Previously published this article by the late Bill Benfield looks at a man who in the early 20th century was held up as the guru of botany and ecology and who “master-minded” the infamous “Deer Menace Conference of 1930 that embedded the “anti- exotic wild animal phobias” into science and policy. The original article has been abridged.
Leonard Cockayne: How one man’s vision distorted science and a nation.
the late Bill Benfield
Since the 1920’s, New Zealand’s conservation has been dominated by one man’s vision. English-born Leonard Cockayne was a school teacher who had taught in both Australia and New Zealand. However, he found the occupation “uncongenial”.
His father’s death and the patrimony bequeathed him in 1884 freed him from the classroom leaving him financially independent to follow his passion and became a plant collector and gardener of New Zealand plants.
Despite only fragmentary formal training and a lack of qualifications in this field, his enthusiasm for his collecting and cataloguing plus being an incredibly prolific letter writer (over 1000 letters in one year) was further added to by sending thousands of seeds and samples to other collectors round the world. This brought him to the notice of Professor K. von Goebel of the Botanischer Gartens and the University of Munich in the early 1890’s and the beginning of a long correspondence between the two men.
This association was to be a turning point in Cockaynes career, and initially, it led to his being awarded an honorary PhD from the University of Munich in 1903.
Cockayne saw the possibilities of such an honour.
Though unsuccessful in becoming a government botanist, Cockayne was still able get government funding for much of his survey work and at the same time, he continued to be a prolific writer of both published works and papers. As increasingly Cockayne was developing links with amateur botanists to extend his survey, he was also proselytizing an almost religious fervour in his followers. In a 1912 letter to von Goebel he wrote of “the holy fire of enthusiasm without which, all is as nothing”. Later, there is his request to his friends for sending out the “Fiery Cross”, a botanist’s evangelical crusade! .
In view of Cockayne’s obvious gardening origins, and his inability to see his specimens as part of an ecosystem, there is the whole issue of his complete blindness to the evidence that was all around him of the evolutionary origins of the New Zealand’s forests.
There was also the evidence that these forests must have been inhabited and browsed by substantial numbers of moa. Canterbury Museum had considerable material from Haast’s excavations at Rakaia to support this, as well there was such a vast area of moa remains at the Waitaki mouth’s Maori kill site, so much that a railway line was built in to mine the material for fertiliser. Yet in a 1926 monograph written for the Forest Service, Cockayne states:-
“In the forests of primitive New Zealand, except for certain species of moa, there were no grazing or browsing animals, while so far as the giant birds were concerned these would chiefly live in the open”
He inserted the italicised “no” for emphasis!
Leonard Cockayne – amateur botanist
Further evidence of Cockayne’s denial of moa impact around the same time is an account in the Christchurch Sun of an interview with a visiting botanist, G.E. Du Rietz at which Cockayne turned up to. In the course of the interview, Du Rietz was commending New Zealand on the diversity and primeval nature of the vegetation. Cockayne apparently agreed, and added showing his illogical hatred of deer:-
“There is more vegetation that has not been nibbled and had its nature changed by grazing and browsing animals. If I could only tell those people who introduced deer what I think of them —-“
The interviewer then records “Dr. Cockayne went off at a tangent”!
Cockayne’s attitude to forest deer browse was becoming more extreme, as can be seen in the second edition of his “Vegetation of New Zealand” of 1928. This book also outlined Cockayne’s abhorrence of exotic plants.
By the time of the “Deer Menace Conference” in 1930, he was in in full voice as the evangelising radical gardener/botanist bearing his “fiery cross” to save his precious forest garden from browse.
At the Deer Menace Conference as the Forest Service’s consultant, Cockayne ensured that it would be government policy that all mammalian browsers must be eradicated, a policy that still persists today.
It was also at that time, the years 1930, and 1931, that Cockayne was president of the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society, a body which still in the 21st. century, despite all evidence to the contrary, continues to this day to maintain both Cockayne’s exotic phobia and the claim that the forest was never browsed.
Essentially, Cockayne’s vision was denying evolution and the effects of change by in essence, putting New Zealand under a bell jar, thus preserving it as Cockayne saw it about 1900.
Since the extermination of the moa about 1300 and before deer had been fully established, the vegetation was in an unnatural state with little browsing except for birds like the pigeon and kokaho.
It was not the world before human intervention by Maori, but a world with most of its fauna and all its browsers gone. The Maoris had burned around 40% of its forests, and the forests remaining were in a state of significant compositional transition from pre-European intervention.
Such was Cockayne’s self-established authority his “vision” was so accepted, seemingly without question by the scientific establishment and that almost nothing could challenge it. Today with the Cockayne mantra embedded in department policy and urged by the vociferous Forest and Bird Society, anti-wild animal policies prevail.
The tool is wholesale poisoning of the whole forest ecosystem with “super toxins” like 1080 to eradicate selected suites of “pests” that Cockayne’s disciples falsely claim are destroying iconic birds and forests.
