Fire and 1080 and a Traditional NZ Deer Hunt
The weather in Christchurch was overcast and dull following a period of light easterly rain. I climbed onto my flaking corrugated iron roof and looked towards the mountains only to see what I didn't want to see. Grey, gloomy clouds. My pack was ready, my rifle freed from it long confinement and I was keyed for an expedition into the hills. But the weather was ambiguous, forcing me to reconsider whether I should undertake this trip. It would be easy to remain in my neat little suburban property and avoid any discomfort that the hills might bring. Glancing down over the fence, I could watch my neighbor sweeping his drive while his wife removed dead flower heads from several camelia bushes. I shouldn't mention to them that I was going hunting. Not politically correct in many Christchurch backyards.
Today more then ever, the pressures of city life keep hunting adventures out of one's regular schedule. For me, commitments and responsibilities are part of my partnership with a wonderful wife and three equally wonderful children. On this occasion I was disappointed that my son couldn't accompany me. What a responsible decision he had made at a time when school exams were approaching. I shouldn't have asked him to come in the first place. At 2.00 pm I collected my nephew. As the car crunched up his gravel drive, he appeared in his socks carrying a pack and gym shoes. Our greetings were cheery but brief. The prospect of at trip into the hills is always filled with dreamy anticipation. We drove across the Canterbury plains along straight roads through green spring pastures. The traffic density steadily reduced to a trickle of cars. Soon the foothills started to take shape below a cover of cloud. An hour's drive brought us to a popular picnic spot littered with vehicles as it was labor day weekend., Having hidden the car keys at the base of a lone beech tree, we set off. The track was dotted with small pools of water and up ahead the mountain tops were still smothered with heavy mist. Within minutes we passed a faded sign attached to a tree. This area had been poisoned with 1080 during the month of May. Our forest had been poisoned. Most hunters know that dogs are very vulnerable to 1080 poisoning and in certain conditions can die from eating carcasses weeks after an area is poisoned. More important to me are the other questions such as whether the poison can accumulate in wild meat and can humans accumulate that poison from eating contaminated wild game? What toll does 1080 have on our diminishing native bird populations?
The smell and noises on first entering the forest never fail to excite me but they also remind me that I am a foreigner and a temporary visitor to this backcountry world. After 10 minutes we dropped into a little creek that was home to many different native plants. But above was a forest dominated by one tree - the hardy black beech. Slowly we toiled up a ridge leaving behind the sound of the creek. A passing group of trampers asked 'What are you trying to catch?' as they looked uneasily at the rifles. There were a few wasps about. Probably some were queen wasps that had become active now the winter months were over and were setting about laying their eggs. In the summer these forest could be buzzing with the sound of wasps seeking out honeydew. My nephew is a fit young man but luckily he hadn't been doing his regular exercise. So he stayed back and walked and talked with me. Sweat traced the lines of my face and my back became soaked. I used discussions about plant and bird life as an excuse to stop and regain my breath. We noted that the spectacular clematis (clematis paniculata) was now in flower and that the beech trees were russet red with millions of tiny flowers.
Broadleaf is listed in many deer studies as an important part of the diet for NZ red deer. Along the edge of the track were patches of broadleaf seedlings but only occasionally did any of these plants appear to have been browsed. The local deer kept away from the track After about 500 feet of climbing, the beech forest opened onto a small scrub-covered clearing and half an hour late we finally reached a main ridge. Our objective was a distant skyline. At this stage I had exhausted my botany lessons so we talked about the great fire. In 1981 a farmer had been burning some tussock in a nearby valley. The famous Canterbury northwest wind had sprung up. The grassland burned out of control and threw embers into the air. Soon spirals of smoke twisted from several areas of the forest, and flames wrecked hundreds of acres of beech trees. Sometimes the fire leaped over south-facing forest and new fires began. I know that many farmers have by luck and good fortune inherited large tracks of land in New Zealand, which they quite rightly manage as businesses. But they have to be taught about the value of our forests like anyone else. Three hours of hard walking-mostly uphill-brought us to a point where we left the walking track and pushed through some bush to our campsite. It was now 6.00 pm and we were both soaked from the wet undergrowth. Mist continued to flow over the higher ground. In minutes we had a fly set up and a brew of tea ready. Plans of an evening stalk were shaping in my mind. Later with a brew on board we emerged onto a large open area covered in burnt tree stumps. The mist had thickened. Attempting to hunt in the mist at an altitude of 3000 feet would have been a waste of time, like looking for a moose in the Seaforth River. But in recent years my knees have begun to give me trouble so I wasn't eagerly anticipating a long downhill scramble. The silence was eerie and our visibility was reduced to 100 feet. Tree stumps loomed up as we slipped down scrubby slopes.
Finally after escaping from the cool mist we were able to look for game. My intent was a stalk of the forest margins just above the valley floor. Various small leaved coprosma species have invaded the wetter areas of these burns and are attractive place for deer. From a good viewpoint we glassed across half a mile of countryside. At about 7.30 pm my binoculars located an animal moving out of the forest cover. My nephew had never watched an undisturbed deer for any length of time. Every few minutes this deer lifted its head. At 300 yards I knew we hadn't been spotted. Nonetheless, deer often demonstrate that they are capable of seeing and evaluating movement at great distances. In the poor light of that evening only the characteristic white rump of the deer was visible to the naked eye. Red deer seem to like browsing moist spring growth and emerge more enthusiastically into the open country on damp dark evenings. But importantly, mist also excludes the activities of the commercial helicopter meat hunters. The heart-breaking 'whop whop' of helicopter blades flashing unexpectedly from behind a ridge is like the roar of speedboat approaching a high country fly fisherman. A helicopter hovering over your patch of hard-earned back country can wreck hunting trip.
