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Lemons in the Whitcombe - March 2008

Lemons in the Whitcombe - March 2008

The original of this article can be found in Issue 5 of the NZ HUNTER magazine

This article is a little bit different from my previous writings. To make a long story short, our 2008 roar trip turned out to be fruitless despite the exhausted planning and preparation. Most people prefer to read success stories, which is completely understandable. And if I had one of those, this would be it. But it's not. This is one of those lemons that literally makes your eyes water and leaves you bitter tasted.

Looking across the headwaters of Frews stream toward the tussock slopes of Carls Creek, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle

Had we not planned for the trip properly? Was our homework insufficient? Was our hunting approach incorrect for the terrain? Were we glassing too high? Were the deer in the bush? Did we have enough time? Was weather an issue? Were we too close to huts or bivvies? Was the area a holding ground for animals or were they areas for animals to move through? Were we too early for the roar? Had the area been hunted or disturbed prior to our arrival? Had wild animal recovery (WAR) operations given the area a hard time during Spring/Summer? And if so, were the deer spooky as a result, or shot out from the tops altogether?

We were plagued with questions alike as the Nissan Safari wound its way back through Kumara and Jacksons, churned up hill from Otira to Arthurs Pass, rolled past Springfield and on into Christchurch. The Whitcombe / Hokitika rivers, without doubt, are some of the most renowned catchments for wild red deer in the world. So, what had we done differently this year than from any other year? Nothing. I believe that the only difference was that WAR operators had been harvesting wild deer from the open tussock tops during Spring 07/ Summer 08.

Looking up the Hokitika River towards Mathias Pass (in the shadow of the cloud), March 2008. Not a single deer to be seen. The sign was at least 3 months old and game trails weren't being used. Photo: J.Carle

The objective of this article is to discuss the importance of game management, and the impact that WAR has had (and will continue to have) on our recreational sport. This will be interwoven with photos and maps of our hunting routes and campsites, photos of the terrain, and a rundown of our lemon trip to the headwaters of the Hokitika River. Particular focus is drawn to Frews Saddle, Conway Ridge, Steadman Saddle, Mathias Pass, Vincent / Harcourt Creek, Carls Creek, and Kea Pass.

These photos were taken from Conway Ridge, looking up the Whitcombe towards Prices River in the background. When the weather and low cloud cleared, we were met by the most intense sun, March 2008. Photo: J. Carle

Andre Alipate at Frews Biv packing his rations for the sidle up and over into Vincent / Harcourt Creek in hopeful pursuit of a red stag, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle

Catchments such as the Rakaia, Ashburton, Mathias, Wilberforce, Avoca, Waimakariri, Taipo, Arahura, Styx, Kokatahi, Whitcombe, Hokitika, Mikonui, and Wanganui are all areas to obtain Rakaia-type heads, and I believe that we should be compelled to manage these historically important and traditional hunting grounds.

Andre climbing out of Frews Saddle towards the ridge between Vincent/Harcourt creek. Steadman creek and pass are visible through the gap in the cloud, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle

These hunting grounds hold the opportunity to obtain red stags with long, solid, heavy timber like few other catchments in New Zealand. Typically, mature Rakaia-type heads (origins of Stokes Park strain) display traits such as heavy timbered beams and strong points (except for bez tines), solid length, and they often have a rough / unevenness about them. Rakaia stags are in contrast to the beautiful symmetry of stags from the Otago bloodline (origins of Scottish Highlands). In my opinion, both strains are equally important and should be properly managed, but for now I'm talking about the Rakaia herd. Issues raised here are relevant to other significant wild herds in New Zealand; not just for red deer but also fallow, whitetail, sika, sambar, rusa, and wapiti.

It was the most unusual sight not to find a single red stag in this lush Vincent Creek basin (nor any hinds for that matter). Kea Pass is hidden by the hillside, tucked away to the left of the valley, almost directly above the Kea's head, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle.

Recreational Hunting Areas (RHAs) were established in the 1980s to prioritize recreational hunting opportunities and restrict commercial operations and DoC control measures such as poisoning and culling (where populations exceeded thresholds). Now, these are merely my thoughts on the issue, but I believe that the Rakaia and adjacent catchments (aforementioned above) should be considered as an RHA.

The plan was to cover Frews Saddle and the surrounding headwaters and tributaries (if not by foot, certainly by glass), and we did just that. If we weren't based at Frews Biv, we were camping above Carls Creek to maximize time spent hunting. While we came across 30 odd chamois throughout our travels, we only came across a few hinds and one fat spiker.

The recent WAR operations undertaken in these catchments over the Spring/Summer months of 2007/08 have without doubt, dented the population of stags in the open country of the Southern Alps. Not only have I seen it first hand, but so too have many other recreational hunters that spent hours/days/weeks footing through similar country. And guess what? It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. It will essentially dictate a different hunting technique, driving deer further into the valleys and deeper into the bush.

