Red deer in new zealand

nz_main_redFor millions of years, New Zealand existed without large animals. Now, after the extraordinary success of British introductions, coupled with sheer breathtaking scenery, the North and South Islands offer unparalleled red deer stalking, says Peter Ryan.

On the walls of caves in France and Spain are ochre paintings, some many times older than the pyramids of Egypt. When they were drawn ice covered much of what we now call Europe. Their bold, simple lines convey not just the shapes of animals, but the very essence of their movement. They capture the sweep of a rhino horn or the proud arch of a wild horse's neck in a single, smooth line.

In those caves are images of rhinoceros, bison, mammoth, wild ox and horses. But a single motif is repeated time and time again – deer. A single glance will tell you that to these people, the stag, and the mysterious antlers he grew and shed each year, had power. We have lived in their skins, used their antlers for tools and bows, eaten their meat and trekked in their steps. We grew up together. Men and stags and antlers go back to the cave, and beyond.

For millions of years, New Zealand existed without large animals, but the old bonds still hold and Victorian settlers bought red stags with them from Britain. It was the longest journey ever made by deer. Much of that bloodstock was sourced from the great English parks, while other releases came from Scotland. With no predators other than man, and completely under-utilised habitat, they went on to extraordinary success.

On the South Island the Otago herd came from the pure wild strains of the Highlands – Black Mount, via Invermark – but those sons of the glens grew larger in New Zealand. Like trout released into a recently flooded reservoir there is something about new habitat (where nutrients have been banked for millennia) that drives size upwards. In 1928, to settle a bet, a South Island stag chosen at random was formally weighed. It tipped the scales at 240kg, which would be impressive in a Highland stag. Natural elegance and symmetry are their chief hallmarks, and trophy quality is still superb. This is the same bloodline hunted by the early legends, men like Lord Belper and Jack Forbes. Quietly spoken, Jack only began to stalk at 40, but went on to string together a series of spectacular wild trophies. He favoured the .318 Westley Richards, forgotten now but the height of fashion in the 1920s.

Due to the extraordinary terrain of the country – the great crags of the Southern Alps, as well as major rivers and lakes – the various herds retained the characteristics of their foundation stock for many years.  Even today a particularly distinctive head sporting a ‘Windsor' throw-back on the crown, or heavy ‘Warnham' beams, might still be referred to by the name of a great park. In recent years there has been more mixing of blood, as well as new genes from farm escapees, and so these distinctive heads are slowly being diluted.

Deer stalking has a different culture in the New World. There is no long tradition of great estates, ghillies or hill ponies. The first settlers saw deer, trout, gamebirds and salmon as the people's resource. Their goal was to ensure that anybody with an inclination should be able to pursue them, ideally at little or no cost. It is a vision that has remained to this day. By world standards New Zealand is remarkably free of politics around deer stalking, which ranks along with wild boar hunting and rugby as a national pastime. Kiwis from all walks of life stalk deer, and wild venison has been a staple for over a century.

New Zealand offers the option to hunt red deer in just about any way you can imagine, from rugged wilderness hunts for wily bush stags right through to luxury hunting on preserves. Trophy size varies accordingly. Most outfitters hunting wild deer offer a good chance of a 10- to 12-point stag, though every year many wild specimens far bigger than that are taken by visiting stalkers. The odds of a travelling hunter taking home a wild trophy are better than ever, with the right connections.

For those interested in scoring, counting points isn't always a good way to evaluate large-bodied deer. Beam and tine length make a huge difference. The record beam length for a wild Kiwi stag stands at a staggering 50". At the other end of the spectrum – and putting aside the debate around estate hunting for a moment – preserves in New Zealand are generally spread over very large areas of tough country. Trophy size goes as high as it is possible to go. Right now news is circulating of a potential world number one taken during the last roar.

The deer lands of New Zealand come in many forms. On the South Island they vary wildly from the wide, tussock-filled valleys east of the Southern Alps, so similar to the glens of Scotland, to the dense wet forests of the West Coast and Fiordland. Both types of terrain offer their challenges. The North Island has a less extreme geography and climate. A favourite valley of mine is typical – a mix of native scrub, fern, steep bluffs, small streams and high tops. In mid-April this valley echoes to the roar of red stags. At night, when the fire has died down low, you can stare up at the Southern Cross, feel the cold night air on your face and listen, as so many of our forefathers did long ago, to stags bellowing their wild challenges across the dark void. By sound alone their excitement becomes your excitement. As you drift slowly away there is the comforting promise of tomorrow, when you will be out there with them. If there's a better way to fall asleep, I can't think of it.

nz-reddeerThe little camp will be up long before the dawn, guessing at how far away this one is, or whether that one sounds like a stronger animal. Then there's the burning, aching climb to the tops. By noon it will be hot, the air shimmering in the spotting scope, even up on the high ridges. The stags will have gone quiet for the most part by now, exhausted from their struggles in the night, but periodically a distant, broken roar still floats on the breeze.

It was in this valley that I took my first good stag, just before the sun went down. It was a lung-busting rendezvous as much as a stalk, but a single shot from the new Sako .308, my first real hunting rifle, was enough. By the time everything got sorted, the walk out was in the dark. My legs felt stiff and numb, like wood. I fought sleep all the way down the mountain, playing games to stay awake. The game trail was slick but dimly visible, and with the antlers on my shoulders, a pack of venison and a rifle it was easy to imagine a misstep. It wouldn't look good if I staked myself on a tine, which sounds ridiculous, but in that situation is a real possibility. The next day we went back for the rest of the venison, tired but happy.

Today, I'm back in that valley again. Somewhere across from this ridge a throaty stag is prowling and muttering in the scrub. It's easy to imagine him tearing at branches with sap-stained antlers, pawing at the stinking puddle he has created, eyes rolling, belly black with mud and urine. I can almost smell him.

It's hard going, picking a path down through the rocks, then standing on a boulder in the small stream to face the thickly forested slope ahead. It climbs up into a vast twisted mass of scrub, fern, bluffs and streams. There is an ocean of cover up there, half of it vertical, but if I go up that ridge and find a way to ease across it might be possible to come down on his choked gully from above. From there a well-timed roar might bring him running, bawling open-mouthed and ready for battle. Then again, if he's a cunning old master, it might pay to keep quiet and just thrash a sapling or two to draw him out. To get there will take the rest of the day. The wind probably won't hold, but there's a slim chance...

Deer and men are old partners. We try to catch them, they elude us. They know us from a thousand generations, and in our hearts we still long for them.

If you want to go:

Best time: March-May, with the height of the roar in April.

Firearms: Easy to enter and exit NZ for a negligible fee. 

Guides: Be honest about the kind of hunt you prefer and what your fitness levels are. 

There is a wide variety of reputable guides. Personal recommendations:

South Island: Gerald Telford (President NZ Professional Hunter's Association) 

North Island: Adrian Moody  

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