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The hard men of helicopter deer hunting

Callum Hughes taking aim in Fiordland’s wild deer country.

Paul Roy hitches a ride with some of the legends of the cull. 

An icy wind whistles past the open door of the helicopter as we float over Mackinnon Pass, the famous halfway point of the Milford Track. Below, just visible through the streams of swirling mists, are a few hardy trampers – their faces upturned to the thump, thump of our blades. Many years ago, I too sweated over this pass but, up here, cruising at 120 knots, I feel smug and superior.

Leaving the trampers in our wake, pilot Kim Hollows and his shooter, Callum Hughes, natter about daily trivia like the couple of old chums they are… the price of venison, cash flows, the weather forecast. It’s been like this since we took off from Te Anau 20 minutes ago on our way into the heart of Fiordland to shoot deer for the tables of New Zealand diners.

A few minutes after leaving the familiar contours of the Milford Track, we swoop into the upper reaches of the Transit River. The mood changes as visibility drops, mist envelops us and rain speckles the cockpit. All is green and sodden, with waterfalls, creeks and rivulets streaming off the near-vertical valley walls. There’s no chatter up front now – just intense concentration as Hollows and Hughes scan the valley floor.

Shooter, Callum Hughes.

Fifty metres below us is a tangled mass of ribbon wood, fuchsia, flax and hardy beech trees swaying under the wash of the rotors. It’s typical Fiordland bush that would take hours to navigate on foot, but only seconds to traverse by air as we criss-cross the valley looking for signs of deer. After years of being hunted, the animals are wary; they know the sound of a chopper means trouble, and keep low.  

Red deer were introduced to New Zealand as sport for the landed gentry in 1851. But by the 1900s, they had flourished and spread throughout the Southern Alps. The vast herds with their indiscriminate browsing and thousands of sharp hooves caused vegetation decimation and erosion on a giant scale, threatening environmental disaster by the early part of last century. 

Despite decades of ground shooting by government-employed hunters, who spent months in valleys killing thousands of deer between the 1930s and 60s, little impression was made on overall deer numbers. It wasn’t until a few hardy souls pioneered shooting from helicopters in the 60s, coupled with the development of an export market to Germany, that deer numbers were reduced to manageable levels in the course of a decade.

At his Te Anau farm, Jeff Carter – a long-time shooter, hard and wiry with a weather-worn face and an easy grin – recalls the glory years when they could easily shoot more than 100 a day. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, I just couldn’t wait to get into it. I thought, ‘This is so neat and I’m getting paid for it, and paid well.’”

Farmer and shooter, Jeff Carter.

Pausing to take a sip of Lion Brown, Carter, 64, slyly delivers one of his trademark lines (by way of W.C. Fields): “But I invested the money wisely on beer and women; the rest I just wasted.”

The daredevil exploits of the pilots, shooters and gutters in both islands became legendary. Whether flying in the challenging, mountainous conditions of the Southern Alps in the underpowered machines of the time, or navigating the relentless bush and tight confines of the Ureweras, it was a dangerous but financially rewarding game. The men pushed their machines and themselves to the limit, working 16 or 18 hours a day for weeks at a time. Tales are still told of young men making the monthly average wage before breakfast – heady times and heady money for the late 60s and 70s. 

Deaths and serious accidents were common, several a month sometimes. Funerals were so frequent they became a ritual of heavy drinking and tall stories – then back to work. Carter remembers the death of his best friend, Colin Yeates. “He said, ‘If something happened to one of us, it would just about put you off helicopters for the rest of your life, wouldn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yes, it would.’

“But the day he was killed, I carried on flying in the helicopter. I couldn’t see the point in not flying. You’re pissed off, you know you’re going to get drunk at a funeral in a couple of days and be the pallbearer, but you just carried on.”

Many a rural cemetery around New Zealand is home to the gravestones of young hunters barely out of their teens. “Home is the hunter, home from the hills” is a familiar theme on headstones; young lives cut short and families destroyed, all in the pursuit and recovery of deer. 

Despite the high attrition rate, a few wise – or lucky – hunters became wealthy by investing in land or businesses. Others drank, in part to relieve the tension or fear; many frittered away their earnings, caught up in the excitement of the times and the unpredictability of their futures.

Pilot Doug Maxwell – in the business from the beginning and, now 64, a survivor of several crashes – sums up the attitude of the time: “I never thought I would get to 30 years old and then I never thought I’d get to 40. Then when you get to 40, you want to get to 50.” 

Callum Hughes is perched on the front seat next to the pilot, his .223 rifle and three or four loaded magazines nestled next to him within easy reach. Through the intermittent mist he and Hollows scan the greenery, creek beds and open slips, looking for that telltale flash of brown or an unusual movement that means the games can begin.

But it’s an expensive game. The chopper, a Hughes 500D, costs upward of $1600 an hour to operate. The hunters need to shoot at least four deer an hour, delivered back to the road end, which here in Fiordland can take a while, to make it worthwhile.