In the 1950’s, the Cockayne mantra was seriously challenged by a young American scientist who joined the Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs. Thane Riney was put to work on the departments animal eradication operations. Untainted by the Cockayne philosophy, Riney disproved the claim erosion was caused by animal browse, but his career in New Zealand was short lived. His report on the Lake Monk expedition showing that animal browsers (deer and possums) did not eat forests to death, but their population reached a peak then fell to be in equilibrium with the growth, and a stable and sustainable relationship with the forest. It caused considerable angst in the Forest Service and for his troubles, he was publicly disparaged by senior forest service officials.
So too was Professor William Graf who was at the time visiting New Zealand to study deer. Comments in his report to the Hawaiian Commissioners such as:-
The oft repeated and widely believed statement about the “vegetation which develops in the absence of grazing and browsing animals” simply does not stand up under close scrutiny.
were greeted with hostility.
Graf termed NZ’s department heads as being afflicted with an “anti-exotic wild animal phobia.”
It would not have needed a great intelligence to connect together the dots laid out in a 1989 paper by Les Batchelor of Forest Research. He estimated on the basis of the production ability of the forest, there must have been between six and twelve million moa. As the land was substantially forested, they must have been browsing the forest.
Probably one of the world’s greater ecologists of the later parts of the 20t century was New Zealander Graeme Caughley, D.Sc Ph.D. (earned, not “honorary” as Cockayne’s was) In his paper titled “New Zealand Plant Herbivore Systems, Past and Present” delivered at the same conference as Batchelor’s, he was even more forthright stating forests without browse were in “an un-natural” state. He proposed two suites of deer as the only viable surrogates to the browse of the moa.
As one, a European suite is largely here, ie. Red and fallow deer, only the introduction of roe deer would have been required to complete it. Despite the eminence and local experience of Dr. Caughley, the concept of utilising exotic browse just seemed unacceptable.
But in fairness it must be borne in mind that science is paid for by government departments such as the Department of Conservation and tends to come up with conclusions compatible to policy. As such it is often not impartial and lacks freedom and independence.
The overall effect of “paid science” has been to force the New Zealand scientific community push its head deeper into the sand.
Cockayne’s vision is still entrenched.
But there is hope for reality and common-sense. Recently two papers have appeared by Wood Wilmshurst and others describing South Island moa coprolite studies. Titled “High Resolution Coproecology: Using Coprolites to Reconstruct the Habits and Habitat of New Zealand’s Extinct Upland Moa” and “Resolving lost herbivore community structure using coprolotes etc.”
They support previous gizzard studies which show that, where moa lived in the forest, they were forest browsers, but the papers even go further. Their analysis shows material (often pollens) from most plants of the forest including podocarps and beeches and diet including fuschia, broadleaf, wineberry, as well plants such as coprosma and forests vines, such as muehlenbeckia, types which tend to dominate the forest edges and understory. In open areas there is evidence of browse of herbfields.
It is in their results that the distortion of science in New Zealand manifests itself. They note:-
“Our results show that moa lack extant ecological analogs and their extinction represents an irreplaceable loss of function from New Zealand’s terrestrial ecosystems”
This is technically correct and as Caughley pointed out, there is no forest ratite to replace the moa. But there are other browsers such as deer (and possum) which would provide not exactly the same browse, but one that would help maintain the forest in as near to its pristine condition as is possible in the 21 century
There were many others including the extant kereru, the functionally extinct takahe and kakapo as well as many extinct geese and flightless ducks that have been overlooked as vegetarian birds.
Unfortunately, like Cockayne, the researchers overstate the impact of exotic browsers on the forest. It ignores that by Landcare Research’s own numbers, the deer population in New Zealand is around only 250,000, only a fraction of both Batchelor’s and Cauley’s estimates for moa.
In addition, as ruminants, deer are efficient converters of green matter to energy, hence their food requirement compared to a bird with short passage times is much lower, hence their per capita impact will be lower. Deer had not long colonised many forest areas before they were put under heavy pressure from culling, meat recovery operations and finally aerial poisoning operations.
Dr Graeme Caughley, world renowned ecologist
It all overlooks the wider issues of present management by ecosystem poisoning. Initially to eliminate possum browse, 1080 poison has been spread by air over whole forests including waterways; supposedly selectively targeting the “pest” species.
In fact, 1080 is a metabolic poison that affects any creature that requires oxygen as part of its metabolic process, originally registered as an insecticide it kills birds, animals and even forest insects.
Generally 1080 favours the faster breeders like rats. The 20% survivors quickly rebreed at a faster pace. Research shows four years after a 1080 drop, rat numbers are four times pre-poison levels.
Many native birds like kea are right now being driven to extinction, but on one hand Cockayne’s followers like religious zealots bearing their “fiery crosses’ ignore the massive co-lateral damage in pursuit of their greater goal of a sterile “eco-purity” and on the other, by the cynical malevolence of the toxin manufacturers and spreaders.