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Chapter XXXI. — The Stocking of Tutira by Alien Animals

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Chapter XXXI.
The Stocking of Tutira by Alien Animals.

Preceding chapters have shown how in the vegetable kingdom useful and ornamental plants have been outnumbered by less worthy species. In like manner animal aliens, parasitical and predaceous, have come to exceed purposely-imported breeds.

It will be convenient firstly to consider the history of four of these self-invited strangers, prior to the days of ordered government, prior to the establishment of acclimatisation societies.

Of this quartette, three have been established in the land of their adoption for over a century, and one for scarcely less. Their dates of arrival, their journeyings, can now only be inferred; all that can be positively stated is the fact of their presence. All of them are members of the rat family.

The rat, in fact, seems to be almost parasitic to mankind, travelling in his shipping, feeding on his crops and stored goods; equally with his overlord and host, stocking the four quarters of the globe.

The four prominent steps or stages in the annals of early New Zealand were, firstly, the arrival of the Maoris; secondly, the discovery of the country by the navigators Vancouver, Malaspina, and Cook; thirdly, the exploitation of its seas by the sealer and whaler; fourthly, the initiation of commerce by the mercantile marine. Each of these periods has been responsible for its own particular mammal.

The first of these, Mus maorium (Kiore maori), in size rather resembling mouse than rat, was at one time an important article of diet amongst the natives. Except, however, that it was in disposition “tame” and “stupid,” and that it subsisted according to native statement entirely on roots, berries, and woodland fruits, little seems to have been registered concerning its habits. By Colenso, who vainly tried to page 308 procure specimens, it was pronounced to be extinct in the 'thirties, but the forlorn honour of annihilation has so frequently been conferred on New Zealand species that it must always be received with caution. Very rare though this ancient breed may be, it has yet representatives in the land; it is neither extinct in New Zealand nor yet altogether absent, I believe, even from Tutira. Although my knowledge is not personal, and although again and again there has been confusion betwixt this small creature and dead specimens of the immature black rat (Mus rattus)—dead specimens be it noticed—I give the facts for what they are worth.

In '79 Harry Young, then engaged in a bush-falling contract on the sea-cliffs of Arapawanui, caught, or rather secured, for the seizure met with no resistance or attempted escape, what he has described to me as a minute “rat.” When first seen it was noticed to be feeding on the yellow oval drupes fallen from a grove of karaka trees (Corynocarpus lœvigatus). The little animal, entirely unperturbed, was passed as a curiosity from one to another of the half-dozen workers and then liberated. Many years after this, during a drafting of sheep at the Conical Hill yards in central Tutira, Jack Young, the brother of my first informant, seated on the fence rails eating his lunch, noticed a small dark-coloured “rat” with back “arched like a rainbow,” as he described it, feeding on the seeding docks. Crumbs which he threw towards the little rodent were taken; as in the former case, it was secured without the faintest attempt to escape, and placed temporarily in one of the long narrow coffee-tin “billies” carried by shepherds. This receptacle unfortunately was overturned, and the rat, which was to have been brought in for my inspection, escaped.

It is impossible to believe that such a mercurial lively animal as Mus rattus should have at any period of its growth remained in the vicinity of a drafting-yard where work was in progress, much less allow itself to be caught with facility and handled without alarm. The rush of driven sheep, the shouting of shepherds, the barking of dogs, would scare the seven sleepers from somnolence; emphatically the specimen caught and then lost by Jack Young was not a representative of Mus rattus.

The third instance of the presence of a kiore maori occurred in 1906. One of my shearers, then resident on the wild rough country immediately behind Maungaharuru, saw and secured another of these small rodents. page 308a
Kiore Maori (Mus maorium). Photographed from specimen obtained by Captain Donne near Waikaremoana.

Kiore Maori (Mus maorium).
Photographed from specimen obtained by Captain Donne near Waikaremoana.

page 309 Amongst the natives—whatever may be the value of their opinion—it was accepted as one of the long-lost race. It was taken down to the coast, and there, living inside a buggy lamp, was for some time exhibited as a curiosity.

