The sea and the forest were seen as the two food baskets of the traditional Māori economy.
Bounty of the forest
In the forest, birds were important as a supply of protein. Before the arrival of Europeans, New Zealand had no land mammals to use for meat except the introduced kurī (dog) and kiore (rat).
For many tribes, the main fowling season in autumn was a vital part of life. A variety of birds were taken – kererū (New Zealand pigeons), kākā (parrots) and tūī were particularly important. They were often preserved in their own fat. Feathers of different birds were also used for adornment and making cloaks.
Europeans and hunting
Like Māori, early European settlers often relied on native birds as a source of food. However, later there were clashes over the way Māori and Pākehā viewed hunting. Māori saw birds as part of their food supply, while Europeans wanted to hunt them as sport. Between the 1860s and 1890s, various laws were passed to control the hunting of native birds. From 1864, hunting seasons were set in certain areas for kererū and native ducks.
Food or sport?
In 1865, a law was passed against using snares and traps to catch native birds – shooting was the only approved form of hunting. This restricted traditional Māori fowling methods. The law was repealed in 1866, but reinstated in 1907.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the kererū hunting season became an issue between European hunters and Māori. Hunters wanted the season open in early autumn when the kererū was still reasonably agile, making it more suitable as a game bird. Māori hunted the bird for food, not sport, so they wanted it to be fatter. They preferred late autumn and winter for the open season.
In 1907, preserving native birds after the hunting season was banned. This was to stop large numbers of kererū being stored and sold by hunters. However, Māori preserved kererū in the birds’ own fat for personal use. This was recognised in a 1910 amendment which gave Māori the right to hold potted birds.
From the 1890s both the hunting lobby and Māori began to clash with the conservation lobby. Native bird populations were declining, and closed seasons (a time when hunting was not allowed) were brought in to protect the birds. Māori argued that the decline was not due to hunting, but to the clearance of vast tracts of native forest, which destroyed the birds’ habitats. This argument was ignored, and legislation in 1922 put a complete ban on hunting most native birds.
At the end of the 20th century, Far North kaumātua (elder) Sir Graham Latimer caused a public outcry when he publicly admitted to providing a kūkupa (as kererū are known in the north) for community leader Dame Whina Cooper on her deathbed. However, in the 2000s, a number of tribal groups have come out against this practice and taken part in kererū protection programmes. For instance, Kevin Prime of the Ngāti Hine tribe put a rāhui (prohibition) on taking kererū and was involved in a project to restore the native forest and reduce predators.