business links continued between the two men’s English descendants.  Given that the influential Aclands of Canterbury, New Zealand, were also descendants of Sir Thomas, it is remarkable how little commerce the Veitches had with the colony. However, one plant-hunting Veitch did drown en route to New Zealand, while another, James H Veitch, actually reached its shores in 1893. He had come, he said ‘to see if there are any plants that can be added to those we already grow from this country’. He left upon finding that ‘the work has been, and is being, done so thoroughly by various amateurs and nurserymen — notably by Mr … Matthews — as, to a large extent, to obviate the necessity of a visitor undertaking the work’.[21]

The significance of Henry Matthews, as recognised by James Veitch, was that he, a colonial, was rendering obsolete the English-based plant-hunter. Not only that, he was also directly selling the New Zealand plants that he collected to horticulturists and gardeners in Europe and elsewhere, in effect undercutting the likes of Veitch and Sons in London. This is a prime example of the Empire striking back, the assumption of a metropolitan role by a peripheral player. It is the kind of thing that historians and geographers in the former colonies, such as New Zealand, are always eager to highlight.

Matthews as foresters

And yet, these are not the activities for which Henry Matthews is best remembered. In 1896 he more or less abandoned the family nursery business, instead taking on a newly-created government position as head of the afforestation division of the Forests Branch. In this role, which he held for thirteen years until his death in 1909, he was responsible for the creation of the first seven state nurseries, and of thirteen associated plantations occupying over 12,000 acres. His staff raised over 63 million trees, the vast majority of them exotics. His work included the earliest substantial experimentation in New Zealand with species such as catalpa and some of the eucalypts.[22]

Matthews never became a wealthy man, nor was he famous, though he is one of the few nurserymen to appear in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.[23]  Significance, however, is poorly judged in terms of the amount of money one has in the bank, and impact even less so, particularly where it relates to impact upon the environment, rather than more directly upon one’s fellow human beings.

Matthews, like von Mueller before him, was concerned with the relocation of plant species, and this is what environmental historians have focussed on. In this vein, the journal, Environment and History recently had an article on the role of economic and market factors, and of ‘propagule pressure’, in the spread of rhododendrons throughout Britain, while another article discussed the ‘botanical transculturation’ of species of larch and aucuba from Japan to Europe.[24]  But it is equally important to look at the relocation of fauna, to which the same concepts can often be applied.

Richard Bills

A significant New Zealand biota baron in this area was Richard Bills, who was born in Brighton in England but who, like Matthews, spent much of his life in Dunedin. Between 1867 and 1880, Richard Bills and his son Charles travelled back to England seven times. On each occasion they returned to New Zealand with a large shipment of birds – on average about nine hundred per voyage – of which nearly two thirds survived to reach the colony (see Fig 1). Historians have emphasised the role of refrigerated shipping in New Zealand’s development as a trading nation, rather than the preceding increase in speed, reliability and frequency of intercontinental sea transportation. It was this earlier development that enabled the successful transfer of live biota (including the Bills’ birds), long before it also supported the transfer, in the other direction, of frozen and cooled animal produce and fruit.


Fig 1: English bird shipments from England to the South Island of New Zealand

by Richard and Charles Bills, 1868-1880


Date                           Shipped         Landed alive


1867-8                        1100              524 (Otago)

1868-70                      441                343 (Otago)

1870-1                        n/k                 600 (Otago)

1871-2                        1000               380 (Canterbury)

1872-3                        806                726 (Canterbury)

1874-5                        1010               811 (Canterbury)

1879-80                      1025               n/k  (Canterbury)

average (of 6)     897                564

approx total (7)        6279       3948

percentage landed alive       62.7%

Source: Contemporary newspaper references


In the case of all these shipments, the birds were English species that settlers wished to establish in New Zealand. Many of them were caught, looked after and, finally, released by the Bills working under contract to the acclimatisation societies of Invercargill, Dunedin, Oamaru and Christchurch, but they also imported birds for individuals, or on their own behalf for later sale. Since these shipments were larger, more consistent and more successful than any others undertaken in the period when the South Island was colonised by English birds, Richard and Charles Bills clearly emerge as the barons at the heart of this particular relocation.

Thomson, writing in 1922, noted that, among attempted bird introductions to New Zealand, ‘The record of failures is much greater than the record of successes’. He then listed the 24 species which had become established, including 13 English passerines, mostly small songbirds which are now familiar to all New Zealanders. I have ascertained that, in each case, the Bills played a significant and demonstrable part in their establishment (see Fig 2).