Andre napping after climbing out of Vincent Creek, bitterly disappointed at the lack of sign in our alpine playground, March 2008. If only Keas could talk - I?m sure they?d clarify what had happened. Photo: J.Carle

I think there is a time and a place for commercial WAR operations, and I prefer this opportunistic style of management as opposed to the wasteful aerial application of 1080 or DoC culling. In a roundabout way, it illustrates the (commercial) value of deer as a resource rather than a non-valued pest. And this is positive. But, wild deer should not only be viewed for their commercial values. Careful consideration is needed for their recreational value too, especially given the fact that they are a public resource. We are privileged in New Zealand to have as much public land as we do with wild game. And the fact that they are available to the public means that we, as public users, have a stake in their management.

Our highlight of the roar trip - playful keas. Photo: J.Carle

An empty Vincent Creek, with Noisey Biv (right), Cropp Basin (centre), and the steep headwaters of Prices River (left) as a back drop, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle

So in saying that, I think WAR is plausible in delegated areas and where animal numbers exceed a certain threshold (set by DoC). I also think WAR is O.K provided that there is a protocol for selective harvest (i.e. shoot hinds and yearlings rather than stags). This way DoC can be assured of population control, while recreational hunters have opportunities to harvest a trophy stag ? much like with the Tahr Management Plan for bulls. However, some of the concerns that I (and many other recreational hunters) have with what is currently occurring with WAR, is that licensed operators:

- have unrestricted access to public land;

- sometimes shoot during the roar when there should be a grace period for safety and ethical reasons;

- shoot traditionally renowned areas (i.e. Rakaia and adjacent catchments);

- target stags (for heavier carcass weights, velvet, pizzles and testicles);

- shoot areas where other hunters may already be (another safety issue through a lack of communication);

- disturb the amenity of the outdoor experience;

- shoot during weekends / holiday periods (when other users participate outdoors - another safety issue);

- harvest at unsustainable rates, then move into other catchments to do the same; and

- sometimes land in no-landing zones to recover deer;

What I would like to see is a more regulated and transparent management system that not only incorporates the views of recreational hunters, but openly discloses to the public about WAR intentions. At the moment there is no such management system in place for red deer in New Zealand other than DoCs "get rid of them" mindset, and no body knows who is operating where and for how long. The Tahr Management Plan and Wapiti Management Programme in collaboration with the Department of Conservation are excellent examples of management systems that incorporate recreational hunting values. Not only are DoC well versed in notifying the public when Tahr culls are due, but they provide block information with estimated populations to hunters. And many will agree that these forms of management systems are working.

But before anything will be done about WAR, I guess the first step is for the conservation department to recognize the value of red deer as a RESOURCE and not a PEST. Until that happens, deer will continue to be viewed with that "eradication" mindset, and it's likely that nothing will change. This resource vs pest debate is currently being discussed by the Game Review Panel, and my understanding was that a report will be released sometime soon. Here?s hoping!

Since WAR activities eased in 2001/02, recreational hunters throughout New Zealand have been fortunate to experience some of the best hunting since prior to the era of culling, live capture, WAR, and more recently 1080. It is a crying shame to see this changing now with the momentum in the market for feral venison. Don't get me wrong, I think it is resourceful that wild deer are utilized for export markets as opposed to being wastefully poisoned. But I still believe that there is an opportunity to incorporate all stakeholder views into a management plan for deer in various regions of New Zealand.

Andre setting up camp above Carls Creek as the mist rolled in, March 2008. Photo: J.Carle

Tommo and Rams at Frews Biv base camp, looking back down the Whitcombe with Meta Range in the background, March 2008. Photo: A.Alipate

Given that we (hunters) are one of the biggest user groups of public land throughout New Zealand, it is vital that we sit at the round table to discuss management initiatives with all relevant stakeholders. These stakeholders may vary from hunters that are non club-members, to representatives from NZDA, Game & Forest Foundation, Hunters & Habitat, Department of Conservation, Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, Tramping Clubs, and other outdoor and/or conservation related organizations to name but a few.

Here are some examples for why deer management is imperative for Recreational Hunters in NZ.

Dan Curley with a cracker 12 point red stag, measuring 310 4/8 DS taken from the Rakaia herd, April 2008. You will find no other places in New Zealand where you can obtain a trophy like this in such a pristine, alpine environment. Photo: D.Curley


Rowan with his first red stag, an 11 pointer, taken in the same catchment as Curley's 12, April 2008. The chance to obtain a red stag like this is one of several main motivations for hunters to slog it into the Southern Alps. Allowing the minority of WAR operators to remove stags from these surroundings impacts the majority of recreational hunters that appreciate stalking in this alpine environment. Taking this away essentially ruins an integral form of recreation for many people. Photo: D.Curley


Here are a handful of Rakaia-type trophies taken during 2006 when WAR activities were minimal. When there is no WAR, recreational hunters can encounter some of the best hunting opportunities in the world and reap rewards such as these.

