Managing Impacts


Environmentally degrading behaviour was a hallmark of nineteenth-century settler interactions with the Australian continent and its natural ecosystems. These behaviours commonly took the form of poor management and outright exploitation of natural resources, widespread employment of European land use practices unsuited to local climatic, soil and vegetation conditions, and the introduction of exotic flora and fauna species that adversely impacted upon indigenous biota and abiota (Lines 1991; Barr, Cary 1992; Bonyhady 2000).

Confronted with the extensive social, economic and environmental consequences of natural area degradation, some colonial administrators, naturalists, conservationists, community groups and individuals did attempt to manage degrading environmental behaviours and their impacts (Barr, Cary 1992; Bonyhady 2000). Managing Impacts presents significant historical examples of Australian settler environmental conservation management.


Barr N, Cary J (1992) Greening A Brown Land (Melbourne: MacMillan Education)

Bonyhady T (2000) The Colonial Earth (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Lines W (1991) Taming the Great South Land (Georgia: University Georgia Press)


Conserving the Mount Pitt Bird, Norfolk Island ca.1790

A small British settlement was established on Norfolk Island, 1700 kilometres to the north-east of Sydney, in 1788.  Supplies ran short and crops failed in 1790. To avoid starvation, the convicts, military personnel and free settlers who occupied the island turned to the Mount Pitt Bird (or Providence Petrel) Pterodroma solandri, a petrel, as a source of nourishment. The birds were hunted ruthlessly when they flocked to the island for their annual breeding events.


Bird of Providence, or Mount Pitt bird, Norfolk Island 1790 Source: John Hunter NLA
‘Bird of Providence, or Mount Pitt bird, Norfolk Island’ 1790 Source: John Hunter NLA

The island’s commander, Governor Ross, attempted to conserve the birds. He placed daily limits on the quantities that could be killed by each person, and tried to protect the petrel’s habitat by regulating forestry practices. The need to secure ongoing ecosystem services, in the form of food, motivated his actions, but humanitarian concerns were also expressed by some of the island’s colonists.


'Principal settlement on Norfolk Island' Land clearing Source: George Raper 1790 NLA
‘Principal settlement on Norfolk Island’. Extensive land clearing evident Source: George Raper 1790 NLA

Despite Ross’s measures, the species was rapidly reduced to a condition of local extinction, as up to a million birds had been killed by 1795. The petrel no longer breeds on Norfolk Island.


Bonyhady T (2000) The Colonial Earth (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia (NLA)


Nineteenth-century colonial management of introduced flora species and their degrading impacts  

Colonial settlers predominantly utilised European modes of settlement and agriculture in Australia. A variety of non-Australian flora species were introduced (Barr, Cary: 21-24).

In favourable ecological circumstances, certain introduced flora species can reproduce and spread so vigorously that local vegetation communities are overwhelmed. English broom was thriving ‘luxuriantly’ in the mild climate of Tasmania by the 1820s, the plants regarded as ‘very elegant ornaments to the gardens’ (Anon ‘State of the Weather’ Hobart Town Gazette 21 October 1826 p.2 [5]). Broom is now a declared weed throughout much of Australia, as its dense growth habit suppresses many indigenous plant species.

By the 1840s serious concern about the economic and environmental impacts of many of these introduced species had developed, as they spread throughout areas of productive land. Scotch thistle, which degraded the fleeces of sheep, had expanded into the Victorian countryside by ca.1850. The capacity of this ‘noxious plant’ to leave a region ‘a wilderness, a waste and a desert’ aroused considerable alarm (Anon ‘Devil’s River’ Geelong Advertiser 9 August 1849 p.1). Bathurst burr, a South American species, was possibly introduced to Australia in the 1840s, and had become ‘an evil of serious magnitude’ in central New South Wales by ca.1850 (Anon ‘The Bathurst Burr’ Bathurst Free Press 4 May 1850 p.4[2]).


Four homestead buildings in recently ringbarked and thistle infested land New South Wales Source: RM Withycombe NLA
‘Four homestead buildings in recently ringbarked and thistle infested land’ New South Wales 1890s Source: RM Withycombe NLA

The various colonial legislatures attempted to manage the spread and impacts of the most damaging of these introduced flora species. ‘An Act to make provision for the eradication of certain Thistle Plants and the Bathurst Burr’ was assented to by the Victorian parliament in 1856, and the other Australian colonies quickly introduced similar legislation. The Victorian legislation provided for the mandatory treatment of thistle and burr by private landowners.

