Notes for an illustrated talk for the Ruahine Action Group at Palmerston North given by W. F. Benfield. 29/10/11.
Today, I want to talk about deer. Not about hunting deer, but about the deer’s role in the landscape.
This is really only an issue, because the people who control the deer, the Department of Conservation, want to get rid of them, and they don’t really care how it is done, be it by helicopter meat recovery (WARO) or by poisoning them.
The question we have to ask is; why are we in this position, what is wrong with deer, or for that matter, chamois, and tahr?
It all goes back to several things, but a lot of it can be laid at the door of the famous colonial era botanist, Leonard Cockayne, and his failure to properly read the evidence of the land before him. It was Cockayne who believed that moa were few in number, lived only on grass lands and as a result, the forests were never browsed. He believed that because of this, they just could not cope with any browse at all.
It was because of this, he claimed deer browse would; firstly lead to the extinction of tree species (funnily enough, he considered possum browse was not significant). Secondly, he believed that animal browse would impair the forests ability to stop erosion, and so erosion material would be swept out onto the plains, carried by floods made worse by damaged forest and so destroy farms and towns. It was the sort of alarmist stuff that would make the good townsfolk fear for their towns and generate a lot of very anti deer sentiment.
When Professor William Graf spent time in New Zealand in the 1950’s, he was amazed at the virulent anti exotic animal phobia. Little has changed since, and as it suits the bureaucratic agenda of DoC and the fund raising hysteria of organisations like Forest & Bird. It will continue to do so until we do something about it.
As Cockayne was the consulting botanist to the Forest Service, his beliefs became departmental policy, and because they were on the authority of Cockayne, they were never questioned or tested. Even to this day the same stories get trotted out by DoC and the advocates of forest destruction, such as Forest & Bird.
In fact, if we look at the evidence, firstly on browse, archaeological evidence clearly shows the land was largely covered with forest, and moa were many in number and forest browsers; the claim that the forests were never browsed is a complete falsehood. What is more, the pre-human browse by moa and other birds was massive; it held in check the growth of the forest, it was a system in balance, maintained by the browse of the big birds.
Even possum browse is insignificant compared to the production abilities of the forest or the pre-human browse of birds. The often cited examples of possum damage are more usually the result of disease or climatic factors and have nothing to do with possum.
Cockayne’s belief that deer browse would lead to the extinction of some forest trees is so wildly misplaced in light of the fact that it is lack of browse that is leading to the slow extinction of forest types. Forests, such as ancient rimu forests are being replaced by forests of trees that in the pre-human forest would have been suppressed by the browse of moa, trees such as tawa, rata and kamahi. Deer will to some extent replace that browse, and as Thane Riney was able to show at Lake Monk, the older browse resistant types, such as rimu will once more come to dominate. Deer do have a place and are a part of a healthy forest.
Cockayne’s second belief that animal browse would cause erosion was studied in the Ruahine Ranges by the hydrologist, Patrick Grant. He found erosion follows patterns of severe weather and has nothing at all to do with animal browse. He wrote that claims by the Forest Service that forests prevent flood were "demonstrably false".
Estimates for the number of moa in pre-human New Zealand vary between 6 and 12 million. The last estimate for deer numbers was a 1993 "off the cuff calculation" of 240,000 by Landcare Research. As most are on private land, the actual numbers and impact of deer on the conservation estate is slight, and well below the level that would make any beneficial difference to the native forests and grasslands. What you really have is bush and grasslands where the problem is not deer, but a lack a lack of deer to maintain a browse.
To undertake any significant reduction in deer numbers by WARO or whatever other means would be counterproductive to the health of the conservation estate, despite that, unless we put up a strong case against it, it will go ahead, mainly because the drivers of our nations insane conservation policies are now wider than just DoC.
There is at the back of all this a growing movement, in the beginning it was just Cockayne’s irrational beliefs which became the bureaucratic agenda for forest service. It has now spread to the wider society and has morphed into a rising green religion, of a "pristine Aotearoa" a mythical land that never was. It is something that DoC can use to its advantage in levering its budgets, and in it, they are joined by conservation organisations such as Forest & Bird.
It is trying to create an indigenous ecological purity by killing off all alien exotic plants and creatures, and then put a bell jar over the land to preserve it in this pure form, free from any alien life. It is a complete fallacy, but an incredibly powerful myth amongst a largely urbanised population.
It is also an incredibly rich field for using threats to this mythical land as a driver for fund raising. The "we need your money to save our forest and birds" is used to harvest bequests and corporate sponsors. Like all of these sorts of things, the threats don’t have to be "real", its like Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction" or the Jewish "threat" in pre-war Germany; it is creating an irrational fear.
In New Zealand, possum, stoats, rats and deer fill the role of bogeymen, and it is here that the real damage to our fauna and flora come. So irrational is the hate generated, that in a frenzy to eliminate the "pests" everything is being killed, in time, even the forests.
The winners of this deeply flawed programme will not be our beautiful birds and forests, but fast breeding rats and stoats which will be living in de-graded forests. That is why we have to break this senseless cycle of destruction.
I see our future land management as being "range management". A management whereby the whole system of the browsers and the lands and forests are allowed to as much as possible self regulate and come to their own balance, which they will in time within a "stable limit cycle". No browsers would be pests. Harvest of game animals such as deer, chamois, and tahr would have to be controlled to ensure numbers are conserved at reasonable level as is necessary for the health of the forests.
A start can be made right now by removing the "pest" status from forest browsing animals. The Minister of Conservation can do this at the stroke of a pen.Thankyou.
Bill's Blog. http://billbenfield.blogspot.com