Early in the 20th century the demand for Kentia Palm seed was growing at a fast pace. Buyers for the seed were from Australia, England, France, Belgium and North America. The Board of Control on Lord Howe were shipping seed quantities which exceeded many millions of Kentia Palm seed annually.
Then a couple of factors damaged the palm seed industry just as the demand for seed was peaking. The first of these was the outbreak of World War 1 which disrupted the European market. The second factor was the grounding of the Burns Philp ship “Makambo” off Ned’s Beach in 1918, which released a rat plague on the Island. As a consequence, palm seed harvests started to decline considerably.
Rats love Kentia Palm seed. They nibble though the seed to get to the “embryo”. Mature Kentia Palm trees normally have three years of seed development on them. The mature seed hangs down the lowest, the next years crop is above that, and then the third years crop is appearing out of the top of the tree. The rats are able to chew all the first and second year seed so that in fact two years of picking has been eliminated. Viable and mature seed from that tree is three years away if the rats don’t get to that once the flowers turn to seed.
In order to combat the rats a bounty of 1d per rat tail was introduced in 1920. All islanders were expected to give one day per fortnight hunting rats with dogs, traps and light shotguns. In 1928, owls were introduced to try and reduce the rat population, but without great effect. More effective control had to wait until after the second World War when poison baits were introduced.
To illustrate how rats can decimate a palm seed industry, here are some seed export figures from Lord Howe Island from 1919 through to 1927.
From those figures it does show that the hunting by the islanders did pay off, as export figures for 1927 had begun to show a significant increase.
First photo shows the third years crop forming and the rats ignore these small flowering seed as embryos haven’t yet developed. Second photo shows seed after two years on the tree, and the third photo shows the third year’s crop ready for picking.
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