Derek Grzelewski


Game of two halves

Written by       Photographed by Dave Osmers

Like trout and salmon, the red deer was a diversion exclu­sive to the nobility until, transplanted to New Zealand, it prospered beyond all expectations, becoming everyman’s quarry. Since then, no other animal has stirred so much local passion and controversy. Considered both godsend and vermin, it has been worshipped and vilified, protected and slaughtered. Its presence has given rise to huts and hunt­ers, caused a few Kiwis to become the best aviators in the world, and brought about an unexpected diversification in farming. As our regard for the red deer has oscillated, so its fortunes have swung from one extreme to the other. Today, we have still to make up our minds about this beautiful animal.

[Chapter Break]

The saga began with a feast. Under a peach tree, in the garden of our Lake Hawea home, a table was set, the silver cutlery glinting with purpose. I’d shredded an Italian salad mix onto the plates, propped it with sun-dried tomatoes, black and green olives, cubes of salty feta and Whitestone Brie, and imbued the lot with avocado oil and dried wild thyme. As a follower of Slow Food—the global counter-current to the deluge of fast food and all it represents—I take time and care preparing meals, always hoping for a little alchemy to occur, a little sensory magic, such that the taste tran­scends the sum of the ingredients.

I’d been elaborate with the sauce, too, marinating three handfuls of prunes and figs overnight in brandy, then simmering them in red wine with a cinnamon stick and raw honey, and thickening the result with stone-ground flour. I’d allowed a bottle of shiraz to breath the early-summer Otago air, well away from the coal-fired barbecue, which also was quietly warming up for business. When all was ready, our visitor produced a bowl brimming with cubed venison, and he tossed its con­tent on to the gridiron amid much sizzle and smoke. The fire worked its transformation. Moments later we ate.

This fine hut was used as a base by meat hunters up the Arawata River, in the remote Ten Hour Gorge area. Deer velvet was sometimes recovered from wild deer as early as the 1960s but quality tended to be poor. Once deer were flushed into the open by helicopters, they were easy targets.

Sure, I’d had venison before, but I’d only ever considered its taste, not wondering about its source or the effort that went into obtaining it. This time it was going to be different, which is how a seemingly ordi­nary dinner turned into a life-changing communion, an awakening to a new dimension of possibilities.

This venison came with its own story, and we heard it while we ate. It was of a man tramping up a mountain valley for several hours, then spending a cold, uncomfortable night among the ferns on the edge of a forest clearing. The man didn’t dare to light his gas cooker during the coldest predawn hours lest the fumes announce his presence. Instead, he rose stiffly but silently, slipped a live cartridge into his rifle, then crept stealthily along the bush edge. The deer—a spiker (or male yearling)—didn’t sense him coming, and the man, with his sniper’s eye, watched the animal feed for a long while before pulling the trigger, shooting the deer dead, cleanly, just behind the shoulder.

The killing marked a turning point in the story, the end of its first and easy act. Act Two had the man slinging a pulley in a tree, hoisting the carcass off the ground and removing all the meat he thought he could carry out. Since he believed the “carcass should rattle when the hunter has finished with it”, he had more than he could manage, but, detesting waste, he was determined to try anyway. Thus, although its recounting understated the fact, Act Three was the longest. It featured the man returning home, the con­tents of his backpack—nearly as heavy as himself—reluc­tant, it seemed, to leave the valley. There were swift rivers to be crossed using a manuka pole for stability, sidles above crumbling bluffs, and the plain step-by-step drudgery of negotiating a narrow overgrown trail. The entire journey felt like a long and excruciating penance for taking a life.

Yet the man had not taken life thoughtlessly or for so-called recreation. He knew the deal, thus he toiled stoically. He knew his story would have many good endings, as many as the number of dinners that could be gleaned from a fully-grown deer, which was a lot. During frequent rests, he thought of the generations of New Zealand hunters before him, particularly the professionals who’d shot deer to sell the meat and been required by veterinary and hygiene regulations to carry beasts out whole, hooves, antlers and all. That, he thought, made The Old Man and the Sea look like a doddle. A full day shouldering a 100+ kg deer through trackless bush and across gullies, scree slopes and rivers would quickly sieve out the wannabes. Face to face and skin to skin with his prey, the sweat of the one mixing with the blood of the other, a hunter truly got to know the hunted. He earned every cent he eventually got for his deer.

Such thoughts eased the man’s burden. They filled the time, shortened the distance. Still, it took him nearly six hours to get back to his car, another half day to divide the meat into appropriately sized portions, each in its own la­belled freezer bag. Now, dining merrily under the peach tree, we were living out one of the story’s many satisfying endings, but this, oddly enough, only left me feeling more hungry than before. The age-old urge of the hunter began to stir within me.

Retrieving carcasses from steep mountains—as here above Makarora—involved precision flying. Sometimes hunters travelled with their quarry, as Mau Bradley was doing here with a live stag. Up on the open tops, he would have wrapped it up before it was transported further.

In my efforts to live a rounded sample of human experi­ence I’d somehow missed that part, the hunter–provider going bush to feed his family. So far my provider’s instinct had manifested itself in the hunt for trophy magazine as­signments, the butchering of the resultant cheques, and the return home loaded with groceries and other consumables.Now I saw there was a way to shorten the food chain, to bypass the middleman, the bar codes and the price tags.

With the taste of venison still fresh in my memory, in short succession I acquired a firearms licence, a rifle and a stack of how-to books. Then, a sworn pacifist and decrier of arms, I found myself cat-footing through the forest, peer­ing through the cross hairs of a scope. Directing my gaze, in turn, down the historian’s scope, I uncovered another story, one of uncommon interest and complexity: the saga of New Zealand deer.

