Antler Management

Trophy sika heads don’t just happen by chance – it takes careful management of the hunting resource to bring out the best. But what’s most surprising is how well this aligns with conservation goals, as Helen Horrocks found out recently when she joined a Sika Foundation management hunt in the Kaimanawa Forest Park.

Sika are notoriously timid and flighty deer that are hard to spot and even harder to shoot in the dense native bush of the central North Island. NZ’s sika herd is the only one below the equator and offers a world class trophy hunting and meat resource. But that resource comes at a cost. Sika are voracious browsers, decimating native bush when their numbers grow too high. With mild conditions and year-round food sources, deer populations can increase exponentially. This is bad news for native species, and it’s also detrimental to the deer. Lack of food means skinnier deer that provide less meat for the hunter’s table and lower quality heads for the wall. But when deer and other pest numbers are kept in check, the results are fatter deer, fine antlers and flourishing native species.

This is the premise of the work of the Sika Foundation – the organisation that exists to manage the central North Island sika herd in balance with the local environment. One of the key activities they carry out is the annual sika management hunts to control deer populations. With the help of HeliSika and DOC, teams of hunters are flown into remote areas of the Kaimanawas at carefully chosen times of year, with the aim of shooting hinds.

That might induce splutters of outrage in some hunters, but the old motto: “Don’t shoot the hinds – it means more deer for the future”, neglects the differing impact of stags and hinds on the environment. While solitary sika stags inhabit huge ranges, moving from high ground to lowland areas in the winter, the hinds form large family groups that seldom stray more than a few square kilometres. These hinds have a destructive effect on the forest they inhabit, and the more hinds there are, the more total and widespread that destruction becomes. 

As the forest is decimated, the deer become malnourished, and fewer fawns get the head start they need in life to create the high-quality trophies that hunters seek. As Sika Foundation scientist

Cam Speedy puts it, “Only feeding can bring out the breeding,” meaning good blood lines alone don’t equal trophy heads – the quality of the environment in which they live plays a critical part in their development. When hunters target only stags and spikers, they effectively supercharge the problem. More hinds mean more destruction of the bush, and more malnourished fawns. 

So, it was with hinds in mind that myself and three other hunters flew into the northern Kaimanawas last October, along with several other teams set for sites across the forest park. The timing meant hinds would be largely pre-fawn, and the previous season’s yearlings would be self-sufficient.

Our team comprised myself and partner Craig, along with a couple of blokes I’d never met before, James and Nick. But I had every confidence we were heading into the bush with some good buggers when James sent me his recommended gear list, which included essentials like a PLB, GPS, and plenty of beers for our evening post-hunt debriefs at camp.

A short flight took us over the Tauranga-Taupo River, before we touched down in a clearing that was to be our camp for the next four days. As the thudding of the Squirrel’s rotors retreated, the quiet of the Kaimanawas encircled us. I sensed a remoteness I’d never felt in New Zealand before, and seldom even in my native Scotland.

I quickly learned what sika droppings look like – the camp and surrounding area was littered with them. Things were looking positive as Craig and I headed out for an afternoon scout, while James and Nick set off in opposite directions, fanning out from our central camp with agreed boundaries to give us each clear hunting.

The advice I’d been given for bush stalking was go as slowly as you can, then go slower. A pace of no more than 500 metres per hour is plenty. We didn’t have to go far to find deer sign though – it seemed the sika had set up camp in the same spot as us.

But by the end of the second day, we’d all drawn a blank. I’d been under no disillusion about how difficult it would be to shoot a sika in the bush, but I thought we might at least have spooked a couple.

Halfway through our third day, however, a crackle of undergrowth behind us stopped us in our tracks. We turned, breath held tight. Craig motioned for me to creep around to the side as he raised his rifle. I’d only moved a few metres when a sika erupted from behind a dead log. A flash of white rump was all we saw as it disappeared. We’d walked right past while it stood silently and watched, its own curiosity the only thing that gave it away.

We made a large circle around to double back on the same spot, hoping the curious deer might return, but after several hours of waiting silently to no avail, we pushed on.

Nearby, a grassy clearing emerged, and I crept forward to find a good spot to stake it out. I didn’t get far. At the top of the clearing a pair of ears popped up above the long grass, wide and alert, before another bolting sika hind disappeared from view. I kicked myself but felt elated just to see another of these cunning creatures.

Back at camp we found Nick also empty handed, and we pinned our hopes on James to redeem us all. Just before sunset, the air filled with the sound of a rifle crack, and we grinned at each other as we awaited James’s return.

Half an hour later, James’s bright orange high-viz vest crashed through the pepperwood.

“A cull stag,” James explained over a celebratory whiskey, describing its gnarled front hoof – a painful deformation to live with, as well as a handbrake on its development. We later found out from the ageing of its jaw that it was 13 years old – well and truly on the decline.

An early chopper flight out on the final day meant we didn’t have time to get back to the honey hole we’d found the previous day, but I was content with the GPS marks I’d logged.

Early on our final morning we followed James to the site of his kill, where he’d gutted and hung his deer overnight. Every scrap of meat was prised from the carcass to be processed into sausages, and it was great to see the lack of waste, even from a less than ideal meat animal.

My own goal for the trip was to learn, and despite never firing a shot, I was blown away by the knowledge I gained – and not just about hunting sika, but the philosophy of managing a hunting resource in balance with the environment. 

Hunting and conservation are frequently thought of as mutually exclusive, but they are more comfortable companions than you might think, thanks to the work of the Sika Foundation.

To get involved, visit www.sikafoundation.co.nz and follow the Sika Foundation on Facebook

Article by: Helen Horrocks

Images by Gerald Fluerty, courtesy of Sika Foundation