The evidence in New Zealand is that helicopters are far more effective than foot hunters at controlling red deer numbers in most backcountry areas. If helicopter use is needed to manage wild game animals then hunters should accept their contribution to long-term game management. But what the outdoor recreational hunters should demand are restrictions on the timing of aerial shooting so that helicopter hunting and shooting activities don't clash. As our spiker moved higher out of the forest we decided to try and stalk it from below. We needed to reach the animal before darkness set in. I shared some questions with my nephew about this deer. How many hunters had it encountered? How many times had it evaded those effective gun ships? From the way that this deer regularly raised its head and looked around, we guessed that it had already learned about man. With extreme caution we climbed over fallen logs, though rigid manuka and wriggled past clinging bush lawyer. Suddenly there was a deep grunting noise. Our deer had heard us. It couldn't have smelled us. I squinted through the gloom. Another loud grunting noise but then quiet. Night was closing in. Desperately I coughed a poor imitation and incredibly the deer answered. The grunting came again. In frustration I peered through the riflescope. That animal must be out there in front of me, less than 100 yards away. After a couple of minutes of silence I breached the wall of saplings but the animal had vanished.
Now we had to toil 1000 feet back to the campsite. Our torch beams were soaked up by dense mist and the cautious return trip took until 11.00 pm. With great care and a large candle I started a fire. The twigs crackled and hissed as the fire finally came to life. We stood dodging clouds of smoke, reviewing our efforts. Under the fly that night, damp in my sleeping bag, I wondered what the next morning would bring. My nephew was in good spirits and the thought of an early start didn't appear to deter him in the slightest. Good lad, I thought. At 5.00 am after a comfortable but broken night, I heard the piping of a flock of silver eyes. A couple of bellbirds chimed in the distance clearing their throats before echoing each other with pure sounds. But apart form these songs there wasn't much happening. 'There are lots of stars up there' came from my optimistic nephew. This was true but the thought of pushing through wet bush for half an hour to reach a favored hunting ground didn't appeal. At 5.30am, with torches, we broke out of the bush and headed towards a dawning sky. At 3000 feet we looked east towards Christchurch over a dense layer of white cloud and a strip of bright orange sky. I pulled the brim of my hat down. The light from the horizon shone through a sea of droplets on the grassy ridge. Engrossed in our own thoughts, we picked our way along what felt like the top of the world. Forty-five minutes later the ridge started to descend. Our aim was to catch any deer that might be tempted to linger in the open after dawn In the difficult light we failed to notice a deer that had been watching us less than 50 yards away. I glimpsed its agile figure moving off across the hillside. At the risk of tripping we clambered quickly in pursuit while I mumbled about back luck and incompetence. The rocky ground and wet grass made it difficult to move safely. A few minutes later and panting heavily I slumped to the ground to look over the country that lay ahead. About 100 yards away on a steep slope a hind was walking upwards, looking at the deer we had already disturbed. It was wary, with head raised nervously as it moved easily up the rough slope. I steadied myself trying to control my breathing. In a good sitting position, I quickly located the animal through the scope and waited in vain for it to stop.
The close lens was rapidly steaming up from my breath. At that distance, on that cold hill in the early morning with a moving target, I knew that I would miss. The deer slowed and I squeezed the trigger. The magical morning, with the mist in the valleys, and the orange horizon was smashed by the deafening crash of the rifle. The deer fell instantly, rolling over and over. The shot reverberated in my head. With the valley spread in front of us, we sat waiting, expecting to spot more deer on the move. Nothing stirred. The giant expanses lay quiet. Suddenly I could hear my nephew's breath on the morning air. A pair of paradise ducks honked and squawked their way through the morning, wings flashing white. I thought of the farmer and the burning of the forest. Of the experience this morning with my companion. Maybe could forgive the farmer and his arrogant mistake.
The hind was thin. A cold dry winter had left it lean and fat free. Not a whisker of fat. My hands warmed in its stomach cavity and the insides tumble out. Her slinky was dead. I never feel good about the slinky. My nephew was smiling. He had experienced the traditional New Zealand red deer hunt and he had enjoyed the experience.
For young New Zealanders, hunting red deer on public land has become a largely unrewarding pastime. The necessary skills to be successful have been maintained by my generation but today's teenagers find it more difficult to learn these skills. Farmers are increasingly tying up their land for commercial hunting operations and it is harder finding easy animals on DOC estate. When I see a boy on the hill with dirty fingernails, tousled hair and a rifle in his hand I know that he has managed to escape the grip of computer war games, for a while anyway. The meaning of the saying 'You'll learn no harm form the hills' remains true today.
We slogged up onto a high point where the early sun felt like a giant heater. We boned out the meat into plastic bags. Dark-red meat. My nephew was thinking about that dark-red meat. What if this animal had eaten a sub-lethal dose of 1080-would some of that poison remain? There on the ridge at 3000 feet in the heat of the sun at 7.15 am, we were thinking that maybe this remote animal was carrying a residue in its tissues.. And now with the meat in the freezer at home, I still think about the farmer and his arrogance and the poison. But those thoughts aside, the adventure will stay with my nephew and me for a long time.
For more information e-mail Steuart of NZ Hunting Info Ltd