How humans changed Norfolk Island

Emily Bay used to be called Turtle Bay

Norfolk Island is a stunningly beautiful place but it doesn’t take long before you realise what an enormous impact humans have made on its ecology. It’s a lesson to us all, I suppose. These days, importation of any animal or vegetable material to Norfolk is strictly controlled. We watched the cute little beagle sniffing everyone’s bags at the airport. But that wasn’t always the case.

When Captain Cook saw Norfolk in 1774 the massive Norfolk Island pines would have covered the entire island. There were no meadows or grasslands. There were no land animals. There are still no snakes. But there were birds which were specially adapted to the heavily-wooded conditions.

Then humans arrived.

They cut down the trees and planted grass, cane sugar, fruit trees, corn, rice, and other food crops. They brought in horses, cows, goats, pigs, and rabbits. And less popular creatures, like rats and no doubt mice, as well as cats and dogs that went feral. Beautiful Emily Bay was originally called Turtle Bay because of all the turtles there. In the usual thoughtless human manner, the population was soon wiped out by the hungry settlers.

Phillip Island, at back, is 6km from Norfolk. The other island is Nepean, where the convicts cut stone for building material

Pigs, goats and rabbits had been released on Phillip Island, and continued to thrive when the people left. Pigs and goats were removed by the early 20th century but the rabbits remained. Our guides told us that until relatively recently Phillip Island looked like Uluru, devoid of any green. An eradication program has been successful with the last rabbits removed in 1988, and Phillip Island is recovering. [1]

One of Norfolk’s more successful imports was the kentia palm, which is native to Lord Howe Island. Kentias are the parlour palms you see in hotel lobbies and the like, and during the nineteen nineties they would all have been grown from seed collected on Norfolk. For a while the seeds were worth a lot of money. But humans weren’t the only ones who valued them. Rats found them good to eat, so farmers had to fit rat guards on their palms to stop predation. The value of kentia seed dropped as soon as the buyers had enough to grow their own in hot houses.

Norfolk Island has two bird species endemic to the island – the green parrot and the morepork, a form of boobook owl. Both had thrived in those thick, dark forests. But as the trees were felled, their habitat shrank. At last, one sole female morepork was the only owl calling in the darkness, the last of her kind. The bird’s closest relative was a species living in New Zealand and scientists on Norfolk obtained two males from there, hoping she would mate with one of them. She did, and now there is a small colony of moreporks in Norfolk’s national park. But it is not quite the same as the original species, and it is severely inbred, so even this hybrid is threatened. It’s a sad tale. Read more about it here.

Feral crimson rosells. It’s not quite the same as the ones we saw in Victoria

The green parrot has been rescued from the brink. Scientists in the national park set up nesting boxes for them. Apart from the reduction in habitat, the birds have also had to endure competition for the remaining nesting hollows from introduced crimson rosellas, no doubt brought in from Australia by some bird collector, who allowed them to escape, or let them go. They’re no longer exactly the same as their Australian cousins. The green parrot population is still relatively small and endangered. Read the whole story here.

We didn’t see, or hear, either the green parrot or the morepork, but then, we didn’t spend any time in their habitat.

A Tern chick in a Norfolk Island pine

We did see young terns, though. These birds don’t build nests. They lay their eggs directly on the branch of a Norfolk pine, selecting the same site every year. Someone told us the birds use an adhesive of some sort to keep the eggs in place, but the general consensus with the guides was that’s just one of those stories tour guides tell when they don’t know the answer [2]. Humans (of course) collected the eggs, with a subsequent impact on the population , but at least the birds used trees in some pretty inaccessible locations. These days the islanders are allowed to collect tern eggs on Phillip Island for just a few weeks every year. Tern parents will lay a second egg if the first one falls or disappears, so the loss of eggs doesn’t have a major impact. After the chick hatches it is a small ball of grey fluff hanging on to its branch. The parents keep an eye on it and come in with sprats caught in the sea to feed it until it can fly.

Norfolk is a haven for sea birds, with populations of several tern species, gannets, and mutton birds. There are also small wrens and kingfishers.

This is my last Norfolk Island post. I can’t help feeling there’s so much more – a telephone directory listing people by nickname, more about the food, and the language. So here are some websites for you to look at.

Norfolk Island Travel Centre Covers accommodation, tours and the like

Ten things you might not know about Norfolk Island This one is particularly interesting

Discover Norfolk Island This site covers the island’s history as well as other aspects

Since July 2016 Norfolk Island has reverted to Australian control. There are reasons, as explained in this article, and there is no denying the island’s council asked for Australian help. But as usual, the Powers That Be in Canberra and Sydney (NI comes under NSW state control) have no idea how people live their lives outside the big cities. Poor little Norfolk Island has been swamped with rules and regulations, and decisions made for them without consultation. For example, since July 2016 all milk has to be pasteurised. Never mind the fact that the locals have managed to survive for 150 years on raw milk. So no more milking cows along the verges – it would cost far to much to set up a pasteurising plant. Milk is imported from New Zealand. If you want to buy the fresh stuff it was $9.20 per litre in the local supermarket. The long-life stuff is $2.30 a litre. So now the cows you see grazing by the roadside are all beef cattle.

Remember the feral chooks? Somebody in Australia decided they needed to be culled, so someone came over to NI to shoot them. Nobody discussed the issue with the locals. Some of them told us the chooks help keep down the insect population. Others collect eggs, and I suspect there’s a bit of local culling for the table. But never mind. A Decision had been made somewhere. Orders were dispatched. I wonder what they’ll do about the feral rosellas?

These are just two examples of how the New Order has impacted the lives of Norfolk Islanders. There are others. The locals have created their own political group to fight for their rights. As far as they’re concerned, Queen Victoria gave them Norfolk Island for their own. I don’t believe that’s entirely true, but I assure you, if I lived on Norfolk I’d join that group in a heartbeat.

The sign says ‘Hands up for democracy’. NI’s flag is at half mast.

If you get a chance to visit Norfolk Island, do. It was honestly one of the best, most jam-packed holidays I’ve ever had.

And as a last hurrah, another sunset.

Peter’s sunset shot. Used with permission.