Because New Zealand had no land mammals (apart from bats), European settlers introduced game animals to populate what they saw as empty forests. From the 1850s to the early 1900s they brought in many species of deer, tahr, chamois and even moose, for recreational shooting.
In Great Britain, hunting was the preserve of the wealthy. At first, deer hunting in New Zealand was also rather exclusive – in the early 1900s there was a strict licensing system. But deer spread so quickly that soon anyone could hunt.
More than 250 red deer were imported in the 60 years from 1851. They originated in Britain, but most were brought from Victoria, Australia.
Seven other deer species were liberated: wapiti, sika, sambar, rusa, axis, fallow and white-tailed deer.
Most deer hunting in New Zealand is for red deer. This is the most widespread species, found in both the North and South islands and on Stewart Island.
Fallow deer form localised herds in both islands. Sambar, rusa and sika occur only in the central North Island, and wapiti in Fiordland. White-tailed deer are found around Lake Wakatipu and on Stewart Island. The axis deer is no longer found in New Zealand.
Wapiti were introduced in the early 1900s as a gift from American President Theodore Roosevelt. They have interbred with red deer and today wapiti–red deer hybrids occupy an area 2,000 kilometres square in northern Fiordland.
In 1993 one estimate put the wild deer population at 250,000. The majority (77%) were red deer, with smaller numbers of sika (13%), fallow (7%) and white-tailed deer (3%). Wapiti, sambar and rusa were in very small numbers.
Chamois were first introduced in 1907 at Aoraki/Mt Cook – a gift from Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. They are now found throughout the Southern Alps.
Tahr (also spelled thar), which are native to the Himalayas, were first brought in by the government in 1904 for sport, especially for tourists. Like chamois, they were first released at Aoraki/Mt Cook. Tahr are found mainly in the central Southern Alps.
Moose were liberated in the Hokitika River valley in 1900, and in Dusky Sound in 1907. The Dusky Sound population became established, and a few were shot. They have probably become extinct in New Zealand, although a few may survive in Fiordland. Moose probably could not compete with red deer.
Pigs were first introduced to New Zealand by the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville in 1769, but the fate of the early pigs is not known.
James Cook gifted pigs to Māori in the 1770s. The animals bred, and some escaped to form wild populations – which is why feral pigs in New Zealand are sometimes called ‘Captain Cookers’.
Feral pigs were well established by 1840, and were the first introduced animals to be hunted for sport. They are found in both the North and South islands and the Chatham Islands.
The goat is not considered a game animal, but some hunters target them. Wild sheep (known as ‘woollies’) are also sometimes hunted.
At least seven species of wallaby and kangaroo have been introduced, and three still survive – the dama wallaby, Bennett’s wallaby and the Parma wallaby. Hunting Bennett’s wallaby in the Hunters Hills in South Canterbury is very popular.
European rabbits and brown hares are also shot. They are often the first animals that young people learn to hunt.
An Australian nickname for New Zealand in the late 19th century was ‘the Pig Islands’, because of the prevalence of wild pigs. These have more muscular front legs and shoulders than domestic pigs, and smaller back legs. They are also hairier, with longer, larger snouts and tusks, and much narrower backs – which is why they are commonly called razorbacks.
British settlers in New Zealand formed acclimatisation societies to import and release deer. Later they issued hunting licences, and organised hunts.
In the South Island, some strains of deer came from English and Scottish game parks, where they had been bred for their large antlers. These were known locally as the Rakaia red deer herd and the Otago red deer herd – they produced trophy heads with large, symmetrical antlers. The Rakaia herd was liberated in the Rakaia River valley in 1897, and spread from there into Westland. The Otago herd was liberated near Palmerston in 1871, and spread into the nearby ranges.
The government saw sports shooting as a tourist attraction, and by 1909 the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts had introduced numerous deer and other game animals. During the 1920s – the golden years of deerstalking – some huge red-deer trophies were taken. While visiting English gentry were targeting trophies, New Zealanders were soon poaching deer for the pot.
In the North Island, red deer were first liberated in 1863, and rapidly spread in mountainous forested areas. As early as 1906, there were so many deer around the country that acclimatisation societies offered bounties to cull them, to maintain a small population of trophy-sized specimens rather than a large population yielding fewer trophies.
In 1923, legal protection of red and fallow deer was removed in some parts of the country. By 1932, game seasons, licences, bag limits and other restrictions had been dropped. The scene was set for a war against the ‘deer menace’.
The government was concerned about increased erosion in the high country, and – rightly or wrongly – deer were blamed. They were declared noxious animals in the early 1930s.
