A trophy of a different kind
New Zealand has a well established reputation for unrivalled trophy red deer stalking in wild and spectacular surroundings. But is it still all that it's cracked up to be? Peter Ryan dispels some myths.
The café in Queenstown Airport buzzed with tourists arriving into New Zealand, and a few – like the young American couple nearby – were heading home. Among their luggage was the unmistakable profile of a bow case, and the corporate logo on his baseball cap clinched it. Here for the red stag rut. It's not a busy airport and the conversation, as they swiped through images on a phone, was hard to miss.
“I'm glad we held out. There was a nice one on the first day, maybe 20 points. Tempting, but we got his daddy instead. What a trip.”
So, a hunt behind wire for red stag. As the conversation unfolded it became clear that he genuinely believed that his whopper was wild, had no idea it was as carefully bred on a farm as the bacon in his sandwich. One quick look at the Kiwi hunting magazines in a nearby newsagent, their covers littered with classic 12-pointers, would have puzzled him. But he and his fiancée were young, decent people, a long way from home and maybe not that well informed. Why spoil their illusion?
Then there's the other end of the spectrum, the British sporting agent who on a different occasion confidently asserted that “there are simply no big wild stags left in New Zealand – end of story.” I wondered about him. Did he really believe that, or was it simply a piece of convenient patter to channel clients towards his safari park connections?
As a hunting writer based in New Zealand I'm lucky enough to know many of the guides. I get to see what they take into the taxidermists, know the scorers and award-winners. The job means hours on the hill hunting or taking photographs, researching great trophies of yesteryear, rifling through museum collections and corresponding with breeders and scientists. You get a feel for where it's all come from, and where it's going. The truth is that neither those sunny young Americans, the glib sporting agent, nor the world at large seems to understand New Zealand red stag hunting very well. There is no other story quite like it.
Let's start at the beginning. The early stocks of red deer came from the great parks of England – Windsor, Stoke, Warnham and others. Good strong genes, as they are today. Others came from the pure Caledonian deer of Scotland. When they were released in colonial New Zealand, it was into a rich young land that had no predators, no parasites, no competition, no catastrophic winter kill. Virgin country that had, in some cases, never seen a hoof print of any kind. For half a century the results were spectacular, with magnificent trophies coming out of the bush across the country. Classic heads of 12, 14 and more points were taken year on year.
Red deer can double their numbers every few years, and as the population rocketed, trophy size inevitably scaled back. With forests under threat, commercial culling began in earnest, first by foot hunting and later by helicopter. Live capture to stock the new deer farming industry was lucrative and drove numbers down further. Across New Zealand you can still see old trophies from those exploitative days in shearing sheds – scrappy eight- and ten-pointers for the most part. Ultimately, the process reached its peak with WARO (Wild Animal Recovery Operation) gunships making serious money from venison export to the tables of Europe.
As with all booms, market forces of supply and demand intervened. Deer farmed behind wire grew in number, while spiralling fuel costs took the shine off aerial culling for venison. Yes, some continues today... but for the first time in many decades, red deer find that not every hand is turned against them.
As in Africa and so many other frontiers, farmers began to realise the value of game. Today there are big estates across the country where genuinely wild red deer are managed well – good genetics and sound stocking rates. The results have been spectacular. Every roar (rut) stags are taken that would have been astonishing 40 years ago – big, solid royals and imperials, even the odd 16 or so. In some respects it's a bit like the halcyon days of those early releases. It's a deep irony that these are not the deer New Zealand is famous for. That's a different story.
Over the past 20 years, farming red deer has become a major industry, with some sires as famous – and expensive – as racehorses. It probably started with selling expensive antler velvet into Asia. The logical next step is to select for larger antlers, to cut more velvet. It's not a big jump from having special genetics that can produce staggering antlers, to selling those deer for trophy hunting. At the same time, the world saw the rise of network hunting shows and global hunting conventions. The rest, as they say, is history. New Zealand became famous overnight for some of the biggest red stags on Earth, with the unspoken caveat that these huge, pale-antlered specimens are farmed.
