Illegal Releases of Game

It was a miserable day in the Canterbury foothills. As evening drew near I made my way through re-growth fringing some black beech forest. Up ahead was a little knoll and I made this my objective. On reaching the rising ground I crept up and peered over the top. What I saw amazed me. There, in the open, were a couple of fallow deer. What on earth were they doing in this part of the South Island?

Most older hunters automatically refer to several discrete herds of fallow. In the South Island were the Blue Mountains, Totara Flat, Greenstone, Caples, Wakatipu and two Nelson herds. The North Island Kaipara and Wanganui herds I knew about but there were others. Each of these herds had their own documented characteristics. To someone of my generation it felt wrong that there were new populations of fallow deer cropping up. It was like finding polar bears in Antarctica. Logically this reaction of mine didn't make much sense. It could be argued that these fallow I had encountered had as much right to be there as the red deer of the Poulter herd which had been released over a hundred years earlier. Does it matter whether they arrived a century ago or one year ago? My reaction to encountering that new herd of fallow deer would probably be shared by others of my generation. Younger hunters would be thrilled just to see them. Forget about the history. But the fact that hunters like me don't feel right about some newly located fallow is not the reason for concern. In 2000 LandCare Research published a study that revealed that there were a large number of new deer populations around the country.

Of 258 new population records, >70% involved the three most commonly farmed species (red deer, feral goats, and fallow deer) and nearly half were in the three northernmost conservancies (Northland, Auckland, Waikato). Most new populations resulted from farm escapes (38%) and illegal liberations (26%), with natural dispersal contributing to relatively few new populations (5%).Bovine tuberculosis was identified in five of the 15 new populations checked for the disease. (A Revision of the Established Ranges and New Populations of 11 Introduced Ungulate Species in New Zealand., K. W. Fraser, J. M. Cone, E. J. Whitford) This study was followed by another that was released in 2004 (Fraser, K.W. & Ferris, S.J. 2004. Wild deer in NZ: 2004 Revision of Species Ranges. LandCare Research Contract Report: LC0405/017.)

So why are there concerns about these new deer herds? Firstly they could cost the country a lot of money. In the 2000 LandCare study mentioned above, one third of the new deer populations checked were TB infected. These disease carriers have the potential to be new sources of infections for dairy herds. Overseas markets may one day reject dairy products from countries with TB infected cattle. Our biggest export industry has a cloud hanging over it that won't go away until bovine TB is eliminated. The worst case scenario was estimated to be a NZ$5 billion loss to New Zealand's dairy trade over 10 years. (Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 1994, p. 12) While potential costs to the country from bovine TB are massive, its continued presence in dairy herds and wild animals is already costing big money.

The Animal Health Board (AHB) is the disease minder for the New Zealand dairy industry. Its mission is the complete eradication of TB in New Zealand by 2013 and it already spends a huge amount of money pursuing that objective. In the year ended June 2004, the AHB spent over $50 million on bovine TB vector eradication. The magnitude of that expenditure should give doubters some clue as to how serious a threat TB pest vectors are considered to be. To put another perspective on the dollar number, the total venison export market is only four times that value.

Currently the main target of the AHB is the brush-tailed possum. On a broad scale, prevalence of infection is usually less than 2%. The problem is that the disease occurs in pockets where up to 40% of possums may be infected. ("Possums and TB", Landcare Research New Zealand, 2000) For another TB vector, the feral pig, infections rates can go as high as 100% of the adult population. Unfortunately wild deer can also become infected with Tb and also act as disease reservoirs. The difference though with deer, is that they are probably a dead-end host and require re-infections to maintain the disease in any given population. Still, TB infection rates of up to 40% have been reported in deer as is the case in the Hauhungaroa Range (central North Island). Therefore in New Zealand we have mammalian TB vectors cross infecting each other, our dairy herds, and on rare occasions, man. Illegal releases of infected deer are adding to the costs of the AHB in their efforts to eradicate these TB vectors.

But bovine TB can also affect the recreational hunter. The harvesting of venison from our back country is a tangible reward from the sport of hunting. After a successful trip I know that I will be able to hang a deer's haunches from a tree and bone out rich red meat, low in fat and free of chemical contamination. I am dreading the day when I shoot a deer whose lungs are covered in balls of cheesy pus.

While illegal releases may have economic impacts, they can also threaten biodiversity. For example DOC has obligations to the NZ Biodiversity Strategy (2000). One of these obligations is to prevent the spread of deer. The following quotation is from a DOC policy statement: The departments (DOC) first and over-riding concern is the protection of NZ's unique indigenous biodiversity which takes precedence over the recreational and commercial value of deer as a hunting resource The feral range of deer should not be allowed to expand into new areas and where possible the existing feral range should be reduced.

In simple terms a reduction in biodiversity is the reduction in density or elimination of any native plant or animal species. Recently I was hunting in South Westland. This involved bush shooting which I cant say is my preferred pastime in the middle of winter. On the second day, I was creeping along the toe slopes of the valley walls. The ground was covered in damp moss, the area was shaded and there wasn't too much deer sign around. Then I heard the cracking of twigs. A red hind walked into view. I was lucky. What that hind was doing in that location defied logic. Common among the under-story plants were pepperwood and rohutu (Neomyrtus pedunculata), unpalatable to deer. In some forest types, plants like pepperwood and rohutu have replaced those favoured by deer. It appeared that in this locality, the highly preferred plants such as five finger, pate, whiteywood and broadleaf were only present as mature trees. Under the Biodiversity Strategy, DOC is obliged to prevent forest modification of this type especially in recently colonised areas.

