Is it too little, too late for tahr? New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, November 2020.

By Annabelle Latz


Positive discussions have taken place between the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Game Animal Council (GAC) regarding the current aerial tahr control programme, resulting in changes to control work outside Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland/Te Poutini National Parks.

In July, DOC was ordered by the High Court to undertake only 125 aerial control hours of the proposed 250 hours under the Tahr Control Operational Plan for 2020/21 before undertaking further consultation. DOC was also requested to analyse oral and written submissions from stakeholders involved in the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group (TPILG), before making its decision and releasing its final Operational Plan. 

The TPILG includes representatives from the hunting sector, Ngai Tahu, ecology, conservation, research, high country farmers, tramping fraternity, meat processing industry, and government bodies.

The management of Himalayan tahr is governed by DOC’s statutory plan, the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993, that stipulates the tahr population is to be monitored and limited in their South Island range which includes Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland/Te Poutini National Parks. In total, this area is 706,000ha, divided up into seven tahr management units. 

On September 1 DOC announced the distribution of its remaining 125 hours outside the national parks would remain largely as per the original plan. 

The tahr hunting sector remained disappointed and concerned that DOC’s estimated population numbers were too high, population research was out of date, and aerial control was being targeted to the wrong areas thus effectively eliminating the tahr population for hunters in some places. 

“It’s really sad, as there’s so much common ground between stakeholders with 90% of the recent submissions all on the same page,” said Tahr Foundation spokesperson Willie Duley.

On September 8 DOC met with the Game Animal Council (GAC) to discuss where the remaining 77 hours of control work outside the two national parks would be undertaken. Following plenty of discussion, it was agreed to reallocate some of the control hours to target less accessible areas of the feral range, and keep the more accessible areas for hunters. 

“We are reducing our previously planned control hours within the South Rakaia and Upper Rangitata management unit which is favoured by hunters,” DOC’s Operational Director Dr Ben Reddiex said. 

DOC agreed to avoid popular hunting spots and huts, focus on controlling high densities of tahr within terrain that is less suitable for ground hunting. It would leave identifiable male tahr for hunters outside of the national parks’ management unit, improve hunter access by extending the popular tahr ballot. The latest control data is regularly updated on DOC’s website.

GAC general manager Tim Gale was satisfied with the result of the discussions, and this is what the tahr hunting sector wanted all along – an open discussion and to have all the information on the table.

“Everyone has always agreed that tahr do need managing, it’s about how much, how many tahr, by whom, and where. It’s about the quantum of control.”

GAC mapped out areas and suggested places where recreational hunters were unable to access and official control should target, as opposed to ballot landing sites and really popular hunting areas.

“It was a two-way, free and frank discussion about the pros and cons of the current allocation of hours within the Management Units, and the merits of reallocating hours,” Gale said.

The outcome was positive, which now means DOC is still getting the tahr control they wanted, and the tahr hunting sector can continue to hunt in the popular and accessible areas.

Gale said the potential risk lies in the coming year, the drop in breeding due to the number of juveniles and nannies that have been targeted by recent control programmes. 

“The bulls will start to die of natural mortality, or get shot, and with reduced recruitment, the population may just fall off the cliff in some places.”

In mid October DOC held a meeting with the TPILG to discuss a Research and Monitoring Strategy in order to help identify priorities for tahr research and monitoring. 

“There are questions we need to be asking in the research. How many tahr the habitat can handle, how many tahr and what types of tahr hunters need to have a good experience. It’s about tahr population impacts and ecology, understanding hunting, knowing how many bulls there are compared to nannies and what will happen with future herd structure. Also, how this research takes place, when, and who does it,” Gale said before the meeting.

Duley sees very little concession, as the same amount of culling hours still stand and DOC continues to target the highly prized bull tahr in national parks.

He is also nervous about the damage being done to the tahr herd structure by DOC’s annihilation of the breeding nanny population as well as the juveniles, of which 50% will be males.

“We will see the real damage in the years to come, there won’t be those young bull replacements and as soon as the old bulls die off, there will be some massive age gaps. This won’t help when the tourist hunters come back looking for a trophy bull.”

Duley says it’s a case of ‘too little too late’ for DOC’s decision to back out early from some of the management units and they should have listened to the industry’s advice on where culling was needed from the word go. 

“We’re on the ground, we know the tahr hot spots but they ignored us”.