Prickly-pear, a form of cactus, was first reported in Australia in the 1830s, and was spreading rapidly in eastern Australia by the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The New South Wales legislature passed the Prickly-pear Destruction Act in 1886. The legislation vested authority in state appointed inspectors to mandate the eradication of prickly-pear on both Crown and private land. This attempt at manual control failed, and prickly-pear had developed into a major Australian agricultural and environmental weed by the early twentieth century.


'Remains of Johnty Turner's home, overrun with prickly pears' Chinchilla District Queensland 1920s Source: State Library Queensland
‘Remains of Johnty Turner’s home, overrun with prickly pears’ Chinchilla District Queensland 1920s Source: State Library Queensland

Following the First World War (1914-1918), the newly formed Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board searched for an imported, scientifically vetted biological control. A moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, and the cochineal bug Dactylopius opuntiae, both proved to be effective in their consumption of the cactus, and it was effectively controlled by the 1930s (Invasive Species Council 2021).

Much of the interest displayed by colonial administrators, legislators and farmers in managing unwanted, introduced flora species revolved around the need to limit the adverse social and economic impacts that these species created. An historically early attempt to manage an introduced flora species because of the threat that it posed to the valued, inherent biological qualities, or intrinsic value, of an indigenous Australian flora species took place in 1894 at Susan Island, Grafton, and is reported in Managing Impacts. 


Barr N, Cary J (1992) Greening A Brown Land (Melbourne: MacMillan Education)

Invasive Species Council (2021) ‘Threats to Nature Taming A Cactus’ Case Studies Invasive Species Council

Images courtesy of the National Library of Australia and the State Library of Queensland


Conservation management of degrading impacts, Beaumaris, Port Phillip Bay 1890

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the state level of government was a key player in Australian  environmental conservation management. However, local government, progressively established throughout the colonies from the 1870s, has also played a significant role in environmental management in this country (Ardill 2021).

An early example of local government engagement with conservation management occurred in the small village of Beaumaris, on the outskirts of Melbourne, Victoria, in 1890 (Ardill 2021). Mr Bryan Moore, concerned about the fate of the indigenous foreshore flora species of Port Phillip Bay, obtained the administrative and financial support of Moorabbin Shire Council, and conducted an ‘experiment’, designed to

preserve the ti-tree, acacia, the native cherry, and the honeysuckle and other shrubs …The idea has become general that this native vegetation ought to be preserved, but those of this mind have not gone further than to leave the scrub alone…a policy of masterly inactivity is not sufficient… for the sea coast near Melbourne…

Mr Moore anticipated that the creation of access pathways to the beach, and the provision of dedicated scenic and picnicking areas, would remove the need for beach-goers to clear and trample the natural vegetation that fringed the foreshores. The success of his conservation management experiment was not recorded, but as the foreshore reserves and their beaches were extremely popular recreation venues, it is possible that the degrading impacts continued. By 1896, council staff were replanting Coast Tea-tree in the foreshore reserves, and the council had appointed a ranger to patrol the foreshores in the school holidays, in an attempt to minimise damage to the vegetation (Ardill 2021).


'Beaumaris Beach' approximately 1906-1914 Source: A Fox SLVIC
‘Beaumaris Beach’ approximately 1906-1914 Source: A Fox SLVIC

Environmental conservation sentiments were not widespread at the time of Moore’s experiment; a foundling environment movement was only just developing in Australia in the late nineteenth century (Hutton, Connors 1999). Moore’s appreciation of the indigenous flora, and his attempt to conserve it by proactively managing access to the reserves, was quite progressive behaviour for the period. In fact, the foreshore reserves of Port Phillip Bay, and their indigenous flora, had been subjected to unregulated, degrading impacts for decades. Moore’s conservation management ‘experiment’ preceded by four years the gazettal in 1894 of what was quite possibly Australia’s first dedicated indigenous flora and fauna conservation area, Ku-ring-gai Chase reserve, Sydney (Mosley 2012: 193-194).


Gap in the Ti-tree, Mordialloc Victoria, approx 1914 Source: SLSA B 28518/64
‘Gap in the Ti-tree’, Mordialloc Victoria, approx 1914 Source: SLSA B 28518/64


Ardill P J (2021) ‘Innovative Federation and Inter-war Period repair of degraded natural areas and their ecosystems: local government and community restoration of Coast Teatree Leptospermum laevigatum at Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, Australia’ The Repair Press Sydney (February)

Hutton D Connors L (1999) A History of the Australian Environment Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Mosley G (2012) The First National Park: A Natural for World Heritage (Sutherland Shire Environment Centre & Envirobook : Sydney)

Images courtesy of the State Library of Victoria (SLVIC) and State Library of South Australia (SLSA)


Historical management of introduced flora species threatening admired indigenous flora, Susan Island, Grafton 1894

The extensive Clarence River catchment, located on the north-east coast of New South Wales, was home to the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl nations. Forced dispossession of the Traditional Owners by timber cutters commenced in the 1840s. Exhaustive logging of the valuable tree, Red Cedar Toona ciliata, was undertaken. The remainder of the Clarence River rainforest community, today known as Lowland Rainforest on Floodplain, was progressively burnt and cleared for farming.