DOC's obligations to the Biodiversity Strategy can cost a lot of money. For example in Northland, A 10-year plan to eradicate wild deer has seen 132 of an estimated 140 wild deer shot, but in 1999-2000 the cost of responding to these liberations was $160,000. But responsibility for pest and wild animal management goes beyond DOC. Under the Biosecurity Act 1993, Regional Councils are responsible for processing and approving Regional Pest Management Strategies. Because of their responsibilities, Regional Councils don't want new populations of deer from illegal releases. The following statement is from an April Environment Waikato press release:

Environment Waikato is concerned that this years low prices for venison could lead to illegal releases of deer into forest areas where they could threaten the environment and increase the risk of bovine Tb in cattle.

Conservation groups are also concerned about illegal releases. An example is The Royal Forest and Bird Conservation Society of New Zealand (Forest and Bird). Much of Forest & Bird membership believes that big game should be eliminated because of their adverse impact on many native plants and birds. Illegal releases provoke a big negative response from Forest and Bird. In May 2002 Keith Lyons wrote an article in Forest and Bird titled Illegal Releases Aggravate Deer Problem in Forests. Later that year a Forest & Bird Factsheet contained an article that reflects the prevailing attitude of opinion leaders in the organization:

More needs to be done to reduce deer numbers in our native forests – techniques can be used to increase the Number of deer killed by 1080 operations. With a membership of over 40 000, Forest and Bird has significant lobbying power in relation to conservation matters. The Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) is an organisation with 16 000 members. In its April 2003 Bulletin the editor wrote the following about illegal releases: I am stunned at the stupidity of a small minority of New Zealand shooters who are taking the law into their own hands to deliberately undermine the legitimate work of conservation employees.

A DOC operation in Northland serves to illustrate some of the complexities around the issue of wild deer control, including the fact that new deer populations derive from both illegal releases and deer escapees. 'CloseUp', a TV One documentary, recently showed deer being gunned down from a helicopter. This operation was part of the Northland DOC conservancy's objective to eradicate all wild populations of deer from Northland. The operation has been running for eight years. During the first couple of years of deer control most wild red deer were eliminated. But after 2000, about 250 red deer escaped from farms. Therefore almost all of the feral red deer shot or captured post 2000 were derived from farm escapees and not illegal liberations. Between 4 and 15 % of the deer farms in the control area have at least one escape event a year. This data indicates that currently within Northland deer fences are not effectively containing farmed deer.

DOC has published a discussion document titled Update of the specifications governing the keeping of deer in captivity in New Zealand for deer farming and for safari parks/game estates. The Northland data on escapees is significant in terms of these proposed changes in legislation. The Game and Forest Foundation has reacted strongly to the proposed changes in legislation for deer farms and safari parks. On July 25th they released a statement titled DOC Declares War on Deer and Deer Farmers. It contained a blistering attack on DOC from all quarters.

The TV pictures in 'CloseUp' also featured a DOC employee hunting deer near Russell. These were sika deer and not red deer. The nearest sika to Russell are wild herds around the Taupo area. Therefore the Northland sika had to have come from an illegal liberation of animals, presumably transported hundreds of miles. Their establishment near Russell demonstrates the extent to which hunters will go to establish new populations of deer. To complicate matters, recreational hunters in New Zealand have very different opinions about key deer management issues. For example an editorial in Hunting and Wildlife (April/June 2005) in a round-about fashion condemns new liberations. But most of the editorial is dedicated to blaming DOC for perpetuating a legal environment that encourages commercial interest in game animals. The suggestion is that these commercial interests are responsible for illegal releases. Gary Ottman is a spokesman for the NZ Game & Forest Foundation which represents several organisations with a commercial interest in big game. Yet in a recent article on illegal liberations he concludes with the statement I would ask that people take a long-term strategic view and stay away from it (illegal releases).

The Wild Animal Control Act 1977 states that no-one can capture a wild animal for the purpose of liberating it and that to do so is an offence. The maximum fine is $50 000. But many hunters are frustrated by what they see as the inappropriate reduction of deer herd numbers. They are concerned that poisons like 1080 will decimate or even eliminate deer. So they have taken the law into their own hands and liberated deer as an insurance policy against eradication policies. The chances of being caught are low. From what I can determine, prosecutions for illegal releases of deer in New Zealand have not yet given birth.

I have made the point that several large and influential commercial, scientific and outdoor organisations are opposed to new liberations, mostly with good reasons. These organisations include the Animal Health Board, the Regional Councils, DOC, Forest & Bird and other conservation groups. The DSA and Game and Forest Foundation could be added to the list. Anyone who undertakes new liberations is doing more harm than good to the future of recreational hunting in New Zealand because of the huge negative publicity these liberations attract. Some of the above named groups may even welcome publicity about illegal liberations as it is evidence that hunters are irresponsible and therefore should be excluded from the development of big game management policy.

All hunting groups could at least be united on this one issue and openly condemn further illegal liberations of big game in New Zealand. It would give the hunting fraternity a lot more credibility in the corridors and meeting rooms where credibility matters.

© Copyright All rights reserved. Steuart Laing 2005

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