Fig 2: Exotic small bird species established in New Zealand by 1922

Minimum numbers successfully landed in South Island by Richard and Charles Bills, 1868-75

1868 1869 1870 1871 1872 1873 1874 1875
Skylark 50 35 56
Thrush 95 65 43 50 74
Blackbird 65 34 50
Hedge sparrow 22 80 19 11
Rook 4 36
Starling 110 94 31 50 33
House sparrow 3
Chaffinch 42 66 12
Redpole 10 11 50 135 120
Goldfinch 40 50 31 60 110
Greenfinch 68 12
Cirl bunting 7
Yellow hammer 8 31 100 180

Source: Contemporary newspaper references


By reference to newspaper reports, the fate of specific batches of birds after they were landed in New Zealand can often also be plotted. Of the 35 English skylarks which Bills brought out in 1870, for instance, 6 were auctioned off in Dunedin and 27 went up to Oamaru. Of these, 7 pairs were released at Papakaio and 7 pairs at Totara.[25] All had disappeared by 1871, but the further 56 that reached Dunedin that year fared much better. These were liberated at Green Island. While some were shot, the species was ‘frequently seen’ in the vicinity in 1872. Since skylarks were by then doing even better in Nelson, at the top of South Island, Bills went there to capture his next lot, releasing 100 Nelson birds at Tokomairiro, south of Dunedin, in 1873. Skylarks were ‘numerous’ in Otago by 1887.

Goldfinches were so common in Dunedin by 1900 that Charles Bills could catch a hundred in a couple of hours at the racecourse, and he made a tidy profit shipping them off to Melbourne, where demand still outstripped supply.[26] By then, however, the golden days of acclimatisation were over. His father retired to New South Wales. Charles, who stayed on in Dunedin, sold cagebirds from his pet shop, and also had a business making wire bedframes, no doubt employing skills gained making birdcages. He was also frequently employed in netting and destroying the descendants of many of the grain-eating birds he and his father had brought across from England, which were now considered pests.

Katharina Dehnen-Schmutz and Mark Williamson have suggested that the number of introductions of a species – which is historically determined – can be as significant to the success of a plant invasion as any biological factor.[27] In a similar way, the repeated introduction of bird species by Bills was a factor in their successful invasion. The Lincoln University ecologist Richard Duncan has noted, ‘the more abundant [bird] species in Britain were selected for introduction and were more readily available for capture and export, so were introduced to New Zealand in greater numbers and were therefore more successful in invading’. In this case, he considers that ‘introduction effort was the most important determinant’.[28]

Duncan used Thomsons’s data, but not the data in newspapers that I have used, and I suspect he gave no thought to the role of Richard Bills’ expertise and persistence. Never – despite stressing the place of humans in biological success stories – does he look at the particular people involved. This is where ecologists usually bow out, and where environmental historians can step in.

Information about faunal distribution might have further value. Bill Gammage has suggested how the shifting range of the galah in Australia could be used as a cultural indicator. ‘Similar stories’, he claims, ‘might be written of red kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, white-backed magpies … In turn their changed behaviour might signal how and how much Aborigines and non-Aborigines have changed the land’.[29]  In the same way, the pace and limits to the spread of those bird species introduced by Bills in eastern South Island could provide some sort of corollary to estimates of the environmental impact of European settlement based on sawmilling licences or land sales.

It should be noted, finally, that the Bills, as for the Matthews with plant material, not only brought exotic bird species into New Zealand, but also shipped native species to England. Richard Bills went back in 1872 with a shipment of nearly a thousand parakeets, tui and silvereyes which he had captured around Dunedin.[30] In 1885, when Charles Bills was again off to England, he took with him not only a further thousand parakeets – presumably to sell as cage birds – but also some moreporks and a pair of tuatara for London Zoo.[31] All this runs contrary to the impression once given, that the biotic avenue between ‘metropolis’ and ‘periphery’ was more or less a one-way street.


In conclusion, I would stress that, when we look at biotic transfers, we need to consider animals as well as plants, commercial operations as well as public institutions, and people (in both their private and official capacities) just as much as flora and fauna. In the case of flora, recent work by both New Zealand and Australian garden historians[32] has extended well beyond the tree-planting research that forest historians have generally concentrated upon. With fauna, the emphasis has been on the acclimatisation of birds and animals, particularly those that ‘ran wild’. The transfer of domestic animals, however – both farm beasts and household pets – is equally pertinent. By studying the careers of people who stocked both garden flowers and timber trees, or who both released wild birds and sold caged songsters, we are encouraged to see more of the picture.

A couple of North American scholars – geographer A.H. Clark and historian A.W. Crosby[33] – were the first to describe New Zealand’s experience as the classic case of a global phenomenon, the ‘invasion’ of an environment as a function of ‘ecological imperialism’. A handful of New Zealand historical geographers and environmental historians are now engaged in filling in the detail and reinterpreting the evidence. I hope to have shown that the identification of ‘biota barons’ like Henry Matthews and Richard Bills, and the examination of their ventures, is a useful extension of the field of study first ploughed by professors Clark and Crosby.

[1] An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the New Zealand Geographical Society conference, Christchurch, 6 July 2010.

[2] Paul Star is a Research Associate of the History Programme, University of Waikato:

[3] G M Thomson, The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1922, p 1.

[4] Eric Pawson, ‘Plants, mobilities and landscapes: Environmental histories of botanical exchange’, Geography Compass Vol 2 (2008) pp 1464-1477.