'Hauling cedar over the Richmond River' NSW 1886 Source Charles Kerry NLA
‘Hauling cedar over the Richmond River’ north-east NSW 1886 Source Charles Kerry National Library Australia

However, on Susan Island, a mobile shoal that bisected the Clarence River at Grafton, the rainforest remained in a relatively intact condition, despite the cutting of cedar that had occurred. For reasons unknown, the island was declared a recreation reserve in 1870. The trustees of the reserve admired and valued the rich biological and aesthetic qualities of the rainforest and attempted to preserve these qualities, despite public pressure to clear the vegetation and develop the island as a health and recreation resort.


Giant fig tree Grafton Source: New South Wales Through the Camera 1897 Eyre & Spottiswoode
‘Giant fig tree Grafton’ a rainforest species Source: ‘New South Wales Through the Camera’ 1897 Eyre & Spottiswoode

The introduced plant species, lantana Lantana camara, had become established on Susan Island by ca.1890, quite possibly in a small cleared area. Recognising the threat that the lantana posed to the integrity of the adjacent rainforest community, the trustees arranged for slashing work to be undertaken in 1894. Trustee James Clarence Wilcox, a skilled naturalist, initiated further weed management works in ca.1900. These efforts appear to have been largely ineffectual, and the lantana and other weeds, along with further vegetation clearing and stock grazing, had devastated much of the rainforest by the 1920s. 


'Susan Island, Grafton' 1945. Degraded mid-section.     Source: Charles Pratt State Library Victoria
‘Susan Island, Grafton’ 1945. Degraded mid-section. Source: Charles Pratt State Library Victoria

The trustees’ 1894 attempt to manage the lantana is the earliest known work undertaken in Australia by settlers to control an introduced flora species that was threatening biologically valued indigenous flora and avifauna. Despite the failure of the weed work, a section of intact rainforest resisted the lantana onslaught and other degrading processes, and survived to the present day. Today, Susan Island nature reserve is managed by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, with valued input coming from the Traditional Custodian Nyami Julgaa women’s group and the regional community.


Ardill P J (2019) ‘Colonial and twentieth-century management of exotic species threatening intrinsically valued indigenous flora: Susan Island, Lumley Park, Broken Hill’, Australasian Plant Conservation 28:2 (September – November)

Images courtesy of the National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria


Professional management of an exotic flora species threatening valued indigenous flora, Hampton, Port Phillip Bay ca.1930

Flora species introduced from overseas have often acquired weed status in Australia, and of course indigenous Australian flora species introduced to areas outside their natural range can also develop weed tendencies, both nationally and internationally. Weeds can overwhelm locally evolved plant communities and in the process,  displace indigenous animals.

What may have been Australia’s first professional exercise in the management of an introduced flora species that was threatening the existence of indigenous flora took place at Hampton, Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, in approximately 1934. Pampas Lily of the Valley, an ornamental plant, was introduced to Australia from South America. At Sandringham Shire Council the lily was causing “councillors considerable anxiety, and it was feared that it would destroy the foreshore native flora”, including the “ti-tree and other native flora” (Anon ‘Destructive Noxious Weed’ Age 12 July 1934 p.12). Either during or preceding 1934, the council initiated weeding programs at unspecified foreshore reserves in Hampton, to eradicate the lily.

Following complaints from members of the public that “unskilled workers were destroying much native flora” in their attempts to control the lily, the council employed a specialist weeding company, which eventually claimed to have successfully eliminated it from the reserves (Anon ‘Pampas Lily of the Valley’ Age 10 January 1935). Council curator Mr Rumble was charged with the task of monitoring for any signs of regrowth of the lily (Anon ‘Native Flora Threatened’ Argus 22 June 1935).


Hampton beach ca.1910-ca.1930 Source: Robert M O'Brien SLV
Hampton beach ca.1910-ca.1930                    Source: Robert M O’Brien SLVIC

Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria (SLVIC)



Page updated May 2022
© Peter J Ardill 2021