In each of these three cases of capture there was the same insistence on the particular trait of absolute fearlessness and tameness,—terms which may well be synonymous with stupidity, the word used by early writers quoting memories of Maoris who had themselves eaten the dainty, uneviscerated, stuffed with its natural diet of native berries.1

Prior to 1730—thirty-nine years, that is, before Captain Cook dropped anchor in New Zealand waters—the old English black rat (Mus rattus) held undisputed possession of Britain; it was only after the date mentioned that the brown or Hanoverian rat (Mus norvegicus) appeared. These species, however, as events were speedily to prove, will not live together, the one dominates and destroys the other; it is therefore in the last degree unlikely that Mus rattus and Mus norvegicus reached New Zealand cribbed, cabined, and confined in the same vessel. The limited space in such cockle-shells as the Endeavour and Resolution, and the duration of the voyage—over 300 days—alike negative the idea; the brown would have devoured his milder-mannered congener. It is, in fact, impossible that the black rat could have reached the colony otherwise than in the company of Cook, for by the date sealers had established themselves in New Zealand waters Mus norvegicus had overrun Britain and had destroyed his rival. When, therefore, the circumnavigator passed through Queen Charlotte Sound and careened his little vessel in Ship Cove, and later, when he moored the Resolution in a small creek “so near the shore as to reach it with her prow,” the rats which vacated the vessels were doubtless representatives of the black species. Rats had reached New Zealand; they began at once their evil work. Cook himself has left it on record that on revisiting his clearing in the forest he found that “although the radishes and turnips had seeded, the peas and beans had been eaten by rats.” We have still, however, to trace Mus rattus to Tutira.

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There are many alternative routes by which the species may have attained the North Island. The least improbable is that descendants of the original Endeavour and Resolution rats may have again taken shipping, may have at very early dates boarded native craft laden with food plying across Cook's Straits.

Although there is but little to tell, we can now proceed to Mus norvegicus.

A vast change had occurred in the fortunes of this breed between the sailings of the Endeavour and Resolution late in the eighteenth century and the rise of the sealing and whaling industries early in the nineteenth. It had in England completely ousted the old English black breed from pride of place. Ports and shipping centres where once the black rat had swarmed were now overrun with the brown. As had formerly happened in the case of the black rat, the brown breed also took shipping and was carried to New Zealand. Except that this did occur, nothing more can now be certainly known; probably the brown rat arrived by many routes, by different ships, to different ports.

In New Zealand, however, as Lot and Abraham parting from one another established themselves, the one in the plain of Jordan, the other in the land of Canaan, the two breeds separated themselves and divided the territory lying unstocked before them. The country chosen by the brown comprised the coastal belts, the settled districts, homesteads and cities. The black, as became his more adventurous spirit, possessed the native woods everywhere, and especially the high wet forest ranges.

The line of demarcation is, however, nowhere exactly drawn.

The brown rat, though sparsely scattered, is to be found in high country, whilst the black will here and there thinly colonise portions of a settled district, tempted thereto by specially favourable conditions; it will even on occasion breed in men's houses. It is true, nevertheless, that to Mus norvegicus belong cultivated land, crop and barn, whilst to Mus rattus appertain the wooded wilds, the rainy forests of the interior, wild fruits and drupes, forest birds and birds' eggs. On Tutira the homestead and the warm fertile coastal hills are the headquarters of the one; the other possesses the trough of the run, the hinterland, the forests of Opouahi, Maungaharuru, and Heru-o-Tureia.

The black rat's domicile in outward form resembles closely the page 311 untidy nest of the British house-sparrow; unconcealed and obvious, it may be found in masses of “lawyer” or native bramble (Rubus australis) wrapping some tall shrub, in thickets of supple-jack (Rhipogonum scandens), in dense shrubberies of tutu (Coriaria ruscifolia). Within this rough, rude, careless structure extends an elongated dome, tidy and warm, usually built and lined with a single material. Oftenest at Tutira the leaves of the tutu, or the leaves of the native bramble, are worked in as scales and shingles, and so made to curve and overlap one another as to produce a rainproof roof. The black rat is comparatively harmless to man and his property. In camp, where the brown will in a night rip and tear to pieces a flour-bag, the black breed will nibble rather than rend and waste. It is Mus rattus that is probably chiefly responsible for the disappearance of the Polynesian species, whose ancient feeding-grounds lay in the woods and forests. Although, I am told, practically extinct in Britain, the black rat is common throughout the uplands and wilds of New Zealand.

