A whole new wilderness

Country Wide Magazine, December 2020.

By Annabelle Latz

It was smoko time for Shaun Monk up at Island Hills Station.

He was taking a five minute break from his chain sawing work, lying on his back on the hiking trail he was in the middle of cutting.

“I looked up into the beech trees and saw the territorial battle of a bellbird versus a tui. Although he was much smaller, the bellbird won, puffing his chest up to make himself bigger. It was so cool to watch.”

There are so many reasons Kiwis love exploring their own backyard, and for Shaun, getting close to nature is just one of them.

Turn the clock back to May, the end of lockdown was around the corner, and up at Island Hills Station in North Canterbury the ideas cogs were turning. Shaun Monk would be one of the first to admit his pocket suffered due to Covid-19, with no guided hunting right through the heavily booked red stag roar. But this downtime also provided a chance to think about the future.

Owners of Island Hills Station Dan and Mandy Shand used to run a very successful hiking business on their farm called Hurunui High Country Track. After a bit of discussion over a cup of tea in late autumn they collectively decided a rebirth of this venture was a great idea. Thus, Island Hills Station walking track was born.

GPS tracking, utilising trails already there set by wildlife, scrub-cutting and being on the end of the chainsaw has been a familiar way of life on and off for a couple of years for Shaun as he was establishing trails for a guided hunting business. But since May and the plan for the revamped walking track, it’s been full noise.

“I figured, I might as well go for it, put all resources into it. Go balls in.”

Island Hills Station is 7000 hectares, of which half is low-input extensive sheep and beef farming, the remainder being non-grazed reserve, including Canterbury’s biggest parcel of QE11 Covenant at 600ha. Shaun, originally from the West Coast, came out to Island Hills Station several years ago for a visit to do some hunting and recreation.

“It was so diverse, around every corner was a new hidden gem, a new gully, or grassy knob.”

The walking track opened in October, the self-guided two or three day hike taking in the rolling hills of the farmland, and the conservation land boasting forests of regenerating beech and manuka, filled with the sounds of bell birds and an increasing number of other native species.

“I’ve seen tui, Tom tit, fantail, wax eye, wood pigeon, bush robin, morepork, kakariki….. shall I continue?”

He says over the past several years there’s been a noticeable increase in bird numbers. Bush Hut and The Valley Camp are the two well equipped huts on the track, with hikers arriving on the evening pre departure and enjoying a night at the Cook House down by the homestead. The trails are well marked and achievable for anyone with a keen spirit for adventure and a few kilometres of walking under their belt. It’s technical enough to make it feel like a real back country adventure, yet still allows for a sense of relaxation, especially when all of your gear is carted to the huts for you.

“The track definitely has some challenges, but we will focus on ensuring it is safe.”

Mount Skedaddle stands at 1700m and those keen for an extra few kilometres are more than welcome to ask Shaun for a guided hike to its summit.

“I want to keep the guided off-trail options open too, there is always someone keen for an extra challenge.”

The close presence of history is hard to miss. Track markers including names like Upham allow the mind to cast a thought to who once graced this land.

“And that trail over there,” Shaun says, pointing to a well worn grassy trail near the base of the Organ Mountain lying to the west, “was a well used packhorse track from the northern part of the South Island through to the West Coast before the Lewis Pass road was built.”

Even on the worst weather day, life is not too bad up at Island Hills Station. Shaun says the Nor’West trickles over bringing a bit of wind, but not too much rain.

“It’s very forgiving here, it would be a very rare occurrence that a booking will be cancelled due to the weather.”

The keen conservationist will enjoy hunting guiding in the cooler months when the trails are closed.

“I was sitting sharpening my chainsaw a few weeks ago at Organ Creek when I heard some sloshing in the water. I looked up and saw four deer, who just all stopped a few meters away and looked at me. They paused, then walked away. It was such a nice encounter.”

The long term goal is to up the predator control efforts on the farm to the point where introducing endangered birds could become possible.

