Chamois Hunting NZ 2005
A Guide for the Fit young Novice
This article is for the person wanting to hunt chamois in the mountains east of the Main Divide. On public land in these areas it is probably easier for a fit inexperienced hunter to shoot chamois than deer. In the drier South Island beech forests where wild animal densities are often low, shooting a red deer can be a challenge. As a teenager I had shot quite a number of chamois before I got my first deer.
In order to maximize your chances of getting an animal you need two key items of equipment. One is a rifle that is properly sighted in. You should be able to confidently shoot a 20cm by 20 cm square from a prone position at 200 meters. Any cartridge from the .222 upwards will do. The other essential item is binoculars. Chamois if undisturbed in the summer and autumn months will spend much of their time at or above timberline. Consequently if there are chamois about, you have the opportunity to spot them even if they are running away. The simplest strategy is to climb high and then move around basins and ridges trying to spot chamois. The upper limit of beech forests is around 1400m. So to be in a position to scan suitable country you will need to be between about 1400m and 1800m. Assuming, that you don't have the inclination or gear for hunting in snow and ice, the best months are between November and the first big snow falls. In recent years the big snowfalls have not occurred until June or July.
Firstly find an area that is home to chamois by talking to DOC staff, NZDA members and hunters you know. Chamois distribution maps show that they are widespread between N.W. Nelson and northern Fiordland. However they are often locally absent so random selection of an area is not a good idea. For example chamois are scattered throughout Arthur's Pass National Park. Yet within this park there are valleys with few or no animals. Often Chamois don't inhabit what would appear to be suitable terrain. In recent years I have visited several new areas that appeared to be good chamois habitat. My son who accompanied me on these trips was unimpressed when we had to satisfy ourselves with the scenery only. A confounding factor can be the activities of trampers and climbers. Trampers are gregarious and noisy so it makes sense to avoid the commonly used mountain passes and cols. A typical hunting trip might be as follows. From the valley floor you have picked a route up to and down from some tops known to have chamois. Ridges are usually (but not always) the best ways to travel to and from the tops. A round trip makes sense because you will cover more country. You can climb up a ridge, move around above the bush line and then return to the valley via another ridge.
Check a contour map because this will show whether there is steep country that cannot be seen from below. It is very important to have and be able to read a contour map. These are available from DOC offices and some bookstores at about $13.00 each. There is a web site www.nztopoonline.linz.govt.nz/ from which you can print contour maps. Also you can purchase a CD of NZ contour maps. Anyone hunting or climbing on the tops in NZ needs appropriate clothing and equipment. So make sure you are equipped properly. (This article focuses on key information about chamois and not gear) There are some definite no nos regarding navigation. Keep out of mist because even experts get lost in the mist. Try not to come off the tops blind. This means you must to select a good route from the tops to the riverbed either using a map or by sighting the route first. Climbing upwards is relatively easy but navigating downhill can be much harder. If you are tired, especially at the end of the day, you will be more likely to take risks if your route is blocked by bluffs or waterfalls.
You need to start the hunt early so that you can climb above the bush line before the sun gets too high in the sky. Both the scientific and general hunting literature stress that chamois are active in the early morning but tend to rest up in the middle of the day. If you can climb high when the animals are active they will be easier to spot. Chamois when feeding move around in search of food and also as a result of social interactions. Young animals, for example, sometimes chase each other in play. A group of chamois that were very visible first thing in the morning may be bedded down by 10.00 or 11.00 am. It is harder spotting animals that are prone amid vegetation or in shadowy areas. At such times the more experienced hunter is more likely to be successful because he knows where to look. The chamois' most effective defense mechanism is its sharp eyesight. Therefore a hunter needs to keep as inconspicuous as is possible. This means keeping below the skyline during ridge traverses. You need to thoroughly check basins before starting to cross them. Recently I was in a situation where a chamois demonstrated that it instantaneously saw my mate from more than 500 meters. I was watching the animal through binoculars and the moment that my companion moved into view the chamois turned its head. Several seconds later the chamois stood up and moved onto a knob for a better look. At this distance the chamois was barely visible to the naked eye. A chamois starts to look very small at 250 meters hence the need to be confident shooting up to that distance. Success at greater ranges should be considered a bonus. If you are above chamois, the chances of them spotting you are reduced. While they are acutely sensitive to what goes on below they don't seem to have the same awareness of higher terrain. When moving down on chamois from above you still need to be very careful but the likelihood that they will see you is less. Another advantage of climbing high on a sunny day is the fact that uphill wind currents will often override the prevailing wind direction. For example, take the situation where there is a westerly blowing over the ridge in front of you. It won't matter which side of the ridge you choose to hunt. Providing the day is warm the wind currents on both sides of the ridge will be in an uphill direction. This daytime air movement will reliably keep your scent away from chamois. But it will also smother the noises you might make crossing shingle slides or scrubby ridges. Therefore if you are high on the mountains on a sunny day you are in a position that reduces the ability of chamois to hear or scent you.
