And a partridge (or not), Neville Bennett

Science is wonderful. Only this week I hear some clever Americans have transplanted a gene from an Antarctic fish into a tomato. Apparently we will not get a tomato with scales or fins but one that is not frost tender.

I also worry about science’s (temporary) setbacks. As I write, a tsunami centre in Hawaii cannot predict tsunamis because it lacks a French‑speaker who could phone New Caledonia and ask if the water was rising. I predict the centre will solve that one by installing instruments in New Caledonia and Tahiti which it can monitor by satellite. Cost only a billion, better than hiring an educated person.

An alert editor has sent me a book about applied science in New Zealand (R M McDowall Gamekeeper for the Nation: The Story of New Zealand’s Acclimatisation Societies, 18611990, Canterbury University Press) and it’s pretty interesting. I’m not reviewing here, you understand, but am reflecting on meaning. My contract has an unwritten requirement that I think a lot. I take that seriously.

Partridges are a symbol. The best scientific minds in New Zealand, using huge resources, have until very recently been trying to produce lots of partridges. But the bird is extinct.

The metaphysics are simple. I look at nature as a totality; the oceans and land are not discrete elements but part of an entity: earth. The earth is supposed to be in danger. It is not. It can cope with any disruption. It recovered from the meteorite‑impact that destroyed the dinosaurs. It will recover if we quickly release too much carbon. Human beings, on the other hand, may not be able to survive and may become extinct.

Once we start worrying about extinctions, it becomes obvious no one so far has worried enough about the partridge. The grey partridge is extinct and the red‑legged may be.

The partridge got to Canterbury before the first three ships. Every other province then sent for their own. The effort has been continuous. Even in the last decade our very best scientists and the National Poultry Unit at Massey University have been breeding and releasing birds. But there are none left in the wild. Compare that with starlings, sparrows and stoats!  And what about possums? Did you know that scientists got nice little grants in the 1980s to increase possum fertility? And that the big grants in the 1990s are in possum infertility?

The point is: did partridges get the optimum sponsorship? Are the people who failed with the partridge the right sort to offer us, say, parasite controls on nasty introduced species? The partridge problem goes to the centre of the meaning of life. I’ve uncovered a holocaust. Settlers blamed the partridge’s failure to thrive on the harrier hawk. As early as 1866 Canterbury was offering a bounty on hawks of a week’s wages (5 shillings). Soon every province was offering bounties for the destruction of the pest. It was in McDowall’s somber judgment “the most extraordinary war” ever waged against any New Zealand vermin (which presumably includes the possum). Acclimatisation societies were ingenious, sometimes offering huge rewards for hawks which had been banded and released ‑ the idea being shooters would kill a lot to get a special one.

Sometimes bounty payments had to be suspended as applications exceeded the entire income of an acclimatisation society. But payments were resumed, for the destruction, said the societies circularly, “proved the necessity for the expenditure”. Auckland alone paid bounties on a quarter of a million dead hawks in 1922‑42. Millions must have been killed before bounties ceased in the 1960s. As the harrier was an ally against the rabbit, it seems rather odd that it was persecuted.

It’s also a measure of the desirability of the British game bird.

Our pakeha forefathers were determined that in the new utopia of New Zealand “every man was going to get a chance at killing game birds or game fish”. They were not to be aristocratic preserves. Game birds are birds with a bit of aristocratic cachet, which are sporting (can fly quickly) and are edible. Swallows are not game birds. Pukekos almost are, but you cannot impress an old-world aristocrat by saying “I’ve shot pukeko” ‑ he might think you’re like those Frogs and Italians who shoot thrushes. Partridges had the right image.

In the 1842‑1910 period there were 30 recorded attempts to establish the grey partridge. Results were very weak and failure was lavishly reinforced. During the 1950s and 1960s massive breeding and release programmes were implemented. Acclimatisation societies confidently predicted success. By the 1970s North Island societies glumly reported their birds had disappeared without trace. Canterbury alone persisted. North Canterbury spent £98,000 in releasing 11,000 birds in 1964‑72. But the grey partridge has disappeared.