“Imagine having kiwi roaming around here, I’d love to see that in my lifetime.” Shaun said it was a lot of hard work and he and his helpers were going “hell for leather” to get it done.

“I still haven’t seen every part of this place yet. It’s such a cool farm to explore, and it excites me to show this to people.”


“It was so diverse, around every corner was a new hidden gem, a new gully, or grassy knob.”


See the article online here

A whole new wilderness | With Belles On
Too little | With Belles On

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

Call for pause on tahr culling plans, New Zealand

Country Wide Magazine, September 2020.

A Department of Conservation programme to cull Himalayan Tahr from the mountains of the Southern Alps has stirred up the hunting community. Annabelle Latz reports.

The tahr hunting community fear the Department of Conservation will cull the tahr population in two of the South Island’s National Parks to a level that will strip away their ability for recreational and commercial hunting.

Within its review of the Himalayan thar control plan 1993 (HTCP), DOC said its estimated population of 34,500 tahr is too high, and has commenced a controlled culling programme across the feral range which includes Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park and Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

The goal is to reduce the tahr population to 10,000.

This operational plan for 2020-21 is on hold for now, however, because the New Zealand Tahr Foundation (NZTF) in early July filed judicial review proceedings against the Minister of Conservation and Director-General of Conservation. 

The foundation’s claim that DOC’s time frame to allow for reasonable review of the revised Operational Plan was inadequate, was upheld, resulting in DOC being instructed to undertake only half of its proposed 250 controlled culling hours throughout the feral range, until after further consultation with stakeholders took place. 

This consultation took place at the beginning of the month and included 12 oral and 13 written submissions. 

DOC will be making a decision about its number of culling hours by the end of the month.

Operations director, says DOC made the decision to undertake only 60 hours within the National Parks while consultation was carried out, and took place between July 1 and early August, and he said the planned activity was made public.

“DOC is in agreement that further research is needed for effectively reviewing the HTCP 1993 plan.”

Inside the 148,000 hectares of National Parks DOC wants tahr at the lowest practicable densities, (targeting bulls and nannies) compared to the remaining 425,000ha areas outside of the National Parks but still within the feral range, where lowest practicable densities is not the goal, and they will target just nannies.

Reddiex admits the plan has never been reviewed, as was intended when it was first published in 1993. He also sympathises with the tahr hunting sector, and acknowledges how special National Parks are to them as a place to hunt, but says there will still be tahr in the National Parks, just not to the quantity they are now.

“The two National Parks are just 148,000ha of the total 706,000ha, (seven tahr management units) in the South Island.”

Population density reviews happened between 2016 and 2019, tahr populations estimated from aerial surveys across a number of two kilometre square grids. 

DOC will be proactively publishing maps which include sightings of bull tahr outside of the National Parks, to help trophy hunters plan their next hunt. 

If the full 250 hours of culling does take place, valid until July 1, 2021, it will cost DOC $700,000.

The Tahr Jam was a huge success for the NZTF last month, which saw more than 1000 people in 600 vehicles drive slowly from Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook Village, in a bid to peacefully rally against DOC’s magnitude of proposed culling hours and the targeting of bull tahr in National Parks – which through mutual agreement, hasn’t happened for years;  55,000 people also signed a petition requesting DOC ‘halt the 2020-21 tahr cull and review the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan’.

As a crowd gathered in the village, some mentioned helicopter culling had begun without any prior notification to park users and tahr were being shot in close vicinity to huts and around people in the hills, ruining their long-awaited trips, some who had travelled from the North Island and incurred considerable expense. Witnesses say tahr took 18 shots to kill, while some were left wounded and died slowly in the snow.

Willie Duley, NZ Tahr Foundation spokesperson, acknowledges DOC was given the right by the High Court to begin its 125 hours of interim culling last month without consultation, but says he hoped they would have been more collaborative in their approach to reduce conflict. 