In contrast, while red deer hunting, it is often difficult to be sure that the wind is in your favour. On valley floors and in the bush the wind can swirl and eddy. Often in the bush it is difficult to keep quiet and many times you only see a deer at the same instance it sees you. When deer hunting, knowledge of the plants they favour will increase your chances of success. But this is not so much the case with chamois because they eat a much wider range of plants. Much of your time on the tops should be spent glassing. The older and more experienced the hunter, the more time they will spend glassing. If you are hunting above the bush line you will often be in a situation such that you can look across a wide expanse of basins, ridges and bluff systems. You need to know where to spend the most time glassing. Two major considerations are the steepness of the terrain and the vegetative cover. The areas to focus on would firstly be vegetated. You should be able to scan and quickly eliminate large areas of shingle and those bluffs that are devoid of plants. Chamois like to be near steep country even if they are not actually on it because it provides a form of security. Gentle slopes on ridges or basins are not so favored even if they are well vegetated. When danger threatens chamois will often run through bluffs and ravines. Typically favoured terrain would be steep hillsides dissected with small gulleys and ridges. Often this set of topographical features will be in the headwaters of a creek draining a basin. But you can also find them along the sides of 'u' shaped valleys. If these ridges are covered with the reddish brown dracophyllum scrub then this is likely to be chamois country. Dracophyllum (turpentine scrub) is not on their list of favoured foods but if there were any area that I would be drawn to, it would be the characteristically coloured steeper ridges that are home to this plant. It is the other plant communities in proximity to turpentine scrub that are attractive to chamois. Water seepage areas between ridges enhance chamois habitat. The herbaceous plants and grasses growing in these wetter areas provide a variety of feed.
What do they look like? Chamois change considerably in colouring with the seasons. In summer look for a fawny colour which darkens to brown from about April onwards. In winter the coat is mostly black. Remember that colours are affected by light conditions and background. At close quarters the thick black facial stripe is very distinctive. The head may well be what you see first. A buck stands up to 85 mc at the shoulder so you are looking for a comparatively small animal. Try and gauge the size of bushes and tussocks within your field of view so that you have a realistic estimate of size. This means for example that if you can identify an individual tussock plant through your glasses then you can probably identify a chamois.
As a generalization, if it moves and is above the bush line it is likely to be a chamois. Sometimes a hare will make your heart race and there is the odd pig rooting around high up on the ranges away from the main divide. You'll quickly recognize a red deer. Tahr, fallow and wild sheep are other possibilities but their ranges are much more restricted. During fine spells of weather chamois may be found at altitudes above 1700m feet. You might wonder why they are up where the vegetation is very sparse. Commonly they will be in bluffs systems or near the crests of rocky ridges. One theory is that chamois overheat and it is more comfortable for them at these higher levels. Certainly, during fine periods they tend to move around and spend time on this higher ground. They can climb effortlessly and getting up there is not the same physical challenge that it is for us. Just watch a frightened chamois climb up a 300m shingle slide in minutes. Therefore you may encounter chamois over a wide altitudinal range with mothers and kids at or below bush line and other groups of animals much higher up. If you are initially unsuccessful when scanning don't give up. Chamois can appear from anywhere at any time. They have a habit of breaking all the rules. For example you might have been glassing what you thought were good sites when all of a sudden a chamois stands up. It had been lying down in the middle of a large barren unstable shingle slide. At the extreme end of unpredictability is the situation where you are setting off in the morning across the river flats and you see a fleeting figure. It is a chamois.