Auckland introduced the red‑legged (or French) partridge. The choice of this bird is a puzzle for it is not as palatable as the grey (or English). Moreover, its acclimatisation in England in the eighteenth century was regarded as a disaster. My 1900 Agricultural Encyclopedia describes it as “a nuisance owing to its habit of running before dogs and its reluctance to take wing”. If a game bird is one that is palatable and flies sportingly, Auckland bought a flop.

In 1977 the Auckland society decided it was time that modern management methods were employed in partridge introduction. It sub‑contracted the task to the National Poultry Unit. The buildings were estimated to cost $40,000 and the final bill was only $52,000. The North Island council enthusiastically covered the $12,000 shortfall. In 1980 the first 1500 eggs were procured from England, but only 135 birds were hatched. Perhaps the eggs had been treated badly in transit. More eggs were hurriedly flown out. Altogether, 2000 eggs had yielded 188 chicks.

The scientists were confident that the original pool of ducks could by modern methods be increased. The environment was to be closely controlled so that birds were deceived into six breeding cycles in two years. Easy. But at the end of two years only 200 eggs had been produced. None of the 200 eggs was fertile.

At that stage, if the project had been run by literary types, we might have simply sighed and called it a day. We would ask camouflaging questions: “What other social benefit could we spend these resources on?” But the Auckland society is made of stern qualities.  In 1982 it expressed “optimism” of a “significant” increase in partridges. By those days privatisation was in the air and new methods were possible.

Massey and its poultry unit were abandoned and the breeding stock was then dispersed to contract private breeders, who were advised by the Wildlife Service. Clearly, there was a whiff of free‑market flexibility about this. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was to be given its chance. Contracts were made for the supply of 4000 birds a year. A huge gain.

Unfortunately, the Auckland society had to ask for help to feed its prospective flock and the North Island council agreed to pay $20,000 year for five years and the Wildlife Service $5000 (we might later ask why the Wildlife Service did not have enough kakapo, etc, to look after). With this planning and funding in place, the breeding programme got under way. Unfortunately in no year was target of 4000 attained. But Auckland obtained 800 in 1984 and headily reported “we are again soaring like eagles”. In 1985 it released 3000 birds.

But other societies did not share in the euphoria. Auckland’s partners asked for a report of the programme and a review of results. There is some evidence that Auckland delayed making a full report. When only 200 birds were released in 1986, the North Island council ‘suspected that valuable funds were not producing the desired result”.

Auckland resented ‘inaccuracies” in the council’s statement and lamented the withdrawal of funds. But it tried to get university support and in 1990 put $30,000 of its own money into partridge breeding. Other societies had modest programmes in the early 1990s. South Canterbury was sanguine that “the partridge has a great future”. Hawke’s Bay noted partridges “were not obvious”. No one seems to have asked why partridges died. My theory is that they needed parents to teach them to feed. The Societies released only untrained immature birds. Could not the expertise of the departments of Education, Health, Social Welfare and Labour have been enlisted to inject family values?

My conclusions from the data are: (1) massive attempts have been made, using the latest management and scientific methods, to establish the partridge; (2) it is possible the partridge is extinct in the wild.

What right had nature to mess about with our plans for the partridge? Why did we get wasps when what we all wanted was partridges? These are profound questions.

Now let us look at the one outstanding successful attempt to introduce game bird: the Canada goose. One clutch of eggs served to establish this bird. It has not needed more, simply because it is far too clever to be shot. Its problem is that it cheeks the most protected human species in New Zealand ‑ the high country farmer. Farmers claim it fouls their pasture. They want to kill these “pests”. Battle lines have been drawn between the farmers and their champion, Ruth Richardson, and the shooters who call the goose “sacred”. In the last years of the acclimatisation societies, the Canterbury society shot its own sacred geese from helicopters in order to prevent farmers using unsporting methods. There is scope for plenty of theses on the politics of goose management committees.

Nature is a joker. If you want to introduce a new species, either you will fail regardless of the effort, or if it does succeed it will become a pest. (Rabbits and possums were desired.) There is some interesting work going on with parasites (on wasps) and with genes…

Neville Bennett teaches Japanese history at Canterbury University and hunts trout.

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