[5] Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, p 31.

[6] Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods, pp 87-88; see also William Beinart and Karen Middleton, ‘Plant transfers in historical perspective: A review article’, Environment and History Vol 10 (2004), p 3.

[7] The Press (Christchurch) 17 January 1891.

[8] On the latter, see Simon Ville, The Rural Entrepreneurs: A History of the Stock and Station Agent Industry in Australia and New Zealand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

[9] On grasses, see Paul Star and Tom Brooking, ‘Fescue to the rescue: Chewings fescue, paspalum, and the application of non-British experience to pastoral practice in New Zealand, 1880-1920, Agricultural History Vol 80 (2006), pp 312-335; Vaughan Wood and Eric Pawson, ‘The Banks Peninsula forests and Akaroa cocksfoot: Explaining a New Zealand forest transition’, Environment and History Vol 14 (2008) pp 449-468; Eric Pawson and Vaughan Wood. ‘The grass seed trade’, in Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds), Seeds of Empire, I B Tauris, London, 2010, chapter 7; James Beattie, ‘Acclimatisation and the “Europeanisation” of New Zealand, 1830s-1920s’, ENNZ: Environment, Nature and New Zealand Vol 3 No 1 (February, 2008), pp 1-25.

[10] Eric Pawson, ‘Biotic exchange in an imperial world: Developments in the grass seed trade’, in Christina Stringer and Richard Le Heron (eds), Agri-Food Commodity Chains and Globalising Networks, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, 2008, pp 229-239.

[11] Paul Fox, Clearings: Six Colonial Gardeners and Their Landscapes, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2004, pp 37, 53.

[12] For botanic gardens, see Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, Yale University Press, Newhaven and London, 2000; for acclimatisation societies, see Michael A Osborne, ‘Acclimatising the world: A history of paradigmatic colonial science’, Osiris 2nd series Vol 15 (2000), pp 135- 151.

[13] Otago Witness 27 Aug 1879.

[14] Otago Witness 28 February 1889.

[15] Otago Witness 18 July 1889.

[16] Matthews, Henry (c 1890), ‘Descriptive and Priced List of New Zealand Native Ferns, Plants, Trees, Shrubs, Seeds, etc on sale by George Matthews, Nurseryman and Seed Merchant, Moray Place, Dunedin. Nurseries: Hawthorn Hill, Mornington’, Dunedin, items 1949/112/2 and 1950/88/1, within DC-2444, Otago Settlers Museum.

[17] Aparana Renata (Alfred Reynolds), ‘Native trees, shrubs and plants under cultivation’, Otago Witness 8 December 1892.

[18] See Sue Shepard, Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty, Bloomsbury, London, 2003.

[19] See Setsu Tachibana and Charles Watkins, ‘Botanical transculturation: Japanese and British knowledge and understanding of Aucuba japonica and Larix leptolepis, 1700-1920’, Environment and History Vol 16 (2010), pp 43-71.

[20] Philip J Pauly, Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2007, p 112.

[21] Otago Witness 3 Aug 1893.

[22] See Paul Star, ‘Henry Matthews’ contribution to tree culture in New Zealand from 1896 to 1909’, in Brett J Stubbs (ed), Proceedings of the Eighth Conference of the Australian Forest History Society, Lismore, NSW, (forthcoming).

[23] Helen M Leach, ‘Henry John Matthews, 1859-1909’, pp 320-321 in Claudia Orange (ed), Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Two: 1870-1900, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1993.

[24] Katharina Dehnen-Schmutz and Mark Williamson, ‘Rhododendron ponticum in Britain and Ireland: Social, economic and ecological factors in its successful invasion’, Environment and History Vol 12 No 3 (Aug 2006), pp 325-350; Tachibana and Watkins, ‘Botanical transculturation’.

[25] North Otago Times 18 April 1871.

[26] Otago Witness 3 Oct 1900.

[27] Dehnen-Schmutz and Williamson, ‘Rhododendron ponticum in Britain and Ireland’, p 326.

[28] Richard P Duncan, ‘The role of competition and introduction effort in the success of passeriform birds introduced to New Zealand’, American Naturalist Vol 149 No 5 (May 1997) pp 903-915. See also Richard P Duncan, Tim M Blackburn and Daniel Sol, ‘The ecology of bird introductions’, Annual Review of Ecological and Evolutionary Systems, Vol 34 (2003), pp 71-98.

[29] Bill Gammage, ‘Galahs’, Australian Historical Studies Vol 40 No 3 (2009), pp 275-293. See also Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph (eds), Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood VIC, 2009.

[30] North Otago Times 14 May 1872.

[31] Otago Witness 18 April 1885.

[32] This is summarised in James Beattie and Katie Holmes, ‘Reflections on the history of Australasian gardens and landscapes’, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, Vol 31 No 2 (2011), pp 75-82.

[33] A H Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals: The South Island, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1949; A W Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.