The craziness of New Zealand’s “deer wars” is regarded as a legendary time to be alive for Kiwi hunters. Deer numbers were booming in the NZ bush and tussock grasslands, and many adventurous outdoorsmen risked lives to make the most of the situation by cashing in on a venison gold rush. It’s a period that jump-started the country’s venison industry and bred some of the toughest hunters on the planet in the process. It also spawned some of the craziest; check out this video of helicopter hunting.
Before I can even attempt to explain the video featured here, we need to cover a little backstory.
Originally, New Zealand had almost no native game animals. More than 20 million years of evolutionary isolation left the island with no land mammals (aside from three small bats), very few huntable birds, and a vast, mountainous wilderness. To fill that void, the first European settlers brought with them seven deer species: Tahr, Chamois, feral goats, pigs, and sheep, as well as numerous small mammals and birds to satiate the country’s hunting appetite. With virtually unlimited food sources and zero predators, populations boomed.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, ungulate populations around the country began exceeding their carrying capacity. Even though many hunters were filling their freezers year-round, remote mountainous areas weren’t being hunted enough to adequately control numbers. The species largely responsible for all this overpopulation and resulting destruction was the European red deer.
Before being imported to NZ, the pursuit of red deer was confined to the gentrified European elite, but now they were a quarry for the everyman and his dog. They blossomed in NZ forests and farmlands, and kiwi hunters began to prize the animal for their majestic antlers and large volumes of delicious meat. At the same time, their sheer numbers and cumulative damage to native forests were becoming hard to ignore, and something had to be done.
Before the mid-1960s, the main method for deer control was ground shooting, where contracted cullers would fill quotas of animals, leaving behind carcasses and taking the tails as proof of animals shot. It was a tough job. They spent months at a time in the wilderness, sometimes shooting hundreds of deer on a single trip. It was also highly wasteful, especially for a nation with a taste for venison, and international markets that would happily pay a high price for it.
Around this time, the control strategy shifted. Instead of ground shooters, small and nimble helicopters were first used in 1964 to recover carcasses from inaccessible mountainous valleys, where deer numbers tended to build up. Instead of killing every single deer, many entrepreneurs opted to capture the deer alive, tie up their legs, put a blind over their head, and then fly them out of the backcountry where they would then be farmed for their meat. These innovations created a surge in demand for venison, both in NZ, and in European countries where ironically, their deer had become very scarce. For a time, it seemed like every man and his dog were chasing deer in helicopters and capturing them in any way possible, which brings us to the aforementioned video.
When it came to live capture, the most common method for restraining a deer on the run was to use massive net guns. They’d shoot a large net from a close distance, with weights on each corner, in hopes that the captured animal would try to run, get their legs or antlers tangled in the net, and be rendered immobile. The hunter would then quickly jump out of the helicopter, flip the animal onto its side, tie the legs together, place a blindfold over their eyes to calm the deer down, and then hoist the animals off the mountain and into holding pens.
But, if you didn’t have a net gun—and were particularly crazy—the only way to capture the animal was to physically wrestle it to the ground, without the net restraining them from escaping or goring you with its antlers. As you can see in the video, it’s an incredibly dangerous task. This hunter is going toe-to-toe with a 300-plus pound wild animal, not to mention jumping from a moving helicopter moving at least 20km/hr over rough mountainous terrain—and to think he did all of this in blue jeans. It’s nothing short of insanity.
Given the dangers of the job, it’s no surprise that during the peak deer wars of 1976 to 1982, at least 208 helicopters crashed in the NZ bush, killing 17 people in the process. The rush for the red gold of venison meant that in the Southern South Island, there were around 50 helicopters in the air at any given time, all competing for the same animals. Illegal harvest tactics started to become so common that the Royal New Zealand Air Force (NZRAF) had to send two military helicopters to stop harvesters from poaching deer from Fiordland National Park and the surrounding private land.
The NZ Deer Wars pushed much of the county’s deer herds too far in the other direction, with entire herds being eliminated in the rush to make money. In areas that used to be teeming with deer, tahr, and chamois, hunters could go weeks without finding a single animal. And, as the wild deer began to disappear, the farmed deer numbers swelled to more than one million red deer on farms, which became a cheaper way to meet the demand for venison both domestically and internationally. Even for a species as prolific as red deer, uncontrolled market hunting proved to be too strong of a force.
Since then, serious changes have been made. Helicopter hunting still occurs, now called Wild Animal Recovery Operations (WARO), but it occurs under a level of regulation, used as a tool to keep deer numbers in check. During the roar (the red deer rut), WARO access is often heavily restricted to give recreational hunters the chance to bag a trophy stag on public land. The animosity between hunters and WARO largely still runs strong, with the two often directly competing for the same animals outside of the roar, but it’s largely become a more symbiotic relationship.
This reflects NZ’s modernized attitude to introduced species like red deer. Rather than elimination at all costs, the goal is to use recreational hunters and WARO sparingly to keep animal populations below the habitat’s carrying capacity, through the Te Ara ki Mua Framework. It’s certainly not a perfect system—since the end of the deer wars populations have regrown excessively in fragile areas —but on a global scale of introduced species management, it’s a step in the right direction.