Deer stalking in New Zealand has mostly been done by men, usually from rural areas, who enjoy scrambling among the mountains, hills and rivers where there are abundant wild deer.
In the South Island, river flats and high-altitude tussock grasslands have been the main hunting grounds. In the North Island the steep bush-covered hills were often difficult and dangerous for hunting. In many cases hunters took only the back steaks from shot deer and left the carcasses to rot.
Moving the meat
Ian Hagan established a base in a hut up the Dart River in the South Island in the early 1960s. He used pack horses to carry gutted deer carcasses to a fly-proof container at the end of a primitive landing strip. A pack horse could carry out five or six smaller carcasses. A small plane that could land and take off from the rough beach by the river flew the deer to market.
By the 1960s, wild deer populations were out of control in many areas. Deer meat at the time fetched about 20 cents a kilogram, or $6 for a 30-kilogram carcass. Some adventurous people, many of them former government deer-cullers, decided that they could make a good living from hunting for meat.
Many hunting areas were extremely remote. The helicopter era began when Tim Wallis hired a helicopter and pilot to recover deer from the Wānaka area. Wallis bought his first helicopter in 1965 and learned to fly it.
A wild ride
Mike Bennett was part of a helicopter crew shooting deer and chamois in South Westland when he experienced the ride of his life. He had made up a load of carcasses when the helicopter took off unexpectedly. Bennett slipped, and a curved chamois horn hooked between the tongue and laces of his boot. He found himself hanging upside down, 750 metres above the Waiatoto River. Luckily the pilot sensed something was wrong, and returned to the loading site.
Helicopters were used to fly men into remote areas and bring deer carcasses out. It was tricky work. Early regulations only allowed carcasses to be carried on stretchers bolted to the skids. When cargo strops were made legal for carrying carcasses, deer recovery by helicopter increased rapidly. People were also employed to shoot deer from the helicopters.
By 1970 more than 60 helicopters were being used for shooting and recovery. Most crews retrieved more than 100 deer in a day: the top daily tallies were over 200 animals, worth more than $17,000.
In the early 1970s a single helicopter company had the licence to recover deer in Fiordland National Park. When the price of wild venison soared to $1 per pound (more than $2 per kilogram) in July 1973, a ‘venison rush’ began. Soon 20–30 helicopter crews were making illegal, but highly profitable, raids into the park. Reports of helicopters being shot at from the ground, arson, sabotage and fist fights soon made headlines. The government sent in air-force helicopters to settle the 'deer wars' situation down.
Capturing live deer
Deer farming was legalised in 1969 in spite of considerable opposition, although the complicated controls put off many aspiring farmers. Tim Wallis’s company, Alpine Deer Group, was one of the first to trial deer capture and relocation.
The deer hunter
Goodwin McNutt has been credited as the first person to capture a live deer from a helicopter in New Zealand. It was 16 December 1966; McNutt was the pilot and Barry Stern the bulldogger. Deer farming was still illegal, but McNutt had the Forest Service’s permission to keep deer in confinement to study, so he began capturing live animals. By 1969, when deer farming was legalised, he had 75 animals that he had caught or been given.
Capturing live deer in mountain country was a huge challenge. The first method tried was ‘bulldogging’ – fit young men launched themselves from a helicopter onto a running deer and wrestled it to the ground. With luck, they would tie the animal’s legs, tuck it into a purpose-made canvas bag, and airlift it out on cargo strops to waiting trucks, fixed-wing aircraft, jet boats or capture pens.
Other technologies were tried – including tranquillisers delivered via syringes fired from a dart gun; darts attached to the helicopter which imparted an electric current, immobilising the deer; and, most successfully, the net gun. Termed the ‘gotcha gun’, this was developed about 1978, and fired a nylon net from a helicopter over the fleeing deer. Alpine Helicopters made a net gun with three barrels which could be rapidly reloaded. Later, the net gun was mounted on the skid of the helicopter and fired by the pilot.
In 1978–79, Alpine caught 7,000 deer. The value of captured deer to prospective farmers rose from $250 each in 1976 to more than $3,000 in 1979.