“They have already culled those units in round one, so the damage is already done. It’s only logical that they would now focus on the more inaccessible areas with higher populations. It’s just really sad, this whole process could have been managed so much better by DOC, without all the conflict. I’m deeply concerned about what future lies ahead for the tahr and all hunting communities around the country”

James Cagney, Professional Hunting Guides Association president, says the $103 million commercial hunting industry must be protected. 

At least 95% of those hunters are from outside our borders, and of that, 82% are from the United States.

Cagney adds that 20% of that international market is tahr driven, as NZ is the only readily accessible tahr hunting destination in the world. Hunters capitalise on this, usually hunting for red stags too.

If the tahr hunting option was removed, hunters would most likely choose a destination closer to their own homes to hunt for red stags.

“The big factor with tahr is they are a really big drawcard for overseas hunters. The value of the tahr herd to the hunting industry is greater than the revenue generated by tahr.”

Cagney is concerned DOC is launching into the culling programme without pausing to assess the numbers of tahr currently out there. 

“We have a male-bias herd, the proposed culling could reduce the breeding population to as low as 2000 females.”

He says in the last three years more than 18,000 tahr have been killed, and DOC’s failure to pause and assess numbers has caused genuine fear amongst the hunting community.

“The 1993 Plan talks about a number of 10,000, but wasn’t hard and fast. It’s time to pause, do some monitoring, establish where the herd is currently, and propose what the population will look like afterwards.”

Cagney explains the required research really has two basic stages. The first is to establish how many there are, get a gauge of the demographic and male/female densities. The second is getting into the nuts and bolts, scientifically assessing the impact on vegetation and how many tahr specific areas can sustain. 

“The hunting sector values our biodiversity just as much as the conservationists do. But we believe with science and proper management, we can have positive outcomes for both.”


Pendulum needs to swing back

The Himalayan Tahr Plan from 1993 sits on the shelf in Dr David Norton’s office in the Forestry Department at the University of Canterbury gathering dust.

“I say to my students, there is no point creating something that is going to sit on the shelf and gather dust, it has to be something you reference and use regularly.”

Norton is a Professor in Ecology and Conservation Biology, and someone who has been knocking around in the mountains for the past 40-odd years, and also an expert on forest and alpine systems, and holds a thorough understanding of the partnership between land users, hunters, and the environment. 

As herbivores and mob animals, tahr eat grasses, herbs, shrubs, tussocks, forest seedlings, and in turn can change tall tussock grassland to short tussock grassland.

“They also eat large palatable herbs, and enjoy soft palatable food like buttercups, including the Mt Cook Buttercup.”

“Population density should have been managed over the years since the plan was written in 1993, and vegetation monitoring plots measured regularly, and DOC should have been working with hunters the whole time, but these things haven’t happened.”

Norton shares Gale’s view that there has been some really good progress recently between DOC and stakeholders, but these conversations need to lead to further change. 

“I guess my hope and wish is that the communication between DOC and GAC evolves into the development of a new version of the tahr control plan and to its ongoing implementation. I really believe that only through true collaboration will we be able to get a sustainable solution that meets both conservation and hunter interests.”

Norton was left feeling more optimistic after recent conversations with DOC, but it is always a worry of his when politics gets in the way of sensible resource management decision making.

“The pendulum needs to swing back again. We all need to sit down together and work out how to move forward with managing tahr in a collaborative manner.”

He acknowledges DOC has not had the funding to put their required resources into the plan, but the two fundamental problems of lack of tahr population management and lack of communication needs to be sorted out. 

“The blame doesn’t lie with any one community. But there needs to be a rational discussion about how many animals are out there and what their impacts are at different densities and in different areas, so let’s get some good science in there, and figure out a sustainable management solution together.”



‘Everyone has always agreed that tahr do need managing, it’s about how much, how many tahr, by whom, and where. It’s about the quantum of control.’

See the article online here

Too little | With Belles On
Too little | With Belles On
Too little | With Belles On

Screaming out for strong marketing, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, November 2020.

Marketing, targets and research is what the New Zealand strong wool industry needs for it to become the fibre of choice, rather than synthetics. 

Rick Orr of Red Oak Stud says this has been the industry’s downfall.

“The biggest problem is that we do nothing to add value to the strong wool industry. We don’t process anything here. Wool factories are closing down, but we need to make more products here.”