For five minutes, we cruise back and forth, steadily climbing up the valley towards imposing black cliffs. Oh dear, I think, is this going to be one of those days when for some reason there will be no deer? “Oh, you should have been here yesterday, last week, a month ago – couldn’t move for deer…”

Crammed in the back with jerry-cans of fuel, a box of skinning knives, sharpeners and rope strops and with limited vision but, keen to help, I peer hopefully into the vapour. In reality, Hughes and Hollows will see anything long before I do. 

Pilot, Kim Hollows.

Kim Hollows, 54, has been part of the deer business since he was 15. “I was so slight, I could hardly lift the gun against the g-forces and the recoil would boot me back into the cockpit.” As soon as he could, at 18, he started flying. There is no part of Fiordland he hasn’t flown over during the past 35 years.

Hughes is a former policeman who owns wild game outlet Fare Game in Invercargill. Established in 2006 with two customers, his factory now supplies restaurants throughout New Zealand with wild rabbit, hare and goat, but primarily deer. His outlet is one of just a few to process and sell wild venison for the local market.

To keep costs down, he shoots many of his deer on the ground at night on the bush edge. On a really good night he can get 30, but when numbers are needed in a hurry, despite the high upfront cost, he’ll take to the skies.

The chopper gives a slight twitch. “Here we go,” says Hollows, his voice crackling through the intercom. “The bottom of that slip.” We bank steeply and circle towards a steep and exposed stream-bed. Crossing it are two red deer and a fawn. At the sound of the approaching helicopter, they start running, smoothly and gracefully uphill.

Hughes, 44, leans forward, easing his rifle out the door and up to his shoulder. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, in quick succession. The spent cartridges spin into the air. “Fuck, fuck, what the fuck’s going on?” he says.

I can see where the bullets are hitting from the ricochets off the rocks. To the left, to the right, above. But the deer keep running. It’s a hard ask, with both deer and chopper weaving, aiming for only a neck or a headshot.

“What’s happening, mate?” says Hollows drily as he spins the chopper around, keeping the deer in sight. “Want a target pinned on them?”

Safely free of any responsibility in the back, I pass on a comment I once heard from another pilot to his shooter, “While there’s lead in the air, there’s hope in the air.”

After the 10th or 11th shot, a deer eventually drops, then a second. The chopper wheels around as Hollows spots another deer running towards the trees. Bang, bang. This time, only two shots; Hughes is getting his eye in. “Bit hard,” he says apologetically, “when you’re not doing it every day.”

It brings to mind a quip from another old-time shooter who, on asking his boss where to shoot the deer, received the droll reply, “Anywhere in the eye will do.” I decide not to pass this on to Hollows.

With three deer shot, we fly around a ridge into another valley and the tally starts to rise. The use of GPS will make it relatively simple to find the downed deer again in an hour or so for pick-up, but it still needs an experienced eye and a memory for landmarks.

In the 60s and 70s, it was pretty much open slather on shooting and recovering deer. Now, it is heavily regulated, and the Department of Conservation’s wild animal recovery operation (WARO) unit approves just 26 concessions in the South Island for recovery on public conservation lands. At present, 16,000 deer are recovered annually under WARO concessions out of an estimated population of 250,000 wild deer New Zealand wide.

The deer industry itself has imposed regulations requiring that every deer shot has a national provider identifier (NPI) – a unique number with a GPS reference and a tag showing the time and location of death. It ensures the deer haven’t been shot in an area where poison has been laid for possums or taken from a non-authorised area, which has happened more than once in the recent past. The new buzz-phrase is “bush-to-plate tracking”.

But DoC’s widespread use of 1080 to poison possums in some of the recovery areas causes heated debate in the industry, as well as with recreational hunters and conservationists on environmental grounds. “1080 exclusion closes up half the country you can hunt. It’s just ridiculous the way DoC is doing it,” says one disgruntled pilot, voicing the aerial hunters’ common complaint. “That’s why we’re going onto private land more now.” (In fact, most years DoC treats only about five per cent of the conservation estate – 300,000 to 400,000ha – with 1080 bait to manage possums and rats. In a heavy-seeding “mast year”, 1080 control may rise to 800,000ha.)

Pilot- hunter Harvey Hutton

Pilot-hunter Harvey Hutton shoots about 50 per cent of the time on private land now. “A lot of these private places [mostly high-country stations]… there’s no ferry times and it’s only three minutes back to the truck. So you can bang, bang… be doing 10 or 12 deer an hour. I shot 70 out behind the Cardrona pub the other day in just under six hours.”

At around $6.50 a kilo, with an average gutted animal weighing 48kg, plus $50 for the velvet, an animal can be worth up to $400. When the numbers stack up, it’s good money.