[Chapter Break]

To begin with, it came as a complete surprise that the adventure of my visitor and culinary compadre had taken place among the hills I saw every day above the shrubs that enclosed our garden. Not only were there wild deer all around us, but Lake Hawea was one of the locations where deer were introduced into the country, seeding what later become known as the Otago herd.

Like the release of trout and salmon, the introduction of deer was a concerted effort to anglicise a foreign land, to make it more like home by populating it with useful and familiar beasts. But though driven by the well-to-do gentlemen of leisure who presided over the numerous acclimatisa­tion societies, the liberation of deer brought about a libera­tion of another sort—a minor class revolution.

Written into the societies’ charters was an illustrious provision that, unlike in the motherland, where deer-hunt­ing was the preserve of aristocrats and poachers, in the new land “hunting and fishing [were] to be easily available to everyone regardless of wealth or status”. Nonetheless, at first, hunting was not allowed on Sundays, the only day the working class had to engage in leisure activities.

Animals were readily available from the game parks and estates where the English and Scottish nobility had kept and bred semi-wild deer for generations—exclusively for trophy heads on stags. Make what you will of head-hunting, this was the motivation for bringing deer to New Zealand. The first arrival was a red-deer stag from the Royal Park in Richmond, which was released in Nelson in April 1854. Three more red deer from Thorndon Hall arrived in 1861, and these were supplemented with animals from Warnham and Windsor Parks.

The animals were crated and fed on clover, hay and car­rots during the two-month ocean journey. A number died en route, but those that survived proved to be of sturdy stock indeed. Once the transportation procedures had been perfected, red deer were liberated in all the main forested areas between Auckland and Stewart Island, often with rapid success. For example, the first Lake Hawea release, in 1871—two stags and six hinds of wild Highland stock­ went so well that in 1913 Warnham Park imported six hinds from the region to beef up its own stock.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) spread rapidly, finding the country much to its liking. It colonised every available patch of habitat, particularly the inaccessible mountain val­leys, where it remained undisturbed for decades. A number of other species—there are some 60 worldwide—were also brought to New Zealand. In 1905, wapiti (C. canadensis), known as elk in North America, the largest of all round-horned deer, was introduced into George Sound, in Fiordland, by the New Zealand Tourist Department. Rusa deer (C. timoriensis), native to the islands of south-east Asia, was liberated in the Ikawhenua foothills, near Murupara, and sambar (C. unicolor), a large and cunning beast from India and Sri Lanka, was introduced to Manawatu in 1875. Other successful acclimatisations included the European fallow deer (Dama dama), the Japanese sika (C. nippon), around the central plateau, and the shy, elusive American whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which colonised Stewart Island.

While all these species established, none matched the tenacity and phenomenal adaptability of the red deer. With the abundance of winter feed in the evergreen forests, C. elaphus hinds could become pregnant as yearlings, at least a year earlier than in their native land. Within only a few decades of the species’ introduction, New Zealand stags began sporting much longer and more impressive ant­lers than their UK forefathers. For example, at the 1924 Wembley Exhibition, none of the 120 best British trophies exceeded 40 inches (102 cm) in length (a legendary bench­mark), while contemporary New Zealand records listed a one-year tally of 62 stags in the 40+ inch range. The first hunting licences were issued in Nelson in 1882, and by the 1930s New Zealand had become firmly established as the top deer-hunting destination in the world.

Yet, at the same time, it was becoming evident that trou­ble was afoot, that the deer were doing too well too quickly. The selective trophy hunters—still largely the visiting British upper class—noticed that the quality of the antlers was steadily deteriorating, while the local meat shooters reported seeing large herds of thin, emaciated deer. Even more disturbing was widespread damage to the forests. In large tracts of native bush the entire under-storey had gone, the forest floor stripped bare, while the canopy was a dry­ing carapace, a vestige of its former splendid self.

New Zealand’s forest trees evolved in the absence of large-hoofed animals, and their roots are often close to the surface. Once the protective cover of mosses, ferns and humus was disturbed, the roots were exposed and prone to damage from trampling, while every branch or shoot within reach offered good browsing. Under this assault the forest cover thinned and the land fell prey to erosion. Rain­fall gouged the steep mountainsides, deepening the gullies until they collapsed, washing the soil from the land, expos­ing the underlying rock-beds and scree slopes. The deer were leaving a nascent moonscape in their wake. And they were constantly on the move, searching for pastures new. Wildfires could not have wreaked more persistent damage.

In Canterbury and Otago, starving deer were coming out of the bush, encroaching on farmland, competing with stock for grazing. Mobs of hundreds were reported, the largest of 400 animals. In the early 1920s, Alan Perham, an employee of the State Forest Service, produced a report on the status of deer that estimated their number at 300,000 and increasing at the rate of 25 per cent a year. The cost of damage to stock, crops and farming infrastructure he put at £180,000 a year, against annual revenues from hunting tourism of £7000.

A few years later the situation had become a crisis and the noble beast had plummeted from grace. It was declared a pest, a menace and a plague. A price was put on its head.

In fact, the first red-deer bounty scheme had long been in place, having been established in 1906—again at Lake Hawea—to keep the Otago herd trim and strong. Between 1910 and 1920 some 15,000 deer had been culled, but this had had a negligible effect on the overall population. The gamekeepers realised that the situation was now completely out of control, and by 1930 they had lifted all protection from red deer, initiating wholesale culling, which quickly took the shape of a military operation.