Once you have spotted a group of chamois you can plan your stalk. Assuming you approach from at least the same level or above, then you are have a good chance of being successful. But beware of the animal that takes on the role of lookout. This animal is usually an older female and she will often to be positioned above or otherwise slightly apart from the rest of the group. If you approach from higher up you may encounter her first. Take every effort you can to be successful with your first shot. You may not get another good chance because chamois once disturbed are unpredictable. Chamois, if they have not detected the source of danger can run anywhere including in your direction. Bucks outside the rut (April/May) are often solitary but a good rule is to remain hidden after shooting what seemed to be a lone animal. Just rest up and enjoy the scenery. There maybe other animals about. While chamois mostly live in the open they can also be encountered below the bush line. Commonly they will be around grassy slips that extend down into the bush or along the edges of streams especially those with scrubby strips along their margins. Mothers with young will often hang about the edge of the forest using it as cover when their kids are small. The mean kidding date in New Zealand is November the 24th (Caughley 1971), so from this date through December and January it is not unusual to encounter a mother and her kid at or near the bush line.
Chamois when disturbed usually make a warning sound that is a mixture of a hiss and a whistle. This may be the first sign you get of their presence but unfortunately they will be on the move or ready to move. On a couple of occasions I have disturbed chamois that have whistled and then settled down. Usually this happens if only one animal has seen you but it will take a long time for that animal to relax. It may be anything up to an hour. Mothers and kids communicate with soft vocalizations. If you are close enough to hear these then you are probably already an expert. While I have described one broad hunting technique for chamois there are other valid approaches. For example, if you know there are chamois in a bluff system or in a valley head it is possible to hunt these successfully from below, especially in the early morning. By climbing before the sun rises, the wind will still be tending down hill. Even if the chamois see you first, they won't have scented you and you may well get an opportunity for a shot. This article omits discussions about hunting in several important areas of the South Island including Westland and the Kaikouras. On the West Coast of the South Island especially between the Kangarua River and the Wanganui River many chamois live in the bush. Some permanent populations exist in the bush at very low altitudes. There are also areas along the Kaikouras where chamois can be found at lower altitudes and where there is very little forest cover.
Below I have compiled a list of New Zealand books that have a section or chapter devoted to descriptions of chamois, their behaviour and favoured habitats. Of these books, Saxton & Lentle stands out as the choice for comprehensive information. These authors have read the scientific research literature on chamois and combined this with their experience. Gordon Roberts provides a great set of pictures in 'Game Animals of NZ'.
|Thane Riney||1955||'Identification of Big Game Animals in NZ'|
|Rex Forester/Neil Illingworth||1967||'Hunting in NZ'|
|J.H. Johns & R.J.MacGibbon||1970||'Wild Animals in NZ'|
|Gary Joll||1968||'Big Game Hunting In NZ'|
|L.H. Harris||1973||'A Hunting Guide'|
|Rex Forester||1980||'True Hunting Adventures'|
|Graeme Marshall||1987||'The Young Hunter'|
|Philip Holden||1987||'A Guide to Hunting in NZ'|
|Lentle & Saxton||1994||'Alpine Hunting.|
|Gordon Roberts||1997||'Game Animals of NZ'|
|Hans Willems||2003||'Hunting Smarter'|
Afterword. Not much research literature exists on the behaviour of chamois in New Zealand. There is therefore a great opportunity for regular chamois hunters to make original observations on this animal especially now that chamois are no longer being harassed by helicopters.
© Copyright Steuart Laing 2005
For more information e-mail Steuart of NZ Hunting Info Ltd