Red Oak Stud has been in the Orr family since 1923, and Rick and his wife Deb have been farming Romneys since 1989.

This Romney ram breeding venture began in Wanganui, where they would sell up to 400 rams a year.

During the 1990s, together with a group of clients, they would send hundreds of bales of wool to Hunters in Scotland for tweed jackets and other strong wool products.

“We were getting a good premium.”

At the time they were undertaking plenty of wool research through PGG and WRONZ.

“We learned that the highest bulk with the lowest variation was the best option for carpet.” 

During these times there were 72 million sheep running around NZ, the United States carpet market used one percent NZ half bred wool.

“If they had used 2%, New Zealand would not have been able to produce enough.”

In 2001 The Orr family moved the stud down to Weka Pass in North Canterbury, where they run a 2100-hectare Romney and Angus stud with their son Ash. 

Rick says the North Canterbury dry summers are restrictive on performance, and there is certainly no money in buying in feed. 

They could run twice the stock in Wanganui, but had to learn to adjust. 

“We probably pushed the envelope a bit here as North Islanders when we first moved. But it’s hard when you have 30-year-old genetics and capital stock you don’t want to get rid of.”

Although Rick admits the land is a bit “too good for Merinos” they do now cross Merino rams over their Romney ewes, to try and add value and reduce the microns. 

They began cross breeding five years ago, more seriously in the last three years, because crossbred wool was performing so poorly. 

Nowadays, there’s about 17 million sheep in NZ, and strong wool is just about irrelevant.

“To shear a sheep, you pretty much pay a bill. You’re getting between $1-$2/kg, it’s absolute shit.”

They used to shear every six months, but have now opted for every eight months due to cost.

“The cost to shear is $5-$6, if you are getting $2/kg for the wool you have to get 3kg just to pay the bill. So assuming halfbreds perform well, and we can maintain the good attributes of the Romney, we will be better off. In a few years’ time, more than half the flock could be a half-bred base.”

What is interesting is that a 19-micron Merino ram over a 35-micron Romney ewe will breed progeny with a 22-25 micron fleece. 

“A 22-25 micron here, as opposed to a 32-35 micron, is worth $12-$14/kg as opposed to $1-$2/kg.”

Per stock unit, they’re better off by $40 with a halfbred. And breeding a halfbred sheep performing the same lambing-wise, they will be significantly better off.

“Nothing will beat lambing percentage and the meat price, no matter how good your wool is.”

Rick says the strong wool industry needs a marketing model similar to The New Zealand Merino Company; strong wool also needs long term direction and added value markets. 

“We have not so much given up on strong wool, but we are better off doing something we can control. But wool is a unique resource and it is sustainable, that is the big statement here.”

Ash has started taking over the reins of Red Oak Stud, where they also have an Angus breeding programme.

He enjoys the Romney bloodlines, but is nervous about the future of strong wool.

“Because how often do you see a wool advertisement? We have a lack of manufacturers, suppliers and production, so it’s just a vicious cycle. Strong wool farmers have no confidence.”

Ash says it’s time to look beyond clothing and carpet for strong wool. Insulation, cutlery, surf boards, chairs and seat covers are options that need investigation.

“And we need to breed a product that is consistent, and we need to breed to targets so we can plan.”

Ash agrees with his father that it will take some solid education about the sustainability of wool, and some Government direction.

“It would take the Government to say ‘all KiwiBuild houses have to have wool carpet.’ The Government should be saying ‘We want to use this wool product; farmers you produce it and we’ll use it.’” 

As far as the breeding goes, Ash says if NZ strong wool farmers focus on strong bloodlines and solid data, collectively there can be a consistent strong wool product to take into the market.

“Because consumers don’t realise the unique quality resource we’ve got. It deserves continual investigation and time invested, because there are so many great attributes that need smart minds and market research getting behind it.”


‘The biggest problem is that we do nothing to add value to the strong wool industry. We don’t process anything here. Wool factories are closing down, but we need to make more products here.’

See the article online here

Screaming | With Belles On
Screaming | With Belles On

Strong wool, tide may be turning. New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, November 2020.

North Canterbury farmer Chris Earle is among those seeking a better future for strong wool. Annabelle Latz reports.


Thumbing through the old wool prices on the family farm in North Canterbury, Chris Earl sees that in the mid-1980s wool was 60% of his father’s income.