In the ensuing 50-year Deer War, some two million ani­mals were shot and fortunes and legends made. An entire subculture was born, one that left the country with the leg­acy of an untold number of back-country huts, a scattering of seemingly impossible landing strips in the most remote valleys, and the iconic figure of the can-do Kiwi deer hunt­er. The last of these was a larger-than-life foot soldier in shorts, Swanny and perpetually wet boots, who was posted to live in the bush for months at a time to save the country from pestilence, and who openly admitted there was noth­ing else he’d rather do. It was the red deer, and the trouble it caused, that brought out the “good keen man” in many a New Zealander and ushered in what participants called the Last Great Adventure. Among Kiwi men, a nostalgic long­ing for those days has never really faded.

[Chapter Break]

After a job, eh son?”
“Yes sir.”
“Done any hunting before?”
“Too right! Been after goats and pigs in the Hunuas for years!”

After an examining pause… “We pay you seven-pounds­ten a week and ten bob a skin. We supply all the ammuni­tion, but if you use more than three rounds a kill, you pay for them. Anything else you want to know…”

[No sir, other than…where do I sign…]

Thus did legendary bushman Barry Crump, underage and under-qualified, lie his way into his dream job. So, too, began A Good Keen Man, his decidedly low-brow account of a deer culler’s life, a tale that both encapsulated and pre­served the quintessential, and often secret, dream of New Zealand men—to go bush with a .303 Long Tom and a dog, to cook on a camp fire and eat out of a sooty billy, to drink gumboot tea that smells of wood smoke, and to answer to no one but the call of the wild.

The problem with deer is that while they’re alive they move too fast, and once they’re dead, they have to be carried. Backs were, and still are, a popular mode of transport but Dave Osmers found a jet boat useful for bringing multiple carcasses down the Wilkin River to a vehicle access point.

The exploits of the deer cullers, their tallies, lifestyle and adventures, have long since become the staple of Kiwi bush lore, but often the legends were shy in the making. Author Jack Lasenby once recounted in a videotaped interview how, being a complete hunting greenhorn on the prowl on the open slopes above Lake Waikareiti, in today’s Te Urew­era National Park, he wasn’t entirely sure about the identity of his first target. He scoped the animal for 15 minutes, unable to decide if it was a deer or a Jersey heifer. After he’d finally fired a shot, he ran up to the downed animal, his heart in his mouth. “Christ,” he said, “I hope I haven’t shot a cow.”

Another Lasenby tale from the same time and place features Crumpy himself. Outside a hut, a hunter named Rex Newton was practising his Wild-West-style fast draw, with a pistol, when, on one attempt, he pulled the trigger before the weapon was fully out of its holster. The bullet blew off the toe of his boot, but, miraculously, his own toes were unscathed. In the stunned silence that ensued, only Crumpy retained an unruffled composure. He finished rolling a smoke, lit it, exhaled, then spoke: “Mighty fast on the trigger, Mr Newton, but a little slow on the draw.”

There were many government cullers before and after Crumpy who, like him, lied their way into the job, over­stating their age, bush experience and hunting abilities. As they recall it today, those were the innocent days, when you could make it up as you went along, when you didn’t need a building consent to put up a tent, when it was more the bush lawyer than the red tape that barred your way. The cullers valued a no-nonsense practicality and self-reliance, and those who stayed on became exceptionally skilled, hunting down thousands of deer, holding the fort against the environmental disaster the animals spelt.

The job was undeniably attractive: you were in the hills, free and your own boss, and paid to hunt. The money was good, too. In the 1940s, when the average weekly wage was around £6 ($12), Rex Forrester, a lifelong hunter and the prime chronicler of the era, recalled selling 50 deer skins—the result of one bush trip—and grossing himself and his partner £50 each. The culling season ran from the beginning of November to the end of May, and the men left the bush only to bring out skins and to replenish their sup­plies. The top guns regularly shot more than 1000 deer in a season.

As always, hunting and shooting were the easiest parts of the job. The skins, and later—when a market for wild venison was discovered in Germany—the meat, had to be carried out to the road, in the early days on a man’s back or a pack horse, later with the aid of any capable contrap­tion. Trolleys, buggies and jet-boats were all used to ease and speed up the transport of deer carcasses; tractors were disassembled, flown up into remote valleys like the Upper Wilkin and Siberia, and put together again. Aircraft were used initially to parachute supplies, but hunters soon real­ised that, with a degree of skill and even more daring, they could be used to carry out the deer as well. Several men promptly obtained pilots’ licences and bought their own aeroplanes.

One of these was Alan Duncan, a member of Crumpy’s bunch in the Ureweras and considered—if such distinc­tion can be awarded—the best hunter New Zealand has produced. He bought a Piper Super Cub, then went round the aero club to find someone who could show him how to fly it. Before long, Dunc—as he was known—flew the Cub to his Makarora home, on the edge of Mount Aspiring Na­tional Park, and began to put the machine through its pac­es, finding its absolute limits, then backing off just a little. Over the years he constructed some 21 airstrips, many of which would give today’s Civil Aviation Authority officials a cold sweat and palpitations. “They were one-way strips,” he commented matter of factly. “Once you committed you had to land, or you pranged the plane.”

Though there seemed to be no end to the hunters’ in­genuity, courage and perseverance, there was also no end to the deer. In 1932, 11,300 animals were shot; in 1940 the figure reached 41,000; by 1956 it stood at 91,000. Official records state that, in the decade 1945–55, 266,719 deer were taken out by the cullers, another 25,474 by the Forest Service, and an estimated 3000 animals a year by private hunters. Yet even with such valiant efforts (the record tally for one man on foot in one day was 101 deer) the campaign was seen as a failure, for the ecological crisis caused by deer overpopulation showed little sign of easing. It was becom­ing evident that foot soldiers alone could not win the war.

