Tahr: Should they go or stay?

The big six cylinder Holdens of the North Canterbury Catchment Board were impressive compared to my Dad's old four cylinder Morris Oxford. Douglas worked for the Board and he would drive one of those Holdens effortlessly up the Canterbury Plains towards the hills. I was always very excited on these excursions and would spend my time either staring at the hazy mountains or watching the car's speedometer. Its needle would shudder slightly as the car sat on about 105km/h. Douglas' head would be twisted around on his flexible neck as he spoke to my Dad about conservation matters. My Dad wished that Douglas would watch the road more carefully. In those days, there was a core of good keen men, who believed that the distant giant ranges of rubble were a threat to our civilisation. Douglas echoed some of the contemporary doctrine when he said that introduced noxious animals were eating away mountain vegetation and exposing the underlying soil and rock to weathering. tahr hunting hut in high country The mountain rains were washing shattered eroded soils and rocks into rivers like the Waimakariri. This eroded material resulted in higher flood levels, a threat to our towns and cities. Today we know these men were only partly right, at best.

Now, here I sit, decades later, high above a South Island shingle riverbed. The kind of braided river you would find described in a geology textbook. The course of the river could be traced from its sudden appearance near the main divide, all the way to what was probably the sea, a distant line of blue over some low hills. In front of me lay a Tahr. This animal has surely spearheaded the arguments about introduced animals and erosion and damage to native vegetation. In recent times, even the mighty Wapiti has not stirred up as much debate in the media. I had looked forward to this adventure for months. I had bounced about in an old Series 3 Landrover, sweated for an honest 8 hours up a steep mountainside while the same old issues has circulated endlessly in my head, 'Yes Tahr' or 'No Tahr'. There and then, I realised that somehow, some of these wonderful animals should remain on our rugged mountains. The numbers need to be managed, so the damage to the alpine vegetation is limited, but Tahr have lived up here for 100 years and the mighty mountains have not fallen into the sea.

Our party of three had left town at 8:30am. I knew it was that time because we had to sit around reading the Saturday newspaper, waiting for a petrol station to open. It was difficult to concentrate on Press Association articles about the invasion of Iraq, when all the while, the sun was rising in a blue sky. Now all the planning and travelling was out of the way and I was here sitting on top of the world. The day's hunt had been straightforward, except for a couple of minor events. At one stage, when following a stream, we had been forced to clamber around a steep shingle bank. There were boulders protruding from the bank. Bob stood on one of these boulders and it promptly crashed into the cold stream. Bob, wet to the waist but unharmed, leaped out of the cold water. Then only a few metres further on, a huge speeding Greywacke rock that had been broken off the mountainside, thudded to a stop in front of us.

We sat down for lunch on a ridge, scanning for game, having not seen a single animal all day. We decided to split up, so we could cover more country. I was impatient and soon set off along the main ridge, where you could see down into steep country. After only ten minutes, I glanced back and was amazed to see what looked like a Tahr, about 30 metres below my companions, who where still having lunch. All I could do was point downwards. Then, I spotted a big black bull Tahr further down the slopes, beneath the ridge. Bob had already started down the ridge, interpreting my signals differently to Dwayne, who was trying to drop down the slopes below the ridge. Of course he quickly encountered the first Tahr that I had spotted. Dwayne is a Canadian and this was his first hunt. The animal, when it realised that a big Canadian was bearing down on it, took off like a supercharged maniac. The speed and agility of Tahr cannot be adequately described in writing and to see one in full flight would be a thrill for anyone. Dwayne was attempting to saturate the air with projectiles, but this tactic was not working.

On the tops looking for game

At the same time, a single shot rang out further down the ridge. That mighty bull Tahr stood up and the tussock area around him seemed to explode with frightened nannies. He staggered, but didn't run and keeled over, sliding and rolling down the steep country. I watched until he disappeared into a chute. The last view I had of Dwayne and Bob was their silhouette on that razor ridge that dropped away onto the scrub and guts below. I scrambled along some more rocky country until I heard the sounds of disturbed stones. My altitude was a little over 6000ft. after all this hard work it would be satisfying to have some meat to take home, even if it was tough old boot meat. I crept around a knob with a bullet in the breech. There, right in front of me, about 45 metres away, was a huge animal. As good a specimen of Merino as you might see and carrying a magnificent wool fleece. He was standing like a sentinel on a lonely vigil next to the carcase of a companion. This sheep was trapped above the bluffs and was doomed to die after the first snows.

I was sitting observing him, when a movement caught my eye, far below. Picking its way through some bluffs was a bull Tahr and it was coming my way. The country was quite steep and the Tahr had to scramble around the loose rocks. This gave me time to change position. The sheep couldn't see properly because of the wool on its face, but it must have heard me and cumbersomely moved away from its dead mate. I wanted some meat to take home and it shouldn't be mutton. I spotted the Tahr again and quickly loaded my rifle. At 75 metres and from above, my .223 didn't stop him on the spot and the Tahr ran about 45 metres. He collapsed before crashing over a big bluff. The scenery was magnificent, so I sat down with my camera and soaked it all up. Then I heard some rock fall down where I had first seen the sheep. I dropped down hill and started sidling. It was quite steep, so I thought that I would peek around one last corner. There, on an outcrop was a mob of Tahr in classic pose'peering down the hill. Why they should have been doing that I don't know. It would be great to get some quality meat for my Aunt and uncle, who were on a visit from North America. I had a comfortable prone rest at a distance of about 100 metres. The biggest nanny was outlined against the sky, head still and looking down. The .223 is relatively quiet, especially when fired out into open space and I heard the projectile thud into the leading nanny. She did a stuntman's nosedive off the ridge. The rest of the mob, about eight animals, looked bewildered, but there was no sensible decision making going on amongst them. The sound of the shot had not unduly disturbed them and they were trying to work out where the boss had gone. It took me some time to negotiate the rocky ground to reach the dead animal and I was starting to become concerned about the weather. A layer of cloud had moved in to cover the valley floor, I didn't know my route down and there were only a couple of hours of daylight left. It is great being up on the mountains in fine weather and I must say that when you bust your gut to get up there, the temptation is to stay around as long as possible.

tahr hunting hut in high country

Hurriedly, I removed the hindquarters of the Tahr, stuffed them in my bag and took a punt on a steep narrow gulch that looked as if it opened into a wide slide further down. The trip down was a bit hairy, for me anyway, as the shingle occasionally ran out onto hard rock. It was getting dark when I reached a big scree. From here I managed to work my way through a thick band of Matagouri and out onto the riverbed, as complete darkness fell. Back at the hut Bob and Dwayne had just arrived. Their big bull had rolled a long way down the hill and miraculously hadn't damaged the horns, but the 11-inch horns were a bit disappointing. This animal had been with quite a sizeable mob of nannies, but no other black bulls were to be seen. With the aid of torches, we walked two hours from the hut, back to the trusty Land Rover. Once all our gear was thrown in the back, the three of us jammed in across the front seats. From here the journey involved a jolting creaking ride along a rough 4WD track. Matagouri and Coprosma bushes whipped the side of the vehicle and occasionally the old Land Rover's lights mesmerised a hare or a rabbit. The gearbox clunked in its characteristic fashion as Bob continually worked back and forward through low ratio. I thought what an adventure this had been. Would the next generation be able to enjoy what we have enjoyed? With a bit of luck and sensible management those amazing animals will still be up there on their rocky lookouts.

Copyright 2005 by Steuart Laing. All Rights Reserved.

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