The acclimatisation movement, which encouraged the introduction of plants and animals from other countries, was fashionable worldwide in the late 19th century. Many plants and animals were introduced to New Zealand, including more than 50 mammal species. Not all of these acclimatised – but those that did often had a harmful impact on an environment with no native land mammals.
Introduction of deer
Between 1861 and 1919, more than 250 red deer (Cervus elaphus) were released in New Zealand for sport. They were either brought directly from the UK or came via Australia. The liberation of red deer continued until 1926. Most came from the great English parks and some from the Scottish Highlands. Only the Scottish deer were from pure wild strains.
Red deer were the most successful of the introduced deer (Cervidae family). However, also liberated were fallow deer (Dama dama), originally from the Middle East; wapiti (North American elk, Cervus canadensis); sambar (Cervus unicolour), sika (Cervus nippon) and rusa (Cervus timorensis) from Asia; and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and moose (Alces alces) from North America. By the early 21st century, red deer were the most common deer in the wild. Wapiti were found in northern Fiordland; fallow deer occur in low-altitude forests; and sika, sambar and rusa in North Island forests. White-tailed deer were found on Rakiura (Stewart Island) and near Lake Wakatipu.
Deer, oh deer
Erlton Wilson, a trophy hunter in the Makarora area in the 1920s, noted the decline in condition of wild deer herds due to overgrazing: ‘As far as [trophy] heads go, they appear to be a thing of the past … the stags’ antlers are poor timber and have neither length nor spread … all flats well eaten out and the few ribbonwood and broadleaf trees eaten bare.’ 1
Wapiti and moose
Wapiti from the US’s Yellowstone National Park were gifted to New Zealand by President Theodore Roosevelt and released in George Sound, Fiordland, in 1905. In the early 21st century, there were still wapiti in Fiordland National Park.
The last proven sighting of moose was in 1952, but there were claims in the 2000s that moose still survived in New Zealand. DNA technology was being used to try to settle the issue.
Deer were released into an ecosystem where they had no predators, food was plentiful, and – at first – they were legally protected from hunting. Populations grew rapidly. Red deer dispersed at a rate of 2–3 kilometres per year, spreading fastest along valley floors and ridges, and in native tussock grassland. Eventually all readily accessible areas were colonised.
Impact of deer
By about 1910, farmers and foresters were worried about the impact of large herds of deer. Grazing lands were being eaten, and native plants in subalpine areas were being damaged.
Deer were eating out the undergrowth in native forests. These plants slowed rainfall runoff, so as they were lost, erosion and downstream flooding began to occur. Deer also damaged young trees in forests.
In the 1920s the Department of Internal Affairs became responsible for controlling deer populations. Concerned about deer overgrazing native forests, the department organised a Deer Menace Conference in Christchurch in 1930. The Forest Service, conservationists and native-bird protection supporters took part, and the minister of internal affairs announced that deer would no longer be protected from hunting.
In 1930, the department employed Captain George ‘Skipper’ Yerex to set up a team of government cullers to control wild deer. Cullers were paid a basic wage plus a bonus for each skin or tail returned. The number of deer shot by cullers rose from about 8,000 per year in the early 1930s to over 40,000 in 1940. By the 1950s the culling force of 125 men killed about 50,000 deer a year.
The Noxious Animals Act
In 1956 the Noxious Animals Act was passed and responsibility for deer control moved to the New Zealand Forest Service. Poisons such as 1080 were considered, but largely abandoned because of adverse public reaction. The number of deer shot by government cullers dwindled from 62,500 in 1957 to 20,000 in 1966, and to fewer than 7,000 in 1976. By that time the control of wild deer had passed to private venison hunters and commercial helicopter hunting.