The solution was already on the horizon, but it wouldn’t be fully implemented until the mid-1960s, when the Christchurch Press carried a telling advertisement: “Deer­stalkers—We want your deer and pay 13d per lb gross weight on all carcasses…” Before long, deer hunting would become a veritable gold rush.

[Chapter Break]

A good keen man spoke from one heart to another, and therein lies the book’s unfading popularity. The adventurous hunting spirit that haunts its pages, though no longer spurred by financial gain, is still alive and well. It has withdrawn from the limelight, however, since today’s sophisticated society, while still craving meat, pre­fers it in neatly packaged morsels from the supermarket or deli, and despises hunting as a barbarian blood sport. Still, it bears noting that there are some 468,000 firearms hold­ers in the country, most of whom do not frequent shoot­ing ranges. They own their shotguns and rifles for more practical reasons, such as hunting deer and living the life of Crumpy, if only for the odd weekend.

The hunters’ hut on the bush-line of the southern slopes of the Garvie Mountains, between Southland and Otago, could well have been a relic from the cullers’ days were it not for its uncommonly tidy appearance, courtesy of my host and guide, Gary Webb. When we arrived there one crisp June evening astride a farm quad bike, the hut and the creek it stood beside were thickly hoar-frosted, but before long a large open fire was roaring under a desk-size grate and the flames were licking a blackened billy suspended from one of numerous S-shaped hooks.

I’d met Webby one spring during a trout-fishing foray on a large Southland station, where he was working full time as a fencer, and we’d fallen into easy conversation. This had led to dinner at Webby’s that night, and he’d served venison back steaks, the best the land had to offer. Timidly I’d asked him if he’d show me how to hunt.

I saw him as a quintessential Kiwi hunter—sharp, ex­perienced and competent, and making no fuss about any of it. He’d got his firearms’ licence at about the same time he’d got his driving permit. His father, Kevyn, had been a deer culler in the Dart Valley in the 1960s, his brother had become a hunting guide, and Webby himself had always supplemented his income by selling wild venison and pos­suming, running trap lines after his regular day job. He’d also spent 14 years on crayfish boats around Stewart Island,hunting the shy whitetail deer during the off-season. He’d honed his skills to such a degree he’d turned to hunting with a bow, since, as he told me, shooting a deer with a rifle was no longer enough of a challenge.

It would prove plenty of a challenge for me, however. I already sported a Wetherby eyebrow, a greenhorn’s givea­way that you acquire when the eyepiece of your scope leaves a distinct purple mark on your forehead as a result of recoil. Still, Webby assured me there were lots of deer around. It shouldn’t be too difficult to bring one home.

The Garvie Mountains, dotted with megalithic rocky outcrops known as tors, and with golden tussocks soften­ing their gentle curves, are the classic Otago hills. Patches of beech forest that cling to the folds and creases of the land provide ideal habitat for red deer. The tops are less a range of rocky summits than a series of rolling plateaus covered with tundra-like vegetation and spongy peat bog. At that time of year this surface layer was frozen solid, and crunched underfoot like a carpet of Weetbix. Deer sign was plentiful: chewed-off stubs of Celmisia leaves, hazelnut-like droppings, countless hoof prints.

Early the following morning, with Webby’s black curly-coated retriever, Prue, roaming around us, we walked slowly along the bush margins, frequently pausing to glass the hillsides ahead.

Red deer were fringe dwellers, Webby explained in a hushed voice, only coming out into the open when they felt secure, usually at first light and then again at dusk. On the open hilltops around us, they often sought out high vantage points from which to survey their territories and watch for any approaching danger.

Indeed, I soon spied an enormous set of antlers sil­houetted against the skyline. Its owner was regarding his kingdom with an alert gaze. Below, a herd of hinds grazed contentedly.

“I’ve never managed to get close enough to that guy,” Webby admitted, his words both tinged with regret and carrying the hint of a promise.

A deer’s eyesight was on a par with ours, though more sensitive to movement than colour, Webby continued as we sneaked from one rock to the next, the soft downhill breeze always in our faces. Its nose and ears, however, were as good as a dog’s.

There were plenty of deer in sight, but despite our ut­most care and stealth we couldn’t quite get within shooting range, which in that country was something less than 300 m. We would see a herd of deer, agree on an approach route and a rock from which to shoot, then creep on our way, out of the animals’ sight and with a favourable wind. Yet each time we reached our prospective ambush position the deer had already moved on and were again just beyond firing range. It was as if they sensed us in some uncanny extrasen­sory way. And so our hunt continued.

With deer numbers dwindling and demand for venison high, hunters turned to live capture, with a view to farming the animals. “Bulldogging”—in which a hunter leaped onto the back of a fl eeing deer from a helicopter —was replaced by netting once net guns were perfected. Mortality among helicopters was very high.

Red-deer herds are matriarchal. They keep to territories of around 6 km2, while stags roam about as free agents, cov­ering 30 km2 or more. In spring, spikers are forced out of the herds—nature’s way of dispersing the population—and they straggle and blunder around, unsure what to do with themselves, sometimes mobbing up into “stag parties”. They are curious, goofy and inexperienced, and thus make easy prey. Consequently, hunters refer to spring as the silly season.

It was already late afternoon when Webby spotted a pair of ears in the sea of tussock. Just that—two ears more than 300 m away—yet an unmistakable sign that at least one deer was resting there. We crawled to the nearest rock, and I lay down to take aim. Webby whistled and the deer stood up abruptly to investigate the noise. The crosshair of my scope followed the inside outline of its foreleg and rested on the vital area of lungs and heart. I pulled the trigger.