These photos were taken at the Ahaura Hunting Competition last year (April 2007) and it was excellent to see a large number of stag entries from various participants - many stags of which carried 10 or more points. This year (March 2008), since WAR operations have taken place, there were only a handful of stags, most of which did not better a 10 pointer.

Now, I realize this is partly due to the timing of the Ahaura comp (being too early for the roar this year), but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that there is a correlation between more WAR operations equals less stags in the alpine environment. Already we are seeing the signs - and the last thing recreational hunters want to see is a reflection of the dry years during the 80s and 90s.

Here are a handful of Rakaia-type heads taken by Derek Johnson, Andre Alipate, and myself. Again, these are merely examples of the types of trophies that come out of this traditionally renowned wild herd. By regulating WAR, there is the opportunity to ensure these significantly important hunting grounds are managed in line with Recreational, Commercial, and Environmental values.

If recreational hunters want to continue taking stags like these on Public Land, then it is imperative that we push for a collaborative management system that regulates WAR activities in traditionally renowned hunting herds such as the Rakaia, Otago, or Poulter herds which typically produce trophies. Photos courtesy of (from left to right): Mathew Moleta, Stephen Foote, and Anthony Hall.

It seems unjust that a public resource such as deer can be impacted by market factors such as an increase in the $$$/kg of feral venison. I realize that WAR operators are merely trying to make a buck, and who can blame them for being opportunists? This isn't my main concern. It's the fact that so many recreational users stand to lose out as a result of mismanagement of this public resource, and yet we (hunters) are one of the biggest stakeholders to be consulted.


So to re-cap, what I am suggesting here is that WAR activities go-ahead, but they should be regulated in line with recreational, commercial and environmental views/needs. For instance, this sort of "round table" process may be able to identify parameters such as:

- WAR boundaries where operations can and can?t take place;

- WAR timelines when operations can and can?t take place;

- WAR methods how operations can selectively harvest (i.e. only take hinds and yearlings) and still meet the objectives of commercial, recreational, and environmental needs;

- Acceptable population thresholds for different regions (i.e. if there are too many deer then WAR is permitted to reduce numbers) etc.

These are only parameters that I have selected as examples of what a process like this could bring. But my point is, until we acknowledge that there is a need to manage this public resource, ideas like this will only ever be ideas. If we are to put pen to paper about anything, it must start with relevant stakeholders gathering at a round table.

I have only touched briefly on the WAR issue, and I?ve come at it from one of many perspectives as it is a big elephant fraught with disagreement and conflict. It is an issue that will continue to loom as market demand for feral venison grows, and I'm afraid to say that it is going to get worse before it gets better. I guess before anything can be done about the WAR issue, we need to see what comes out of the Game Animal Panel's review regarding the resource vs pest debate. Regardless of the Panel?'outcome, I will continue to fiercely defend and advocate for our recreational sport in New Zealand.

Until next issue - MM out.

Votes: 42


Mark SchouThursday 20th May 2010 - 04.54pm
I too travelled the Hokitika end of Feb 2008.Got dropped off at Bluff hut and marched to Frews Biv-Looked into the vincent-Lake Lyes-Frews hut then up to Prices flat then a climb up to overnight in Cataract Crk.I saw less sign than you guys and only acouple of Chamois.I am unsure as to what venison activity had taken place but I do know that"killer cross"the shooter for the tahr exclusion zone( Louper Saddle environs)is a zealot who shoots everthing indiscriminately and needs educating,The vegetation is in pristine condition throughout the area and the bastards shoot well north of where they need to.It would be interesting to look at the G.P.Son their machine(If ther required to use
one.)Cross has a reputation for liking to kill any species in the area and is of the old flawed science deer menace brigade!So there you are Jamie-an alternative explanation
for the lack of animals in what should be ideal country.Its a wonder our paths havent crossed.Ive been looking in the Dingle Burn as well and knocked over a classic otago 13 pt stag on our balloted block ther in 2009 (despite buckshot shells on the ground where he fell) Cheers and good hunting-Mark(goatman)
Stephen ReaSaturday 10th May 2014 - 10.01pm
Good on you Mark, glad to see your still getting out there.
Cheers Steve
Jock FisherSaturday 22nd December 2012 - 07.04pm
Enjoyed your photos of the Whitcombe area one of my old shooting blocks in the 50s.

Glad to see there are still a few Keas around, although I used to curse them at times when you poked your head over a ridge looking for deer and a dozen noisy Keas would come swooping down to give your presence away.

You chaps have now to be deer hunters by the look of it.

Cheers Jock

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