In 1930 the Department of Internal Affairs took over the management of deer. Ex-army man George Yerex (‘the Skipper’) employed teams of deer cullers. This heralded the era of the professional hunter. Small groups of men lived in tent camps or built rough huts in isolated parts of the country, killing deer and skinning them. They were paid wages, with a bonus for each skin. It was very hard work, the days were long, and the weather was often cold and wet. In the 1930s there was no shortage of men keen to give it a try – but many were not tough enough, and quit.
Between 1932 and 1954 at least 1.4 million and possibly as many as 3 million deer were killed. Deer culling by the state continued on a smaller scale into the early 1970s. It effectively ceased in 1987 when the Department of Conservation was formed.
From the 1960s, commercial operators became involved. Helicopters were first used to recover deer carcasses, but it soon became apparent that they could be used for shooting, especially in open alpine areas. In 1965, when hunters first shot deer from helicopters, they could spot several hundred animals in a day.
Deer cullers Jack McNair and Phil Barron shot 120 deer in a mob near Lake Ōhau in the early 1930s before they ran out of ammunition. They had driven them into a snow basin from which the animals could not escape. Phil crawled up to a group stuck in the snow. ‘When only a few yards away from them, he straightened up, took quick aim, and fired one shot. He had to scramble away to one side in a hurry to avoid being swept down the hillside, as four deer came sliding down the snow!’ 1
In the early days of shooting from helicopters, gun barrels became too hot to handle – tallies reached several hundred deer a day. High venison prices and the legalisation of deer farming in 1969 saw some ‘gunships’ converted for live deer recovery. This created a deer-farming industry, which acquired its stock in the mountains where they roamed free. Men jumped from the choppers onto the deer and pulled them down by twisting their necks – the ‘bulldogging’ technique used by rodeo riders on steers. When hunters banged into deer, or missed and hit the ground, they often lost teeth. Net guns were shot from helicopters, making it easier for the jumper to pull down the deer.
Government culling and commercial hunting dramatically reduced deer populations especially in the South Island, where it is estimated they fell to 5–15% of their numbers in the 1930s.
The New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association was formed in Invercargill in 1938, partly as a response by recreational hunters to the government’s deer-culling efforts. Recreational hunters were opposed to large-scale culling, which they felt would reduce their hunting opportunities. The association provides huts for members, and lobbies the government.
Deer are viewed by hunters as a valuable resource, but conservationists see them as pests that destroy native plants. Hunters want higher densities for better sport, while conservationists would like eradication, or, failing this, control at low densities.
Hunters are especially opposed to aerial drops of the poison 1080, which is used to kill possums and also kills some deer. The poison is dropped only on a small part of the conservation estate, so in most areas, deer populations are unaffected. In many areas the only control on deer numbers in the early 21st century was commercial and recreational hunting.
The Department of Conservation regulates recreational hunting on conservation land, and issues permits. Almost all public conservation lands have open access with few restrictions on the number of species of deer killed. There are ballot systems at popular hunting areas such as Fiordland (wapiti), the Blue Mountains in West Otago (fallow deer) and Stewart Island (white-tailed deer). Hunters must enter a draw to gain access to a hunting block for a specified period.
In autumn, the stags begin to rut, and they roar (a deep throaty grunt) to announce their presence to other males in the area, attracting them for a battle over females. Deer are territorial, and the stag that chases off the others wins mating rights to females (hinds).
The roaring of stags also gives hunters a chance to target trophies – heads with large antlers. Normally very wary, stags become aggressive in the mating season, which gives hunters a chance to locate the ones with the best trophies. Hunters roar back at stags, and even break twigs to fool them into thinking another stag is nearby. Trophies are judged on the number of points and the spread of the antlers, using a system called the Douglas Score. This was developed by Waikato hunter Norman Douglas in the 1940s.
From the 1900s, English gentry began arriving to hunt game. In the 1950s, North American hunters employed guides to hunt chamois and tahr around Aoraki/Mt Cook. More recently, tourists have been able to pay a fee to shoot trophy animals at hunting reserves, where deer are fenced in. Many recreational hunters look down on this practice, as part of their ethos is that the animal must have a good chance of escape – a concept known as fair chase.
A 1991 survey found that only 7% of New Zealand men rated hunting and shooting as one of their favourite leisure activities. Still, the 37,000 deer hunters killed about 80,000 deer a year. Rural people were four times as likely as urban dwellers to be active hunters.
For decades, most hunters used ex-army guns. Introduced in 1895, the Lee Enfield .303 (commonly called the ‘three-oh-three’) was the main military service rifle of countries in the British Empire and Commonwealth for over 60 years. This reliable rifle was very popular, and is still used by some hunters.
The guns were relatively cheap, because the army had surplus stock after both world wars. They were rugged and could withstand abuse – many hunters customised them by sawing off part of the stock. Much of the ammunition came from the Colonial Ammunition Company’s Mt Eden factory. Today, all that remains there is the tower where lead shot was made for shotgun cartridges.