An almighty BANG reverberated among the weathered rock, then faded, and the deer still stood there, looking in our direction with surprise. When it finally realised what had happened, it broke into a trot, and out of the tussock several other animals burst into view and followed it. It all took place in an instant, and Prue shot forward like a sec­ond round, ready to lock on to the scent should an animal have been wounded.

She returned 20 minutes later, tongue lolling, a puzzled, almost questioning, expression in her faithful eyes. No scent. No deer. I had missed, at about only 130 m. I vowed revenge against my own ineptitude. I would shoot the pupils out of countless bull’s-eye targets, blow the flames off candles, or whatever it was that hunters did to improve their marksmanship. I swore to return during the silly sea­son. At least I’d be faced with equally asinine quarry.

Webby was neither fazed nor disappointed. “It won’t have been the last time you’ll miss.” It was just the rookie’s rite of passage. There was more to hunting than shooting an animal, he said. Much more.

In gathering cold and darkness, we returned to the hut, taking a short cut through the forest, making use of the extensive network of deer trails. En route, Webby showed me a stag wallow: a muddy puddle the size of a garden pond that was the dominant stag’s idea of both a beauty parlour and a perfumery. During the annual roar, when the sexed-up males vie to attract harems of hinds, they hoof out the wallows, urinate into them and stomp the liquid into mud, in which they then roll, soaking and encrusting their fur with their own odour. Like a dog making its scent marks but on a more industrial scale.

The stags’ antlers are in full splendour at that time, their hormones at their peak, and the animals roar across val­ley and forest, a low, throaty thunder of a call so powerful you can feel it reverberate in your chest cavity. The roar is a hopeful advertisement of virility, meant both to attract hinds and to frighten off challengers. In human terms, it’s the equivalent of a Friday-night drive-by, with the V8 in low gear and high revs, and the boom box thumping on max. “Young bucks” of all species instinctively know that low frequencies penetrate further than high, increasing their broadcast range and improving the odds of success.

Overnight, a reprise of winter brought snow to low lev­els—genuine brass-monkey weather. No self-respecting deer would be out in such conditions, Webby concluded, and called a retreat. We drove back into a stinging souther­ly blizzard, getting the quad stuck up to its belly, dragging it free, slip-sliding down steep greasy hillsides, at every op­portunity slapping our hands to stave off the cold-induced numbness. Later that day, sitting in the warmth of Webby’s home, with hypothermia safely at bay but teeth still chat­tering, I began to understand why at my local shop venison was going for nearly $40 a kilo. Considering the effort in­volved in getting it there, it seemed a reasonable price.

[Chapter Break]

It was the rising price of venison and the discovery of new markets for meat and other deer products (velvet, internal organs and sinews), combined with new ways of hunting, that in the end won the war against deer and stopped the destruction the animals were causing. Sud­denly, the deer was no longer a pest but a valuable natural resource to be harvested. Across the country, deer hunting gathered so much momentum that within a few years it became a multimillion-dollar industry.

In 1963, Tim Wallis—best known today as the creator of the Warbirds Over Wanaka air pageant—and fellow entre­preneurs began experimenting with helicopters to recover deer in the Matukituki valley, near Mount Aspiring. The hunters were still on foot, shooting deer and bringing them into the open, but they no longer had to carry the animals out. A helicopter could do that, first with side racks, then, when this proved clumsy and inefficient, with cargo nets and strops. Within minutes tons of fresh venison could be down on the valley floor where the freezer trucks were waiting.

Wallis immediately knew he was on to a good thing; the rest was just details. He mortgaged himself up, bought a helicopter and promptly crashed it, writing the machine off. Undeterred, he asked the bank for another loan and soon had his second chopper. Time was precious because around the country other hunters were quick to catch on, and soon there were helicopter operations wherever there were deer in sufficient numbers. What followed was all-out war against C. elaphus, an animal massacre unprecedented in the history of the world and unlikely ever to be repeated.

It wasn’t long before the hunters realised it was much more economical to shoot directly from the helicopters than from on the ground; choppers thus became gunships, armed with semi-automatic weapons. Deer could now be hunted in previously inaccessible areas. They could be flushed out of the bush and mustered, then mowed down by the shooters, while empty shells pinged off the whirring rotors. This was no longer hunting, but wholesale slaughter.

The tallies of the era were phenomenal. By 1968, hunter Mike Bennett had shot 10,000 deer, while Jim Kane shot some 40,000 in four years. When, in 1967, Wallis went to hunt in Fiordland, he had his own aircraft carrier—the steamer Ranginui. Her masts and derricks had been re­moved to accommodate two helipads, and her interior had been converted into a giant freezer with a 600-carcass ca­pacity. Wallis’s team averaged 10 deer an hour. It took only three days of hunting to fill the ship.

Equally remarkable were the feats of the pilots. Working out of Taupo, pilot Joe Keeley had his helicopter booked for the routine 50-hour check every Monday morning, while Ranginui pilot Bill Black had to have his checked every three-and-a-half days. The machines were pushed to their limits and beyond. Red-lining—revving the engine into the red—while lifting off with a heavy load wasn’t uncommon. Smaller helicopters, such as the Hughes 300, had to be on the edge of a cliff to get airborne when laden. The pilot used the torque of the engine to lift the load, spiralling up, then dropping, the rotors often bending upwards. It was a controlled fall, a one-way trip, at the end of which the cargo net had to be released the instant it touched the ground or it could pull the machine to earth with it.

