OUR WILD DEER HERDS A Peep into the Crystal Ball.
Who knows whether the statistics on wild deer in New Zealand are lies, damn lies or true? Either way, you will repeatedly see the same stats being quoted from a limited number of sources as follows. In the late 1980s it was calculated there were about two hundred and fifty thousand wild deer in New Zealand (Nugent & Fraser 1993), the majority being red deer. Since then no new deer population estimates have been published. Recreational hunters consistently have the biggest impact on the national herd with their annual harvest of about fifty thousand deer. (Nugent et al 1992b) Up until 2004, between ten and thirty thousand deer were taken each year by the venison recovery industry. Of the above figures only that for the commercial venison recovery industry is accurate. The others are educated guesses. What is indisputable, however, is that the numbers of wild deer in New Zealand are going to increase in the short term. This is primarily because helicopters are no longer removing tens of thousands of deer every year from the high country. Helicopters have had several effects on wild deer populations in New Zealand. They have impacted numbers, they have impacted behaviour, they have impacted age structure (Lentle et al.: Deer Hunting Tallies) and they have influenced the distribution of deer. (L. Burrows unpub.) Today, in the absence of helicopter hunting many changes will occur including the following. Deer numbers will increase, deer won't be so sensitive to the sound of low flying aircraft, the average age of stags will increase and deer will frequent the grasslands above timberline. OUR WILD DEER HERDS For the last thirty years deer have tended to avoid the sub-alpine grass lands because helicopter hunters operated in this zone. Today recreational hunting of deer in the open tussock is a reality, even though their appearance on the tops has been slower than many of us expected. Changes in deer behaviour are already being reported by hunters. I have seen the signs myself. Recently when hunting chamois in Arthur's Pass National Park, I saw deer acting as if helicopters are no longer a threat. We were in a huge head basin early in the early morning scanning the slopes for game. The light was still poor and there was a slight breeze wafting down the valley. The eye was naturally drawn to a strip of sparse tussock. There were no other large vegetation masses in the upper valley. Somehow this island of plants had survived in a harsh world of mobile stones and rocks. Close to the top of the tussock strip, through my blurred vision I saw two chamois. 'There's two chamois at the top of that tussock strip'. My companion quickly swung his glasses around. 'Those are deer, and they are in big trouble', came his reply. This was the first time in years that I had seen deer so high above and distant from the bush line. The spectre of helicopters ruining recreational hunting has been with us for 35 years. For most of us, if we didn't see a helicopter on a hunting trip we were often confronted by piles of gut bags and deer hocks. Peter Harker in his book 'Harker Hunts the Coast' relates the following story: OUR WILD DEER HERDS 'I'headed up towards the open slip where my pair of deer were feeding. I had almost made it when I saw the chopper through the trees, and while it was still some distance away the noise would have set my deer off. Nonetheless I raced on to the slip as the chopper roared overhead. The pitch of the motor changed to a more throaty sound as it banked sharply and circled back over the tree tops. The deer had been spotted, and the chase was on. I watched from the edge of the slip as the chopper buzzed the treetops, with the shooter standing almost on the skid. The siren started to scream, and the deer burst from the bush in a frantic and useless dash for their lives. There were four shots and both fell before they had made 100 metres. It was a waste of time doing the rest of the flats so I wandered back annoyed and frustrated.' Dave McClunie expressed his feelings in more general terms when he moved to the West Coast: 'For me and a lot of other hunters, helicopter hunting was a completely demoralising thing. Every day we'd see these choppers flying round with loads of deer, and it was terrible.' ('Hunting with the Best') The current lull in commercial helicopter hunting was triggered when in March 2002, the police initiated prosecutions relating to illegal hunting of feral deer. MAF then recalled a shipment of venison to test for possible poison residues. A moratorium on venison recovery followed and in July 2004, the NZFSA (Food Safety Authority) imposed new regulations for venison recovery operations. In the mean time, a drop in venison prices has resulted in an almost complete lack of activity by helicopters. OUR WILD DEER HERDS The new FSA rules were set primarily to avoid the danger of export venison being contaminated with poison residues. This tightening of standards brings to mind the