About the habits of the brown rat there is nothing that calls for special comment. It seems to live on Tutira as its forebears have lived in the old world: going forth during summer to the open lands, and during winter-time in some degree returning to the shelter of buildings. The brown rat is as deadly to native birds in the lowlands and swamps as is his black relative to species inhabiting the highland forests.

The third member of the Mus family, the mouse (Mus musculus), seems to have arrived at a considerably later date. The late Archdeacon Samuel Williams has informed me that he has no recollection of mice in New Zealand until the 'thirties. About that date they were noticed at the Bay of Islands Mission Station. Vessels were then beginning to reach the colony, laden or partly laden with cargoes of a kind that for the first time offered shelter, harbourage, and breeding accommodation for the small creature.

It was in association with toys for white children, printing paper, printing-press machinery, ironmongery, clothes for English ladies, seeds for the Mission garden, cereals for the Mission fields, linen and cotton goods, books, bells, glass, and crockery, that I imagine the mouse to have reached New Zealand. At any rate, only in the intricacies of a page 312 miscellaneous cargo could the mouse have obtained during the long voyage shelter and safety from his voracious kinsman the rat.

Although twice during my occupancy of Tutira irruptions of mice have overrun the station, it is unlikely that the place has been directly stocked from the north. The distance is too great, the obstacles too serious. Mice are not great adventurers; their pilgrimages are comparatively short and unsustained. A violent storm would in a few hours destroy the movement, for after a single night of three or four inches of cold gale-driven rain I have found them dead in scores. They can, in fact, no more stand heavy weather without shelter than can the sparrow. We may take it, therefore, that the local origin of Tutira mice was almost certainly the port of Napier. Thence there may have been a migration sufficiently sustained to reach the station. On the other hand, mice may have been directly packed up on horseback amongst station stores. Certainly from the homestead they have been carried over every part of the run in grass-seed bags; I have myself sown the half-smothered little creatures from sacks of grass and clover seed.

To recapitulate: there are or have been four species of rat on Tutira in my time; firstly, a species—four instances of which I have given at second hand—which may or may not be the kiore maori (Mus maorium). These four captures have taken place at intervals of years. Certainly it is not impossible that the little native rat should still exist on a run whose miles of cliff and crag offer such extraordinary chances of harbourage to a persecuted race.

Secondly, there is the breed often known as the bush rat. Of it I showed a dozen skins to the authorities at the South Kensington Natural History Museum. They were skins, I was told, of Mus rattus, the old English black rat.

There is the brown rat (Mus norvegicus); lastly, there is the mouse (Mus musculus).

The first chapter in the modern history of New Zealand was the arrival in the fourteenth century of the fleet of native canoes known as the heke or great migration. It was marked, according to tradition, by the advent of Mus maorium.

The second chapter was the landing of Europeans. In the annals of natural history it was marked by the appearance of the black or bush rat (Mus rattus).

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The third chapter in the development of the colony was the rise of the sealing and whaling industries. They were responsible for the appearance of the brown or Hanoverian rat (Mus norvegicus).

The fourth chapter was the initiation of the mercantile marine. It was marked by the appearance of the mouse (Mus musculus).

This volume is the history of one sheep-run only; we can, therefore, localise events and say that Tutira owes its kiore maori to the Polynesian fleet; its black rat to the Royal Navy; its brown rat to the sealer; its mouse to the mercantile marine.

1 The likelihood that we still have representatives of this exceedingly rare little animal on Tutira is increased by the capture in the district of a fourth specimen by Captain Donne. Captain Donne's description of the conduct of his “rat” after capture bears out the testimony already given of the absolute fearlessness of the breed. It was taken in the forest path between Waikaremoana and Waikareiti not many years ago.