The boom peaked in 1973, when some 140,000 deer were shot and airlifted out, and the price of venison was over $1 a kilo. Just about anything that could fly was in the air, hunting. Wanaka mechanic Grant Cagney, the son of a gunsmith and back then growing up on the West Coast, recalls how he made a small fortune in pocket money load­ing ammunition for the helicopter hunters. “We earned enough to have motorbikes, fishing rods, rifles—all the toys we could dream of,” he says. “It was like a gold rush; it was hard to keep up with the demand.” In 1974 100 helicopters were competing with each other. Even in the most remote areas no deer was safe.

Red deer, wapiti and fallow have taken well to being farmed. This herd near Geraldine is being fed hay after a snowfall has covered the paddock

Inevitably, the deer rush took a heavy toll in both men and machines. Between 1976 and 1982, 208 helicopters crashed while hunting, killing 17 people and seriously injuring another 40. Seventy-two of those machines were totalled. Makarora hunter Dave Osmers wrote: “. . . New Zealand has by far the worst record of helicopter accidents in the world . . . of the last 20 ’copters imported into New Zealand, 16 have been completely written off in accidents. Insurance companies have paid out over eight times the amount of premiums paid in, and the rates are going up to 30–35 per cent . . .” Wallis’s operation lost nine helicopters in one year, and hunter Charlie Jelly commented that “if you walked away from a crash it was a good landing”.

By the end of 1969, venison exports were valued at $2 million; by 1982, they topped $37 million. New Zealand no longer had a deer problem, but the hunters did: market de­mand for venison was still high and they were running out of animals to shoot. All the easy deer were long gone and the survivors had grown cunning. Pursuit of a few deer was uneconomic given the prohibitive costs of running a heli­copter. And so our saga takes another unexpected turn.

The supply of wild venison was erratic at best, and deer entrepreneurs like Wallis were already looking for ways to smooth it out. Would it be possible to farm red deer, they wondered? This would give them complete control over their so-far unpredictable product. It would stabilise the in­dustry, allow close monitoring of product quality and pro­vide the luxury of always being able to fulfil the demands of the market. But would the animals tolerate captivity, accept food from human hands and breed as they did in the wild?

It turned out they would. In fact, after the initial shock of capture and release into enclosures, deer proved the most undemanding of stock animals. A good herd behind a high fence was better than money in the bank. In 1967 legisla­tion was passed allowing deer farming, and the first licence was granted in 1970.

You could hear the helicopter pilots revving their en­gines afresh, for the attention of airborne hunters now turned to live capture of deer with which to establish breeding farm stock. The demand was enormous: stories are still told of long lines of farm trucks awaiting the heli­copters, of farmers fighting to get first pick of the animals and paying $3–4000 for every stag and hind as they came out of the mountains.

But capturing live deer proved a tricky undertaking even for the most experienced hunting crews. The deer population had thinned out, and the survivors were wise to their aerial predators. At first, as his helicopter pursued deer like a bird of prey, a hunter would simply leap out of the machine onto back of a running animal and “bulldog” it to the ground. Jeff Carter, a veteran of this approach, once jumped, tackled and roped over 100 deer in three days of non-stop flying. “Rugby’s for sissies,” he com­mented afterwards.


Indeed, the injuries sustained by jumpers were frequent and often severe, as their quarry was invariably in full flight-or-fight mode and capture took place on steep, rocky mountainsides. A fully grown stag galloping for its life was so strong it could pull a Hughes 300 out of the air should the two be roped together too early in the chase. One Fiordland deer hunter, a veteran of the era, once told me that the average life expectancy of a deer jumper was two years. He himself survived seven years and considered it a minor miracle. Not surprisingly, from the onset of the new bonanza, hunters were keen to adopt methods of capture that were kinder on their bodies. Kiwi ingenuity was thus put to one of its most severe tests, as up and down the coun­try blokes tinkered in their sheds in search of technological alternatives to bulldogging.

In 1969, in the Kaimanawas, Goodwin McNutt was the first pilot to capture wild deer from a helicopter using a prototype box-net frame, which he dropped on top of a running animal. McNutt had the deer “in the bag” within 10 minutes of sighting it, but his contraption proved un­wieldy and of limited use. Other ideas were tried: lassoes, electric stunners, tranquilliser darts on poles and fired by rifle, but none of these was too successful either. Some heli­copter crews learnt the hard way that ropes and whirling rotors were not a safe combination.

Then, in early 1970s, the Page brothers of Takaka came up with a skid-mounted net gun. The idea was an instant hit, a seed of inspiration that quickly bore many fruit. A hand-held version, soon known as the Gotcha Gun, emerged from the Reefton workshop of Graham Jacobs and Ivan Wilson. It was, Wilson subsequently recounted, “a solution born of necessity”, a shotgun with its barrels split into a Y and which, on its first trial, blasted like a cannon and sent the net across the Inangahua River. The net gun underwent rapid evolution, as many crews secretly devel­oped new and improved versions. In its more refined state, it was made of two diverging .303 barrels under which was a sawn-off four-gallon kerosene tin containing three square metres of folded nylon net. The gun fired not bullets but barrel-loaded weights, which pulled the net out as they shot towards the animal, the mesh blanketing and entangling the deer.

The net gun packed a recoil so vicious it could take out a shooter’s teeth or dislocate his shoulder. Prototypes were often tested on “skidbiters”—the industry newcomers who were queuing up for jobs on the helicopter crews—the in­ventors duly noting, with a degree of delight, that the kick could throw a fully-grown man off his shooting platform. Field tests and actual use were less of a laughing matter, however, for helicopters fell to earth when nets caught on the skids or tangled in the rotors, or a gun was accidentally discharged inside the bubble. But the device, continually improved, revolutionised the capture of wild game. Like the jet-boat, it went on to become a classic New Zealand invention, and today is widely used by helicopter crews cap­turing the likes of moose, bison, caribou, elk and wolf.