early days of venison recovery when regulations were at the other end of the spectrum ' incredibly lax. Venison might reach the chiller on the day it was shot or conversely more than a week later. Mike Bennett's classic book 'The Venison Hunters' has a photograph of some deer carcases hanging in a makeshift shelter. The caption reads: 'Dry, well-hung carcases would keep for well over a week if the weather was not too muggy'. Contrast this with the new 2004 NZ FSA requirement: 'For large animals, the specifications require carcases to be subject to chilling within 10 hours of killing and to arrive at the processing premises within 24 hours of being shot' A standard practice was to use aerosol fly sprays on carcases, especially in the summer months when bush flies visited newly dressed carcases with great enthusiasm. A photo in 'Hunting with the Best' shows a picture of a hunter making sure a deer carcase does not get fly blown. The caption under the photo reveals the attitude of those earlier meat hunters towards the use of insecticides. It reads: 'Keeping the flies at bay-Les (Hazeldine) hoses down a deer carcase with flyspray'. OUR WILD DEER HERDS One wonders what the Germans would have said had they known the way some of the venison was treated in the field before it ended up on their china plates. The history of commercial venison recovery has had many strange twists and turns. When a small aerial hunting operation resumed in 2004, opposition came from an unexpected quarter. The following is an extract from NZ Farmers Weekly; Date: 2004-11-24. 'Dear Industry NZ chief executive MJ Loza expressed reservations about the feral deer recovery plans. 'At the present time, the farmed venison industry is struggling with difficult trading conditions'but adding even more volume and at the end of the traditional game season just doesn't make sense''. It seems hard to believe that the harvesting of feral deer could seriously affect the deer farming industry even in an of oversupplied market situation. Up until 2004 wild deer numbers were significantly affected by helicopter hunters but that predation by helicopters is now on hold. Meanwhile, wild deer numbers continue to be impacted by the operations of the Animal Health Board (AHB). The AHB's mission is to eradicate bovine TB from New Zealand. Its main target, the possum, is a bovine TB vector. A key tool used for possum eradication is aerial 1080 poisoning. Animal disease models OUR WILD DEER HERDS predict that if possum numbers are reduced below certain concentrations, bovine TB cannot be maintained. It has been observed that as possum numbers are reduced, bovine TB infection rates in dairy and cattle herds are also reduced. The 1080 poison operations are concentrated in strips of forest (buffer zones) adjacent to farm lands. Research, however, has shown that 5-54% of red deer are killed following aerial 1080 poison drops. (There have been reports of up to 90% deer kills but these are for different deer species such as fallow). Recovery of deer populations can be expected in three to five years after a 50% kill. In ten years the AHB claims it has achieved a 90 % reduction in dairy and cattle herd infection rates and therefore intends to continue with a similar scale of poison operations until at least 2011. Up until recently, the deer by-kill resulting from 1080 poisoning of possums has been uncontrolled and indiscriminate. But studies using a deer repellent have shown that deer by-kill can virtually be eliminated. In a concession to hunters, the Minister of Conservation announced (April 2005): "While I do not believe there is a strong argument for permitting the use of deer repellent in all areas of conservation land where possum control takes place, I do think it is reasonable for consideration to be given to the use of deer repellent in those areas specifically designated as Recreational Hunting Areas," DOC is also carrying out aerial poisoning operations to kill possums. The objectives of DOC differ from those of the AHB whose primary responsibility is bovine TB eradication. The following is an extract from a DOC information site: OUR WILD DEER HERDS 'The Department of Conservation (DOC) uses 1080 to counter the devastating effect high numbers of introduced possums are having on native plants and animals. In many areas possum browsing threatens kamahi and rata forests with collapse and the endangered mistletoe with extinction. Possums eat threatened giant land snails and the eggs of kiwi, kokako and kereru, and they compete with kaka for food.' In the short term DOC's 1080 poisoning operations will be limited in scale for a variety of reasons including cost restraints. So today we have a situation in which, recreational hunters have by default, been left the task of controlling or managing the bulk of New Zealand's wild deer herds. Of great significance is the fact that DOC does not think that recreational hunters can control deer numbers. No constitutional body (representing recreational hunters) has