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.
Hunting and tourism
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.
Deer numbers surge
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.
Government deer culling
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.
Commercial culling and helicopters
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.
One shot bags four
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.