The advantage of deer velvet—developing antlers are covered in a velvet-like material—is that it can be harvested every year without harm to the animal. Prices for the material, which is made from the whole developing antler, have exceeded $200 per kilo and 10 kg can be harvested from a large stag. Some two million deer are now on New Zealand farms and deer have typically been much more profitable than sheep or beef.

In New Zealand, the perfecting of the net gun and its widespread use marked the deerdevils’ last show. By 1976, there were 20,000 deer on some 90 farms around the coun­try. In 2000, there were 2.2 million deer on 1920 farms, generating an export revenue of $194.3 million. New Zea­land was credited with the creation of a new, highly profit­able domestic animal. Deer velvet alone—taken each year from developing antlers—has sold for up to $235 a kilo, making a 200-stag herd more profitable than 5000 sheep, and far less work on a much smaller farm.

At its most profitable, keeping deer in captivity has evolved into so-called trophy farming, a niche industry catering for a small and eccentric but decidedly affluent market. There are hunters who, perhaps lacking the skills, time or stamina to pursue deer in the wild (known as fair chase), still desire trophy heads and are prepared to pay handsomely to obtain them. Some farmers—usually owners of large high country stations—have been only too happy to oblige. Under controlled conditions, the stags of the best antler-yielding bloodlines are raised for four to eight years, then, when they’ve begun to sport trophy heads, released into large fenced hunting blocks, where the wealthy head­hunters can shoot them at leisure—say, between lunch and afternoon cocktails. The hunters know exactly what they’re getting since they’ve picked their trophy in an elegantly presented catalogue of heads and price tags.

Though die-hard Kiwi hunters frequently deride this shopping for trophies, every year some 35 New Zealand hunting operators and game estates join 3000–4000 outfit­ters from around the world hawking their wares to 30,000 visitors at the Safari Club International Hunters’ Conven­tion in Reno, Nevada, just one of several such events.

“The clientele is very upmarket, and they are hunters not browsers,” says Gerald Telford, a Wanaka guide who regu­larly markets in Reno. “They are there to buy hunts. It’s not if but where and who with.” Going “behind the wires”, he says, is a natural evolution of guided hunting.

“We’re essentially in the entertainment industry,” his wife and business partner, Sue, adds. “Clients want results and this is the only way we can guarantee them.” Overseas, all hunting is controlled, she says. Even in South Africa you can shoot hardly anything without a permit and paying a hefty fee. “All hunting is in game parks and it’s all behind wires. Sure, the place is so big you may never see the fences, but they are there nevertheless.”

Around the world, safari hunting is a huge industry, Gerald continues. For example, in South Africa it rates next to mining as a revenue source. “To a New Zealand deer farmer, a stag can fetch $350 at the works, while as a trophy it can be worth $5000–10,000.”

Little surprise that from Te Anau to Mt Cook and beyond, there’s hardly a high country station that isn’t in­volved in the game-estate business. The biggest red-deer trophy stag New Zealand has ever produced—a sure world record—is reputed to have been sold for over $200,000. Not a bad return for a few years’ supply of hay and carrots.

[Chapter Break]

Deer farming in its various forms has become a major economic success, and there we shall leave it, for as such it ceases to be part of our saga. With its establishment, much commercial incentive was taken out of controlling the numbers of animals in the wild. In 1997, according to DOC, there were 1.8 million deer on farms and 250,000 in the wild, only 50,000 fewer than Perham’s estimate in his 1920s report. It is as if the ani­mals are of two distinct kinds—one an asset, the other a pest and, yet again, an environmental threat. The fortunes of deer have come full circle, and we are once more faced with the unresolved issue of the place of wild deer in New Zealand.

At one extreme in the debate are purist environmental­ists, who see deer as ecological interlopers and advocate complete eradication, even if this requires the blanket bombing of forests with industrial-strength poison. At the other end of the spectrum, equally frustrated hunters de­clare that they would like to see deer granted New Zealand citizenship and given all the protection that implies—ex­cept from their guns. Meanwhile, the wild deer population continues to climb. According to DOC’s figures, the number of deer in Fiordland and the northern East Coast may be doubling every two years.

Is there a way out of this quandary, a solution that would allow forest lovers to fondle the unchewed shoots of native trees and ferns, and hunters to pursue meat and antlers? According to Rob Wilson of Wild Animal Management Ltd, the answer is really quite simple, although it requires a major attitude change.

While Rob Wilson of Wild Animal Management usually hunts deer to reduce numbers for Tb
While Rob Wilson of Wild Animal Management usually hunts deer to reduce numbers for Tb

At 38, Wilson is a new version of the good keen man­ passionate about hunting, astute in business, far-seeing in his vision. His is the classic “where you see problems I see opportunities” approach, and the success of his company suggests he is indeed on to something. I met him as he was preparing for a 10-day cull in Kahurangi National Park.

The modern-day deer culler is a professional who comes with his own truck, quad bike, dog and rifles and an as­sortment of hi-tech gadgetry. Among the last of these is an all-weather PDA (personal digital assistant) loaded with the most detailed topographic maps, which are Bluetoothed (connected wirelessly) with an ex-military GPS unit.

“The whole rig fits into your bum bag but allows you to hunt precisely even in country you have never been in before,” says Wilson. “Its accuracy has revolutionised our work.”

Wilson employs a dozen or so subcontractors around the country, all top men he has personally head-hunted.