His great grandfather had an article in Waipara’s 1958 Squatter and Settler publication about the cost of wool and shearing.

“It was costing them two fleeces of wool to shear 100 sheep, wool prices were buoyant and shearers were on good money,” Chris says.

In 1989 he and his wife Jane bought 156 hectares in Scargill, and this has grown into a 693ha farm, through subsequent additions and leasing.

They bred Corriedales for a decade, and dabbled with Romneys.

Chris says in the late ‘80s wool prices slipped off the pace a bit, but were still reasonable.

In 2008 they bought Longdowns Stud, which was started in Temuka by Michael and Robyn Talbot with Coopworths in the 1970s, a good all purpose sheep. From the late 1990s the Talbots introduced Texel, then  East Friesian and Finn in small amounts, to increase fertility and milking ability.

This style of sheep allowed the Earls to focus more on carcaseweight and easy lambing, rather than wool production.

‘The writing was on the wall with wool. It was becoming less and less of our income. For the push to survive, we needed faster-growing lambs, and more of them.”

Chris acknowledges that New Zealand has been very innovative in the primary sector space, particularly with regard to our dairy industry and the fine wool industry.

But the strong wool industry has been left behind.

“The point I’m trying to make here, is that as a strong wool industry we have made poor decisions. It’s something that hasn’t happened overnight, but it has been a bit of our own doing.”

He believes NZ strong wool is the best in the world, but between leaving the sheep’s back and landing in the market, there has been a lack of standardisation which has created little vision, direction and confidence in the industry.

More assistance with the marketing of it is needed to create consistent quality, clear expectations from consumers, and a driven focus for producers.

“We’re busy farming, why isn’t the Government stepping in and promoting it?”

With the NZ Wool Board now gone, a marketing gap has been left and needs someone to fill it as there is a lack of a collective voice.

“Especially with the massive global movement of the importance of a green renewable resources. We need less reliance on oil products, and wool is in the perfect position to fill that gap.”

The biggest sellers of wool are the freezing works, which is only going to increase as the cost of shearing gets higher and farmers choose to leave fleeces on when their stock is loaded on to the truck.

Adding to this, lanolin and keratin could both be better utilised as an extra income from shearing.

“Why have we given it away? We don’t get paid a cent for the grease.”

He concedes woollen carpet is never going to be the saviour of the wool industry, or insulation.

“Not when you have synthetics coming into it.”

Thinking about alternative uses for wool such as continence pads, face masks, nappies, and horticultural aids like woollen mats for around trees, is the way the industry needs to be turning.

“There is a lack of general education. People don’t understand the product, some think sheep have to die to get the wool off their backs.”

With the increase in dairy industry and fewer sheep being bred these days, Chris says it would make sense for demand of all wool to be strong.

“But we’re getting under $2/kg. The best we ever got with our wool was close to $5/kg.”

So the best favour strong wool breeders can do themselves at the moment is focus on carcaseweights.

He remembers being a kid, and the Corriedale lambs were light, with wool from their toes to their nose, and barley grass everywhere.

“We’d sit in the catching pen  and be pulling the barley grass out of their eyes.”

Today they strive for less wool, and faster-growing lambs that grade well at heavier weights, and they aim for more of them.

“In the mid-’80s the average lamb was 12.5kg carcaseweight, there was no genetics to grow them out. Today, 18 to 20kg lambs are sold straight off their mum, in the same period of time. This keeps you in the game.”

The Earls did work with a slightly lower micron of 31-32 with their earlier breeds, and they’d cut a 4.5kg fleece. But the yield was 65-70%.

“These girls now cut 3-3.5kg fleeces, with a 34-45 micron, and a yield close to 80%.”

Chris says although it looks half a kilogram difference on paper, the workload and mothering time is a lot less.

“We’re getting less for the wool, but overall it’s better.”

It’s about getting lambs on the ground.

“Because wool is the most inheritable trait you can get on the sheep. Right now, it’s about getting the stuff that pays the bills, sorted.  We can improve the wool quality later, and quickly, when the New Zealand strong wool market comes right.”

But Chris does believe consumers are looking at more sustainable options.

“The tide is turning on synthetic products, you can feel it. If that is going to be the savior, we have the trump card.”


‘As a strong wool industry we have made poor decisions. It’s something that hasn’t happened overnight, but it has been a bit of our own doing.’