the authority to manage these herds as a resource. Consequently there are no official regulations governing hunters or directions given to hunters about where to shoot or what to shoot. Recreational hunters take the majority of their animals under the rules of the good old kiwi hunting tradition. This amounts to a haphazard random removal of animals throughout New Zealand. Put simply, the husband, partner or lover gets permission to head out for the day or the weekend for a spot of deer hunting leaving the better half to sort out the washing, the house and the kids. Few records are kept of recreational hunter deer kills and the impact of hunting on deer herd structure. Exceptions would be the efforts that have been made to assess herd age structure for Whitetail deer on Stewart Island OUR WILD DEER HERDS (DSA volunteers), Sika deer in the Kaimanawas (Hunters and Habitats) and Wapiti. Special hunting areas (Recreational Hunting Areas) still exist but the management of these has satisfied neither DOC goals nor the wishes of hunters. After The Animal Control Act (1977) was passed into law the following RHAs were gazetted. Pureora, Waiotapu, Haurangi, Kaimanawa, Kaweka, N.W.Nelson, L.Sumner, Oxford, L. Wakitipu (Caples/Greenstone, Blue Mountains. Initially these were to be left untouched by commercial operations but commercial hunting concessions have been allowed in some RHAs much to the disgust of hunters. Since their inception times have changed and so have attitudes as explained in this quote from 'Advances in Mammalogy 1990-2000': 'official attitudes to recreational hunting have changed. Of the ten RHAs established during the early 1980s to protect recreational hunters from competition with commercial operators, two (Waiotapu and north-west Nelson) no longer operate as RHAs, and the Blue Mountains and Wakatipu RHAs have been reduced in size' there has been an increased emphasis on the protection of indigenous biodiversity' Most active management of deer for hunting benefits has ceased, although hunting seasons and other harvest restrictions remain in place in at least two RHAs. Overall, deer on conservation land are officially regarded primarily as pests that continue to adversely effect indigenous species and which require additional control (Department of Conservation 1997), even.though the majority of New Zealanders see wild deer as a resource (Fraser in press).' OUR WILD DEER HERDS While DOC is fully aware of the potential for deer numbers to increase in the current environment no centralised DOC operational strategy for wild deer control has been developed. What is more, DOC does not have sufficient funding. Current deer control projects such as those in Northland and Taranki have been made possible because of shared funding arrangements. In these instances the AHB and Regional councils have contributed to costs. If the commercial venison recovery remains on hold, the most likely response by DOC will be to develop a hierarchy of priorities. Areas that are regarded as having high conservation value will be subjected to deer control operations. Two Conservancies have initiated some planning in terms of wild deer control. The following is a statement on deer control from the East Coast Hawke's Bay Conservancy: 'The feral venison recovery industry has not been able to sustain prices that support helicopter venison recovery operations on Land Administered by the Department (LAD) for several years now. Deer numbers are approaching problem levels at some places. We are positioning the Conservancy to trial the replacement Wild Animal Recovery Operation (WARO) concession operations with tendered contract aerial hunting, to better meet the purpose of the Wild Animal Control (WAC) Act, at places sensitive to the impact of ungulates.' OUR WILD DEER HERDS The current situation where deer numbers are increasing is almost certainly just a transition period in the history of New Zealand's wild deer herds. If the commercial aerial venison industry remains grounded DOC will implement wider ranging animal control strategies. In future years we may witness sights that will be hard to stomach. For example, search and destroy operations of contracted helicopters where animals are left to rot where they fall. It should be noted that there are several organisations such as the DSA and Game and Forest Foundation that are lobbying on behalf of hunters for the long term protection of our deer herds as a recreational resource. They make submissions when important policy documents are drafted such as the National Park Management Plans, Conservation Management Strategies and others. They are also involved with reviews of specific plans such as that for Tahr management and management of the Whitetail deer on Stewart Island. These organisations need to be given the recognition they deserve for acting to secure the future of deer hunting in New Zealand. Copyright 2005 by Steuart Laing. All Rights Reserved
For more information e-mail Steuart of NZ Hunting Info Ltd