Today there are three ways to hunt red stag in Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. Locals go bush, often onto the vast wilderness areas of public hunting land, and do it themselves for free. Experts often succeed in hitting the benchmark, a royal of 12 points. The second way is that of the tourist hunter – fly in, high fence preserve, out again in three days with a huge stag of 20, 30, sometimes 40 or more points. Needless to say that's expensive, and to a purist, such big antlers look atypical.
For the record, when you see a trophy of that size taken by a hunter within a few days of arrival, there is no chance that it has come from the wild. In some cases the hunter has misunderstood what ‘free-range' means. Today it's no longer synonymous with wild, but can simply mean ‘free to roam a large (fenced) area'. In many cases, though, the hunter is aware that the operation is high wire and is fine with it, though that part seldom gets a mention when the story is told back home.
In passing, I make no judgement on game park stag hunting of this sort for a couple of reasons. The first is that I've never done it. The second is that it employs people in remote areas, it's perfectly legal and it boosts the hunting industry as a whole. For those with age or medical issues it might be the only option. It's not how I choose to hunt but, unlike the anti-hunting brigade, I don't see it as my job to police the ethical choices others make, provided they go in with open eyes and are prepared to own it.
Thankfully, there is a third option. It didn't take much for some farmers to realise that wild stags coming out of the hills, especially for the March/April rut, were a valuable resource. They began, almost unbelievably by New Zealand standards, to manage them, using techniques that any British gamekeeper would find instantly familiar. The result is wonderful. Many high country farms are vast, running to tens of thousands of acres of some of the grandest scenery imaginable. (Keep in mind that New Zealand is slightly bigger than the UK, but has only half the population of London.) On managed land you can find red stags born in the wild, grown to impressive size.
So why doesn't everyone chase them? Why isn't this better known? Well, most visiting hunters don't know that the option even exists. Raised on a diet of ESPN and the other networks – and with few returning hunters admitting that they took a big high fence trophy – some simply don't know the option to hunt wild even exists.
There are other reasons too. Many wilderness areas can be hard work, being on the vertical side, and some older or out of shape hunters know their limitations. In other cases it's simply about antler size. They want to go home with a monumental stag for the pub or fireplace, and a wild bruiser of a 12 or 14 points, stained deep and dark with manuka bush and never touched by human hands, suddenly isn't enough.
Just in passing, points can be a misleading way to understand a stag. Long beams and tines, along with good mass – all these things go a long way. Many New Zealand royals have scored almost double what you might expect from a Highland hill stag with the same number of tines.
Deer hunting in New Zealand is really a mirror of who you are. Cheap and cheerful locals can simply go out on pubic land and, while their chances are fairly low (usually more from limited time and experience than anything else), they'll have a great time and may well come back with a modest trophy. By contrast, the wealthy, the uninformed or the antler-hungry usually go down the high wire route.
In a strange way, the situation with wild deer is a bit like that of salmon. Large scale farming made them accessible, but for all that the real cachet still lies with wild fish. The romantic sportsman will probably opt to hunt wild deer on managed land, knowing that they are born truly wild and have never been held by a fence.
It's a fact they won't score as highly as farmed stock, but they will be of classic conformation and any good guide – there are plenty to choose from – should be able to put a client onto a big, solid royal or better. Yes, you'll be tired to your bones every night. But we live in a world where the experience of truly wild game grows more rare each year. In chasing the wild ones you'll see country that defies the modern world, and earn the kind of trophy that not so long ago was reserved for kings and emperors. And in passing, you might figure out what kind of hunter you really are… and that is a trophy of a different kind.
If you want to go:
Be clear about the style of hunt you want and your level of fitness. Peak of the roar is mid-April, with a month either side being very good. Entry into New Zealand with sporting firearms is straightforward.
New Zealand has some of the finest guides to be found anywhere. Gerald Telford, president of the NZ Professional Hunters and Guides Association, is a good place to start:
For the full list of members go to www.nzphga.com