The administration of game birds is the responsibility of fish and game councils. The Wildlife Act 1953 protects all wildlife, unless specifically excluded. Game birds are covered by the First Schedule of the Wildlife Act – meaning that all species are fully protected except during the hunting season, when they can be hunted subject to regulations.
The species listed as game are reviewed occasionally, and sometimes their legal status changes. Some protected birds, such as kererū, have been game in the past, and some formerly protected birds, such as paradise shelducks, are now game.
Fish and Game New Zealand has a statutory mandate to manage game-bird hunting. Within its region each fish and game council can open seasons for hunting particular species, set daily bag limits, and restrict the types of shot, guns or hunting methods.
Hunters can only use shotguns and must shoot birds in flight. They must buy game-bird hunting licences – the revenue is used by Fish and Game New Zealand to administer hunting. No funds come from the government (unlike in other countries).
Licence holders elect regional councils to set the policies and budgets for managing species. Fish and game councils monitor game bird numbers, harvest levels and hunter satisfaction. They try to ensure that the harvest is sustainable.
Bird numbers increase and decrease seasonally because of food availability and the weather. For example, most ducks lay 12 or 14 eggs, but often only four or five hatch and survive to fledging. Food is plentiful in summer, but by autumn is harder to find. In winter many birds starve, or are killed by the cold or by predators. By spring, probably only two of the brood will have survived to maintain the population and restart the breeding cycle. Well-managed hunting harvests some of the birds that would die anyway over winter, and this is called a compensatory harvest.
Increasing bird populations
Wildlife managers increase the numbers of game birds in two ways.
Rearing birds on farms
Game farms increase populations artificially, by predator control or using supplementary food. Most populations of game birds are truly wild, but up to the 1990s some fish and game councils maintained farms to supplement wild stocks. The last of these, which supplied pheasants to the Heretaunga Plains in Hawke’s Bay, closed around 2000. Private game farms rear pheasants as poultry for the restaurant trade. Some private preserves with farm-reared game stocks have been established in several parts of the country in the 1990s and 2000s, with tight controls by Fish and Game New Zealand.
Providing a habitat, or preserving existing habitats, allows populations to increase naturally.
Since the 1950s, Fish and Game New Zealand has focused mainly on protecting wetlands. These environments have often been seen as wastelands, and 87% have been lost since Europeans settled in New Zealand.
Until the 1980s, few other people or groups were interested in preserving wetlands. Hunters such as Horrie Sinclair in the lower Taieri plains in Otago, and groups such as the former Auckland Acclimatisation Society in the lower Waikato and Hauraki, bought and protected wetlands long before the government and other groups saw their value. Wetland protection has benefited native species (such as freshwater fish) and provided opportunities for other recreational activities.