We’ve been flying for an hour and a half now and bagged around 10 deer – above the required number to break even – so, despite the slow start, the boys are happy. Me in the back, less so. The combination of the machine being thrown around, the stench of fuel and claustrophobia is making me decidedly queasy. A couple of tight turns later,  I vomit energetically over the top of my camera gear into a plastic tub holding skinning knives and sharpeners, hoping the others won’t notice. Hardly the stuff of legend. 

Happily, we drop down into a beautiful open creek bed and park up the helicopter. As I take pictures, Hollows silently washes out the vomit-stained tub. He says nothing, for which I’m grateful. Both men get to work gutting the deer that have been recovered and stockpiled here earlier.

It’s physical and messy work. Within minutes, their hands are bloodied and faces speckled red as they quickly cut open the bellies and pull out the deer paunches, which steam on the ground in the cold morning air. Every discarded gram lessens the fuel used and increases the carcass numbers transported back to the road-head.

I scramble back into the chopper, then Hughes clips a strop with five deer attached to a hook as we hover overhead. Heading back to the road-head with the deer swinging beneath us, Hollows looks over his shoulder with a grin. “Paul, we’ll drop you off at the truck. We can bring back another deer without you on board.” I look down at my middle-aged puku and can hardly disagree. I’m not worth $6.50 a kilo dead or alive. 

By the late 70s, the venison hunters had cleaned out the big herds and the days of grand tallies were over. Doug Maxwell, who’s been in the industry since the start, recalls: “We were having a hard time making it pay; in fact, we weren’t making it pay. We were lucky to go on a sortie in the Hughes 500 and get five deer in two-and-a-half or three hours. So things were getting quite desperate; the industry was kaput, really.”

The hunters turned to live deer capture, initially jumping out onto the deer from the chopper – a bruising and highly risky business. Broken limbs and hooves smashed into faces were common. But through trial and a lot of error, the use of net guns proved highly effective and spurred the growth of deer farms during the 80s and 90s, which effectively killed off the shoot and recovery industry. 

It’s only in the past decade or so, with the renewal of diners’ interest in wild venison and the development of overseas markets – and with deer numbers on the rise again – that shooting has become marginally viable.

Hollows and Hughes gut the deer that have been shot and stockpiled in a valley.

Another day, another flight, this time with Makarora-based pilot Harvey Hutton and shooter Scott Paterson, to tackle Otago’s wide valleys. The hunt is considerably easier as we cruise the high basins, flushing deer out into the open.

With five deer shot in quick succession, Paterson jumps from the helicopter landing-skid more than a metre to the ground and prepares the deer for pick-up. It pays to be nimble and sure of foot in this steep country. Also fast, with the chopper eating up dollars. In only a couple of minutes, however, Paterson has a load attached and we swoop down to the valley floor.

As he swiftly guts the deer alongside Paterson, a blood-splattered Hutton reflects on a lifetime in the deer recovery business. “After we stopped shooting in the 80s, it took only five years before we were seeing mobs of 30 deer up on the tops, and their tracks were opening back up again. There’s no doubt the best way to control deer is helicopters, and not to have too many operators.”

Hutton is something of a legend in these parts, with a lively history. He may have a vested interest in remaining one of those WARO-approved operators, but seeing from the air the number of deer still around, it’s hard to disagree with his analysis.  

DoC confirms that without aerial hunting deer numbers can rise rapidly in as little as five years; it acknowledges the part helicopter shooters have to play in keeping the population under control. The aerial hunters see what they do as part-public service, although many a recreational shooter who has sweated through the bush or over the tops for his kill may disagree.

The profit margins are still tight, but the chopper boys need little encouragement to take to the air. Shooting is in their blood and aerial shooting is the ultimate. Some are in their 60s and even 70s, but retain the same enthusiasm for deer hunting as they had in their youth.  

In Jeff Carter’s sitting-room – the walls lined with photos of past deer hunts and years spent in choppers – I ask: “How many deer have you shot in your life?”

“Tens of thousands,” he says, glancing out the window as deer on his Te Anau farm wander past.

“But you know, I love deer, I love the old girls out there. And I honestly believe the deer industry, what we’re doing now [aerial hunting], should last for years and years. Because if it doesn’t, what’s the alternative? DoC would have to pay people to go out and shoot to waste.”

It’s a sentiment reflected throughout the industry. Before his death last year, legendary deer culler Mike “Bonehead” Bennett summed it up: “Once, aerial hunters were seen as these insensate murderers... killers who went to work with a smile on their face and came home with a bigger one and a pocketful of money… but we were actually doing a job.”

Bennett’s fellow aerial hunters will be pleased to see their place in animal conservation and control, past and present, finally being recognised. Still, at the end – and beginning – of a Fiordland or Ureweras day, the pilots and shooters would nod at Jeff Carter’s cheeky description: “It’s good fun... the most fun you can have with your pants on.”               

 

  • Thanks to Back Country Helicopters and Fiordland Helicopters for, in writer-photographer Paul Roy’s words, being “kind enough to stuff me on board”.

 

This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of North & South.
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