They do a lot of possum monitoring and feral-goat control but are increasingly focusing on wild deer, their favourite. Today’s deer are not only more numerous but also more educated, Wilson explains. Having been hunted for genera­tions, some now control the instinct to flee that previously proved their undoing.

“I’ve seen a hind forcing a fawn down into the ground at the sound of a helicopter,” he says. “I’ve seen a stag drop­ping down too, keeping still and making its antlers look like dried-up sticks.” Which is why his wild-animal-control work relies heavily on indicator dogs, like his own Hungar­ian visla. “Our job is performance-based, and in the bush even the best hunter is only as good as his dog.”

All this, however, is just the detail of how the work is done. The big picture, as Wilson sees it, is that wild game in New Zealand is both under-valued and under-managed.

“When there was big money in deer, everyone wanted them; now the animals are undesirable. But they’re still here, and we finally have to acknowledge that they’re here to stay, and that they can be a resource, not just a pest. We need a legislative framework for managing deer nationwide, something d la Fish and Game, because so far there’s been a lot of talking and fist-shaking but little real communication and no common-good plan of action. As it is, we go from one crisis to another. The deer war is still happening, but now it goes on between people.”

Wilson’s solution is simple: there’s a growing global high-end market for wild venison; bottom-line calcula­tions show that to make helicopter venison-recovery vi­able again—the only sure way of keeping deer numbers in check—the venison price needs to be a minimum $4.50 a kilo gross; and free-range venison can net $5 a kilo after all expenses, including helicopters.

“We have all the necessary tools and experience to main­tain deer at levels sustainable both to the environment and the industry,” Wilson says. “The process can pay for itself, even produce a handsome profit.”

However, before this blissful scenario can unfold, one thing needs to be set straight, he says. We need to clean up our dirty little secret—the indiscriminate use of the pesti­cide 1080.

Here a South Canterybury taxidermist prepares heads from thar, chamois and red deer.
Here a South Canterybury taxidermist prepares heads from thar, chamois and red deer.

Though 1080 is used primarily to knock back the pos­sum population, it also has a profound impact on deer and the venison industry, says Wilson. In 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry recalled an entire shipment of wild venison about to be delivered in Germany when it transpired that the meat came from deer poached in an area where 1080 had been used. The meat tested negative, but the incident brought about a suspension of all feral-venison recovery and sent shudders through the New Zealand deer industry, including the farming sector. The economic re­percussions could have been disastrous.

“Our entire agricultural trade is largely based on the consumer’s perception of our products, regardless of whether this perception is based on facts or not,” explains Wilson. “No matter what the paid science says, or what the official spin on the issue, it all comes down to the consumer’s perception. We sell the clean green image, so how can a high-quality product from New Zealand—and venison is just about the most expensive meat you can buy—be re­motely suspected of containing a weapons-grade toxin that has been banned in most countries?”

Sodium monofluoroacetate (to use 1080’s chemical name) is a potent toxin with no known antidote that is espe­cially harmful to some mammals. New Zealand uses 80–90 per cent of the world’s production. While its proponents extol 1080 as a cost-effective and safe cure-all against the many unwanted critters that infest the country (besides possums these include wallabies, rabbits, rodents and mus­telids), the perception among hunters is different. Wilson’s contrary views on the use of 1080 have cost him work, but he has seen first-hand the effects of the poison on deer. He has shot a number of deer that have ingested 1080 to “put them out of their misery”, because they were staggering about in agony, their bodies contorted, their backs arched to the point of breaking.

“You could accept the use of 1080 in specific one-off cri­sis situations but never as a sustainable long-term solution,” he says. “In the consumer-oriented market, the continuous use of 1080 is a ticking time-bomb for all New Zealand agriculture.”

He believes that possums could be controlled without the use of 1080 by trapping, shooting and the application of other toxins such as cyanide and cholecalciferol, using ten­dered contracts for control work run in conjunction with a bounty scheme. He notes the demand for possum fur and that its price is rising again.

Deer mean different things to different people—pest species, noble quarry, a source of a aphrodisiacs and ingredients for tradditional Asian medicines, farm animal, money earner—but for many, a tasty dish of lean vension takes a lot of beating and the country earns $150-200 million a year from venison exports.
Deer mean different things to different people—pest species, noble quarry, a source of a aphrodisiacs and ingredients for tradditional Asian medicines, farm animal, money earner—but for many, a tasty dish of lean vension takes a lot of beating and the country earns $150-200 million a year from venison exports.

Other hunters I’ve met—and since my own deer saga began I’ve come to frequent forest valleys and back-country huts—have been equally unequivocal about the use of 1080. “We went hunting during the roar,” a burly bloke named Doug told me in the Blue River valley, “and only then did we find out that these clowns had done an aerial 1080 drop just prior. There were dead deer everywhere, a god-awful sight to see. You just felt like going into a blind rage. What a bloody waste that was!”

Wilson says that meat-hunting kept wild-deer numbers under control from the 1960s to the 2001 1080 scare, and can do so again—as long as we get rid of 1080.

So here we are, faced with the same problem as 80 years ago but this time with a choice. What will it be? Sustain­able management or an endless war, with farming a possible casualty? It seems unlikely we can ever exterminate wild deer, so why not find a way to benefit from them? I, for one, have grown grateful for their presence, even if my local butcher may lament the loss of a regular customer.

As for the next instalment of the deer saga, I’m already excited about it, for I’m sure the spirit of the good keen man will rise again and prevail in the coming time of need. Do you see the irony? In other countries, wild deer are prized. By their standards we are a fortunate and prosperous nation. People like Rob Wilson already see that, but it’ll take time for the rest of us to catch up. Whether we like it or not, the Last Great Adventure is far from finished.

More by

More by Dave Osmers