The seven articles in this special issue of Environment and Nature in New Zealand were all written between 1989 and 2000 by students at the University of Otago.  Five of them are condensations of ‘long essays’ (that is, 20,000 word fourth year research essays) submitted in part fulfillment of the BA (honours) history programme. The remaining two articles (by Neil Clayton and Matthew Polson) are based on dissertations for Otago’s Postgraduate Diploma in Arts.

All seven contributions have been selected by Professors Tom Brooking and Judy Bennett as essays from this period which deal with environmental history themes and which remain suitable for presentation to a wider audience. These essays also represent the most concentrated research effort in relation to environmental history of any history department in the country, subsequently extended by masters and PhD theses.

The difficult task of rendering down the essays into articles (all about a third of the original length) was undertaken by Neil Clayton. Copies of the original long essays and dissertations are held in the Hocken Collections in Dunedin. Matthew Polson was supervised by Judy Bennett, while Tom Brooking supervised the other six researchers.

The articles are arranged here in an order which, as nearly as possible, groups themes together and presents subject matter chronologically. Those by Neil Clayton (1998) and James Beattie (1999) refer to the so-called colonial period  (from the 1840s to about the 1860s). They both consider New Zealand (particularly Otago) settlement in terms of nineteenth-century European (and especially Scottish) attitudes to the environment. Julian Kuzma (1999) describes the impact upon Canterbury and Otago settlers of extreme weather events in 1895 – in this case massive snow storms.

The articles by Rachael Egerton (1993) and Michael Bagge (2000) are concerned with two ‘problem’ species introduced by European settlers into New Zealand in the nineteenth century – rabbits and gorse – and identify environmental, social and legislative repercussions through to the twentieth century.

Lee Davidson’s article (1989) describes settlers’ engagement, through mountaineering, with the mountain landscapes of inland Otago, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Finally, the article by Matthew Polson (1999) describes the interaction between New Britain’s environment and the successive foreign powers (German, Australian and Japanese) in that part of New Guinea, from 1930 through to 1950.

These essays reflect the major concerns of environmental historians in the 1990s by concentrating on settler encounters with environments distinctly different from those of the source countries of European migrants – mainly Britain, but also Scandinavia and Germany. The experiences of Chinese migrants, along with the Irish and Scottish subsets amongst the majority British, have subsequently been investigated more systematically, but the environmental histories of both Dalmatian and Lebanese migrants remain largely unwritten. These essays also concentrate on land, land use, ‘pest’ control and farming. More recently there has been a swing away towards water and the sea, as well as to the harvesting activities of the indigenous Kai Tahu people (southern Maori) and the development and impact of tourism.

Local studies continue to be the focus of research but more recent work reflects shifts in the broader concerns of the discipline, including interrogation of gender dynamics in relation to environmental attitudes, the effectiveness (or otherwise) of government attempts at regulation, and the quest for ‘sustainability’. Matthew Polson’s essay foreshadows Judy Bennett’s large-scale study of the environmental impact of the Second World War on the Pacific region, while the New Zealand focused articles influenced the first edition of Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking’s Environmental Histories of New Zealand in significant ways.

We would like to express our appreciation of the pioneering, but still relevant and valuable, efforts by these students – several of whom went on to undertake masters and doctoral studies on environmental history topics.

Paul Star and Tom Brooking