In the 1960s, lighter rifles became popular. These new guns shot smaller (lower-calibre) bullets at higher velocities than the .303. Today’s deer hunters have a huge choice of rifles, and most choose a high-velocity, medium-calibre gun with telescopic sights.
Organised bowhunting in New Zealand dates back to 1945, when a field section was formed within the Auckland Archery Club. Ten years later the New Zealand Bowhunters Society formed. Using compound bows, bowhunters target big game such as deer and pigs (and even koi carp in the lower Waikato River). These weapons have a much shorter range than rifles, and hunters must get close to their targets to ensure a good shot.
Hunting safety campaigns have been running for decades, and safety improvements have reduced the number of accidents in which hunters are shot. But they still happen: one study found that 33 deerstalkers died in this way between 1979 and 2002 .
There are many contributing factors. One common mistake is failing to accurately identify the target. This is especially a problem when hunting in the bush, where hunters often cannot see the whole of a deer. In some cases, hunters are struck by ‘stag fever’ – they are so expectant of seeing a stag that when something moves they are convinced it must be a deer.
There is a wealth of New Zealand hunting literature. Barry Crump’s novels A good keen man (1960) and Wild pork and watercress (1986) have mythologised deer and pig hunting. A good keen man is one of New Zealand’s top-selling books, amassing sales of 400,000 by 1992. Although fictional, Crump’s accounts are rooted in experience, as he was a deer culler for a time.
Many non-fiction books by recreational hunters and deer cullers describe hunts and expeditions to remote areas. Among the notable accounts are Joff Thomson’s Deer shooting days (1964) and Newton McConochie’s You’ll learn no harm from the hills (1966). Full of anecdotes and humorous diversions, such books provide insights into both the history of the backcountry and the psyche of a rugged type of New Zealand male in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. There are also specialist magazines such as Rod and Rifle and NZ Outdoor Hunting (first published as New Zealand Outdoor in 1937).
Māori were quick to take up pig hunting, and early European settlers hunted the pigs that destroyed crops and killed lambs. In the 1930s a government bounty of ‘two bob a snout’ was paid, and during the 1940s either a shilling or three rounds of .303 ammunition were paid for each pig’s tail. Pigs were also poisoned in large numbers during the 1940s and 1950s.
By 1988, one estimate put the number of feral pigs killed by hunters at around 100,000. In 2007 the New Zealand Pig Hunter magazine claimed a readership of 25,000.
The hunter usually jumps onto the pig, which is held by dogs, and kills it by sticking a knife into its neck. Some hunters use guns to dispatch their prey: wielding a knife and diving into the frenzy of biting dogs and pig’s tusks is a risky business.
For large pigs hunters must use a large-calibre rifle such as a .303, as .22 bullets are not powerful enough to kill large boars outright, and no hunter wants to be faced with a wounded boar.
Dogs are often used to bail up the quarry. They scent the pig and race after it, with the hunter or hunters following. Not only can dogs find pigs, but they can also chase them out from under tight scrub and places inaccessible to hunters.
Pig dogs, of many different breeds, are expected to do three things: find, bail and hold. Some dogs can do all three, but more often hunters use four or five dogs, with different roles:
Dogs are sometimes trained for particular roles.
In 1981 five hunting dogs bailed up a boar on the Coromandel Peninsula. By the time the two hunters reached the scene only one dog, Zeb, was uninjured and still hanging on to the animal’s ear, and one was dead. The boar was shot, but a second dog died within ten minutes. Despite a visit to the vet another expired that night, and the fourth lasted only a couple of days.
Dogs are often hurt by pigs’ tusks, and sometimes die of these injuries. There is also at least one story of a hunter being killed, and others have been badly injured by the tusks of angry boars.
Pig-hunting clubs around the country regularly hold competitions for the heaviest pig captured. The weigh-in is the highlight of the day, with the pigs hung up and compared. Categories include best boar, best sow and best tusks. The largest boars caught in New Zealand have weighed 190 kilograms gutted. The length and girth of the tusks, and the extent to which these have been ground on the upper teeth, can also be used to calculate a figure to determine how the tusks are ranked, using the Douglas Score system.
Enthusiasts read the specialist magazine New Zealand Pig Hunter, which has photographs, stories, and classified pages listing missing dogs, dogs for sale, and dog trainers.
Bennett, Mike. The venison hunters. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1979.
Burdon, Brian. Of mountains, men and deer. Auckland: Halcyon, 1993.
Crump, Barry. A good keen man. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1960.
Holden, Philip. Wild boar. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.
McConochie, Newton. You'll learn no harm from the hills. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1966.
Thomson, Joff A. Deer shooting days. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1964.