See the article online here

Strong Wool | With Belles On
Strong Wool | With Belles On

No Pain, No Rogaine

It’s 10pm and the drizzle has switched up a notch to steady rain.

“In fairness,” chirps Dani a couple of metres ahead of me as we scramble through the thick Old Man’s Broom, “at least we’re not in that prickly Matagouri.”

We have named ourselves team Around The Clock, (team74) and we’re navigating our way across the gully to Checkpoint 71, via some thick scrub we’re hoping to skim around the side of.

Wind the clock forward an hour.

“In fairness,” I chirp, a couple of metres behind Dani as we scramble through the thick Matagouri bush, “at least this time we’re on track with where we want to go.” The compass assures us of it.


Oh the power of positivity.

Dani is a weapon on the navigation and with the compass, I’m in awe as she still manages to work out roughly what ridge we’re heading for.
Wind the clock forward to 2am.

“F*ck this,” we say in chorus, as we bash through a combination of the both elements of scrub, down by a stream we end up wading through.

Our legs are bleeding, we’re bundu bashing hard and even suffering the odd tumble down a steep bank. Incredible how you can be skimming along the top of a pile of branches, then within a split second you’re basically underground. Well under scrub.

Our Positive Cup is empty. It’s 3.30am.

We reach Bush Camp up by the access road. Soaked through (water goes up your sleeves when you’re swinging from branches in thick scrub), cold and shivering and bit fed up, and desperately needing something hot in our bellies. Our spirits lift as we’re greeted by the chirpy Search and Rescue guys and volunteers who are there to make life comfortable for just a few minutes.

Inside the hut is a war zone. Casualties are huddled by the fire and sleeping, their minds and bodies too hammered to continue.

The rule here is simple. “If you go inside by the fire, you’re declaring you’ve finished.”
Not the case with us. We still wanted to add a bit more discomfort to our adventure.
A quick change of clothes and about four hot drinks later, our discomfort subsides enough to head off once more. The rain has not subsided, the wind has picked up, and the need to keep moving to retain some core warmth is vital.

Welcome to the scene in the thick of the small hours at the NZ 24 hour Rogaining Championships in Hanmer Springs, North Canterbury.
The name of the event is grandiose. But simply put, Dani and I are there as part of a fun adventure weekend away with friends and collectively we think we are due a challenge.
The challenge is delivered in spades thanks to a southerly blast that shakes the muggy low pressure system out of the way just before midnight.
When we kick off at midday on Saturday things are great. We boost up a few peaks gaining well over 1000m in altitude pretty quickly, steadily punching our CPs we’ve marked on the map. The back blocks of Hanmer Springs are beautiful. Life was good.
At 8.30pm, on point with the weather forecast, the clouds started to spit at us. On goes an extra layer, the wet weather gears and the headlight, pocketing one more CP as darkness falls.

The birds start to chirp as we leave the relative haven of Bush Camp at 4.30am. Mentioning a sunrise is too generous, but the sky starts to lighten after a while. We’re mindful of nearby CPs, but also battling to stay awake. That battle is occasionally lost as we both start to sleepwalk as we hike down the access road. It’s quite funny and we laugh out loud as we both take turns at momentarily losing consciousness while our legs continue to operate. The SleepMonsters have fun with our minds too, I see police cars ahead while giant birds fly towards me. Complimentary hallucinogens hell yes.

The rain turns to sleet and the wind picks up more.
We opt for a technical trail for further CP seeking to get us off the exposed tops.
Before long, a couple of hours are chewed up. We punch in a couple more CPs, then high five and call it a day.

Even as we navigate the last hour home, we’re not out of the woods with battling the conditions and it’s important we keep moving as our body temperatures battle.
It’s 9.30am, and we arrive back at camp. Where it all began, 21.5 hours ago. We tag ourselves in.

Hot soup and bread and we are out of the elements.
We grin.
Back at the house our friends slowly return home too from their adventures.
The place is a bomb site with wet clothes and muddy shoes and mushed up race food that never got eaten.

Slipping in and out of warm naps throughout the afternoon, we gather our thoughts in the early evening and head to the pub for some goodness.
Between the six of us we mow a couple of kilograms of steak and sink a few pints.
Life is good. We grin. We share stories.

Tomorrow is Monday and we’ll be heading back to the real world.
But for two days we escaped life, gave our minds and bodies a good auld shake up, and replenished our souls.