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Introduction of Exotic Plants and Animals

"The land is, in short, open and available in its present state, for all purposes of the civilised man... flowery plains and green hills, fanned by the breezes of early spring of Western Victoria" wrote Major Mitchell in his 1839 journal. Here was a land that positively invited English settlement, a place where English country houses and gardens would not look at all out of place. An enchanting myth was perpetuated about the fertile new continent – one could enjoy the picturesque wilderness with little labour required to render it fruitful and productive. Charles Dickens published many articles during the early 1850’s painting the gold fields and countryside in a positive light and exhorting the favourable prospects for Britons in Australia.

Unfortunately once transplanted to the other side of the world, the average Englishman fast developed a desire for the nostalgic and material comforts of home, including all manner of plants and animals. Settlers widely believed that none of the native plant were worthy of cultivation, nor were any of the native animals "decent" game or worthy of domestication. Hence, the wealthy settler was willing to spend much time and effort in introducing exotic plants and animals.

Rabbit Extermination In Victoria
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The Royal Society of Victoria published the "Report on the Resources of the Colony of Victoria" in 1860 which listed the prominent crops of the time, most of which were from Europe, including wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, peas, beans, onions, carrots, parsnips, apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, figs and walnuts. The only non-European crop mentioned was the "Chinese yam" which promised to become an additional table vegetable for the colony.

Post gold rush Australia saw great economic incentives to introduce new plants and animals, as it was realised that reliance on solely gold and wool was economically precarious – any plant or animal that could possibly produce money was encouraged. New ways of exploiting land were sought. The major instigators of this movement, including Edward Wilson, Thomas Emblin and Ferdinand Von Mueller rallied the government for funds and established committees to propel the movement – in 1854 a special committee published the "Report on the Best Means of Promoting Agriculture, and of the Settling the Waste Lands of the Colony". Agriculturists despaired that half of Victoria still laid "waste, idle, and unoccupied" and therefore yielding nothing to the revenue of the colony.

Edward Wilson stressed not only the importance of introduced plants and animals, but urged further efforts to correct the "unequal and even eccentric distribution of the Earth’s natural productions; with a virgin country, an Italian climate and British institutions to lend force and intelligence to our endeavours... I hold the very highest conceptions of the capability of this country for very vast and varied improvements and additions, and I wish to see every possible step taken to give scope to its utmost possibilities... nature seems to have been lavish in the supply of her various gifts... she has properly and kindly left to man the interesting and agreeable task of supplementing her own efforts..."

He and other members of the Royal Society of Victoria argued the need to increase the colony’s range of agricultural products by experimenting with a varied range of plants. They exhorted residents of the colony to achieve what English pastoralists took centuries to achieve - they were encouraged to try an assortment of crops, such as chick pea, white millet, various lentil types, clover, corn, coriander, chicory, yarrow, rape, hemp, mustard, mangelequrzel, anise, cumin and many more.

Zebra & Keeper. Zoological Gardens, Melbourne
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

"Llamas" Zoological Gardens, Melbourne
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

It was not only exotic plants that were introduced – animals introduced to the colony were highly prized – partridge, pheasant, hare, fox, donkey, canary, alpaca, pig, merino sheep, Angora goat, deer, buffalo, trout, carp, skylark, nightingale and various types of cattle were just a few of the animals experimented with. Animals were not only introduced for their monetary worth – there were other reasons – in 1859 rabbits were unwittingly released at Winchelsea near Geelong, as ideal hunting game, and quickly became one of Australia’s greatest pests. Many of the exotic birds and animals were housed within the Botanical Gardens where they quickly became the principal attraction of the beautiful gardens. A notice in 1858, placed by Ferdinand von Mueller even appealed for "Useful and Rare Animals – The Committee of the Zoological Gardens, Melbourne, will feel thankful to any Captains of Ships, or gentlemen coming to Victoria... if they will endeavour to bring with them useful and rare animals." The Victorian Government was happy to provide funding for these activities, keen to promote any activity that would enhance pastoral or horticultural production.

Acclimatisation. Animals in the Royal Park
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

The Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (ASV) was formed in 1861 with the aim of introducing exotic plants and animals primarily for dispersion to suitable parts of the colony. As outlined in the society’s First Annual Report, their main aims were the:

  • introduction, acclimatisation and domestication of all innoxious animals, birds, fish, insects, and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental.
  • perfection, propagation and hybridisation of races newly introduced
  • spread of indigenous animals from parts where they are known, to other localities where they are not known
  • the procuring of animals from Great Britain and foreign countries

In short, it was a society fixated with creating a New England landscape, and completely changing the face of the natural landscape.

But what was the result of the introduction of all these new species in such an intensive, short period of time? By 1900, over 365 exotic plant species had taken root in Victoria Surely, only good could come from such diversification. In many cases, the new crops and animals were a success, and are still prevalent today. But in many instances, the new invaders caused widespread devastation to the landscape. Von Mueller recommended Blackberry in the 1860’s and spread the seed from his saddlebag whilst on travels through Victoria – blackberries went on to become a terrible pest throughout the country, one that agriculturalists still curse today. In many cases a lack of natural predators and diseases, an improved climate and the plant’s adaptive abilities combined to turn what were respectable, useful plants in their homeland into rampant weeds in Victoria. Whilst the Melbourne Botanical Gardens are an example of the successful, constrained introduction of European plants, others such as the Hawthorn and gorse which were planted as English-style hedgerows in the 1850’s became weeds that ran wild and choked native plants.

There were also problems with the newly acquired animals. The cats and dogs that were commonplace at the gold diggings were good company for the diggers, but disastrous for the environment. The cats in particular, hunted small marsupials and birds, further upsetting the ecosystem which was already trying to cope with the over-zealous felling and clearing of native habitat and pollution of drinking water. Native animals were not only expelled from their habitat, but hunted by cats, dogs and men. Many of these cats were disowned and became feral creatures, surviving on native animals. Other failures included the buffalo which destroyed vegetation with it’s heavy hooves, European carp that muddied rivers and creeks and, of course, the rabbit that swiftly increased to plague proportions.

While the acclimatisation of foreign animals and particularly plants was in many cases, disastrous, it is easy to appreciate the fervour and passion of early settlers to bring the new and exciting to Australia. They wanted to recreate their homelands, create an agricultural paradise, and improve production in Australia. They truly believed they were improving the land – farms and towns were a symbol of progress, to have left the land uncleared and uncultivated would have been to waste Nature’s abundant resources.


By Yvette Height


Robyn Annear, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 52, The Text Publishing Company, 1999.

Michael Evans Gold Fever! Life on the Diggings, from theGold150 website.

Don Garden, Catalyst or Cataclysm? Gold Mining and the Environment, Victorian Historical Journal Vol 72, No 1-2, September 2001.

Marian Place, Gold Down Under: The Victoria Gold Rush, Crowell Collier Press; 1969.

The Living Land – Living Land Trails, Department of Natural Resources and Environment (booklet); 1999

The Origins of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria; practical science in the wake of the gold rush – Introduction and Acclimatisation of plants and animals to meet the material needs of the people, Historical Records of Australian Science, V6, No3, Dec 1986.

Fashion in the Field – Trends in Revegetation Across Victoria, Victorian Landcare Centre, 2000.


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