Edward Wilson - founder of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society

Edward Wilson – La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S16/02/78/180

The Victorian Acclimatisation Society was founded in 1861, largely through the efforts of Edward Wilson, editor of The Argus. Its aims were to introduce, acclimatise and domesticate useful or ornamental birds, fish, insects, vegetables and other exotic species. Later the same year an Acclimatisation Society was formed in New South Wales, with Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania following in 1862.

Acclimatisation wasn’t an exclusively Australian idea. It stemmed from early theories that the environment could bring about evolutionary change in species. This led people to believe that animals and plants would gradually adapt to climatic and environmental conditions different from those of their original habitats. The first acclimatisation society was formed in Paris in 1854. The idea was also embraced in Victorian England, driven both by scientific interest and the desire for exotic foods on the table. For a short time, societies also flourished in British colonies and in the United States.

Acclimatisation in Australia

In Australia, there’s no doubt that nostalgia for “home” was one of the forces behind the acclimatisation movement. As the South Australian Advertiser commented, somewhat sceptically, in March 1861:

the bare possibility of peopling the woods, groves, forests, and rivers of Australia with the animals, birds, insects, and fishes of Europe, and especially of Britain, is sufficiently delightful to warrant an effort in that direction, and we shall rejoice to find that enthusiasts for once have judged better of the capabilities of Australian soil and climate than their less impulsive fellow-colonists.

While the Acclimatisation Society movement was driven by private citizens it received official patronage. In both Victoria and New South Wales, the societies were chaired by the Governor. In Victoria Ferdinand von Mueller, director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, was involved. The Sydney group was led by Dr George Bennett at the Australian Museum and Charles Moore the director of Sydney’s Botanic Garden.

Bennet was a medical practitioner and naturalist, a respected scientist. He saw the introduction of new species as important to the colony’s future food supply.

“From a soil producing only a few fruits barely edible, the aborigines merely subsisting on the precarious supply of food, obtained by hunting or fishing, we now obtain by Acclimatisation a large supply of food, luxuries, and important articles of commerce, affording subsistence for a large population of thousands of human beings,” he wrote.

The Victorian society had its origins in the Victorian Zoological Society, formed in 1857. The first animals were kept in the Botanic Gardens, with the first zoo being established on the banks of the Yarra in what was known as Richmond Paddock.  The zoo was relocated to Royal Park in 1862. Among its purposes was to house imported animals prior to their release into the wild.

Edward Wilson was the force behind the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, and travelled Australia encouraging the formation of similar groups. He had an enthusiast’s belief in the importance of his cause. This amused the writer in the Advertiser, who reported:

 It appears that Mr. Wilson, amiable enthusiast that he is, with naive simplicity called upon the Duke of Newcastle, and asked that nobleman to procure from the Government the loan of a man-of-war to bring out some salmon fry and other piscatorial pets. The Duke of Newcastle, with hard-hearted indifference, said that “he did not like converting men-of-war into herring-boats!” – a most unkind cut on the part of his Grace, certainly.

Wilson even suggested to the Governor of Victoria that monkeys be released into the Australian bush “for the amusement of the wayfarer, whom their gambols would delight as he lay under some gum tree in the forest on a sultry day.” His request was refused.

The legacy of acclimatisation

Acclimatisation societies have been blamed for some disastrous mistakes. However, the introduction of exotic species had been going on since the arrival of the First Fleet, courtesy of both government-sponsored initiatives and private enthusiasms. Alpacas, camels, llamas, song-birds and game animals, even rabbits, had been introduced before the first Society was formed.

The societies gave the acclimatisation movement more impetus. In some cases, the results were beneficial. The Queensland Acclimatisation Society experimented with food crops, including sugar cane, bananas, apples, pineapples, pasture grasses, maize, olives, mangoes and macadamia nuts. However, von Mueller’s introduction of blackberries resulted in a scourge that still resists eradication.

By the end of the 1860s, farmers were protesting that introduced sparrows were destroying their fruit crops. The explosion in the rabbit population was beginning to cause concern. In around 1870, the Victorian Legislative Assembly was told “Let us alone with your new industries. You see what has come of them already. A Scot introduced their charming thistle, and we will have to put a sum on the estimates to extirpate it. Edward Wilson introduced the sparrow, and the sparrow is playing havoc with our vineyards. Some busybody introduced the rabbit, and the income of Ballarat would not save us from the consequences.”

The societies became less active in the 1870s although some lingered on in name until the 1950s. Many of the introduced species simply failed to thrive and disappeared without trace. Many are being successfully farmed throughout Australia. And, unfortunately, the rabbits, foxes, sparrows, starlings and blackberries are still with us.