He says it’s the amount of common ground among the stakeholders tied up in this debate continually being ignored that is the most frustrating for the tahr hunting industry. Having a tahr population in the National Parks which enables the natural habitat to thrive is what hunters want just as much as non-hunters, and it can be achieved with proper consultation and a well thought out management plan.

“We can all have our cake and eat it too”.

There are 166,000 highly passionate hunters in NZ, many more than happy to continue helping with control work.

Duley is concerned with the 34,500 tahr population DOC talks about, this figure an average, estimated on their population data gathering that took place between 2016-2019 which ranged from 17,000 to 54,000 tahr.

NZTF population modelling says 18,000 tahr have been removed in the last three years, and of that 11,000 have been removed since the last 2019 population survey. This means 20,000 tahr remain, of which 5000 are estimated to be nannies which control the breeding.

“A three-fold increase in culling from DOC is frightening and totally unwarranted, particularly at a time when hundreds of hunting businesses are still hurting from the effects of Covid-19. There is no conservation imperative for this magnitude of culling and their continual spin on this issue is very misleading.”

Duley says hunting would not be viable in the National Parks if populations were reduced to DOC’s intended zero densities. 

“That is our major concern, especially when we’re the largest user group of much of the parks.”

He would also like to see DOC focus on targeting nannies as this is the best way to control population while bulls are the recreation incentive and income provider for thousands of Kiwis.  

“Our mental health relies so much on spending time in those mountains and living among tahr. I challenge anyone to say a bull tahr in that rugged and inhospitable environment isn’t impressive.”

‘I admire how they are able to survive in such a harsh environment. Those mountains, that terrain, it’s no easy feat to carve out an existence in that environment…. It’s also important to us to know where our food comes from.’

Highlight of the year

Matt Sanson’s annual multi-day tahr hunting trip with friends to Westland Tai Poutini National Park is a true highlight of his year.

A tool for escaping the hustle and bustle, spending time with friends, and gracing the same challenging and remote areas as the tahr.

“In this day and age it’s getting harder to get that kind of adventure, where you feel you are the first person to visit a place. I think time in nature and the challenge of remote places is a fundamental experience that all people should have.”

Although he admits the worst part about hunting is actually killing an animal, he says hunting is also about the connection with food.

“I admire how they are able to survive in such a harsh environment. Those mountains, that terrain, it’s no easy feat to carve out an existence in that environment…. It’s also important to us to know where our food comes from. For hunters, we know the animal before it ends up on our plate. It’s such a natural thing, it’s a natural process.”

Non-hunters sometimes join him, a life-changing adventure and a chance for the them to gather an understanding of what tahr mean to hunters as a resource.

“There are two sides to the discussion, and yes I agree that numbers need to be managed. But it doesn’t take much to tip the balance. Removing them completely from National Parks is callous and unnecessary.”

Before the cull DOC enforced in 2018, Matt would see mobs of 50 tahr, and during his recent trip to Westland he saw perhaps 25 in total.

He vividly remembers his first-ever tahr hunting trip 15 years ago up the Bettison Stream in South Westland, and that immense enjoyment still stands today.

“We love the idea of tahr collectively, more than we love individual tahr. Hunters understand the need for population control, but not at the expense of the resource that provides organic free-range meat, a fantastic challenge, and gets so many out to experience our wild and remote places.”

Matt suggests tahr is managed in the same way Wapiti in Fiordland is managed, where animal management and population control is undertaken through a strategy jointly devised by hunters and DOC.


 “If populations get too high, tahr do damage flora and fauna. But the tahr hunting community believe there is a balance that can be achieved between looking after the alpine environment, and having tahr there.


“A three-fold increase in culling from DOC is frightening and totally unwarranted, particularly at a time when hundreds of hunting businesses are still hurting from the effects of Covid-19.”


See the article online here
Pause on Tahr Culling | With Belles On
Pause on Tahr Culling | With Belles On