The Red Deer of New Zealand

A typical 6x6 or 12 point high country Stag in New Zealand

There is probably no other species in New Zealand that has as much confusion and controversy surrounding it than the Red stag. I hope to give an overview of the history of red deer in New Zealand and help people better understand what they can expect from a stag hunt here.

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) are native throughout Europe, parts of Asia and North Africa, and there are numerous subspecies. They were liberated multiple times across New Zealand during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The original liberation was from English game parks and Scottish stock. During the early days red deer were protected, enabling the numbers to increase; then hunting was slowly opened up, with seasons and tag restrictions like most modern countries have today.

1900-1930’s, The Early Days

The early days of red deer hunting in New Zealand were very good. As the animals spread rapidly throughout the country, unlimited feed and lack of competition and predators produced some truly massive trophies; the best the world has seen. There were good trophies produced in both the North and South Islands taken at first by wealthy New Zealanders and British hunters. The trophies from this era showed the maximum genetic potential of the herds. We saw some absolute monster heads come out of the wilderness areas of New Zealand. Heads in the 300″ class were common and main beams as long and wide as 50″ have been recorded.

One of my Great-Grandfathers stags shot in 1922 from the Canterbury region of the South Island. We are seeing stags of this class more commonly today than 30 years ago. 317″ Douglas Score
One of my Great-Grandfathers stags shot in 1922 from the Canterbury region of the South Island. We are seeing stags of this class more commonly today than 30 years ago. 317″ Douglas Score

1930’s-1970’s, Enter the Age of the Deer Culls

By the 1930’s the deer numbers were approaching very high levels. With worries from the government about erosion, and farmers trying to compete with the deer menace, something had to be done. The Department of Internal Affairs took over the job and employed ground shooters tasked with eliminating the deer. WWII was a setback, as most of the men conducting these operations left to fight. But by 1956 roughly 700,000 deer had been shot by government cullers, and private hunters had taken a similar number for tail and skin bounties.

By the 1960s we saw a change toward commercial recovery of deer carcasses, as markets were found across Europe for venison. The availability of helicopters to commercial hunters in the 1970s all but ended the deer ‘menace’. The late 70s and 80s saw the birth of the ‘Helihunter’ something truly unique to NZ. This changed how game in NZ (and the world) was to be controlled.

1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), along with aerial meat hunters, quickly reduced the deer populations to levels well below what was previously possible with ground shooting efforts.

The 1970s also saw the birth of a new industry which has become very important: deer farming. The pioneers of deer farming in NZ sought out and captured wild stock with varying methods and success – from “bulldogging” (men dropping from helicopters onto deer, wrestling them to the ground) to net-gunning and everything in between. Soon we had self-sustaining herds behind wire to meet the growing venison market in Europe and the velvet market in Asia. New Zealand soon became the world leader in deer farming practices and techniques due to a few remarkable individuals and an already strong sheep and cattle farming industry.

There will some great heads taken during this time, but as the culling and commercial hunting increased the quality and quantity of ‘trophy’ class Red Stags decreased.

 

My Great uncle bringing out a load of skins from the Marlborough high country, Late 1940s
My Great uncle bringing out a load of skins from the Marlborough high country, Late 1940s

The Modern Era

So what’s the story today?

At present we have good populations of wild red deer throughout public and private land of New Zealand, and a strong deer farming industry focusing on both Velvet and venison production. WARO (Wild Animal Recovery Operations) or commercial helicopter hunting still operate on public land. The amount that this happens varies greatly year to year and location wise. The wild venison prices can fluctuate hugely and this has a massive say on how much,where and when this type of hunting takes place. Most areas of public land also receive unlimited and unrestricted recreational hunting year round.

Different areas of NZ originally had quite different herds as they came from different blood lines (Scottish, English game parks ie Warnham, Woburn Abbey, Windsor Great Park ) but these herds have become less defined in recent times with the number of deer farms and consequent releases and escapees mixing with wild herds.

There are good heads coming off both private and public land every year, but due to the unlimited and unpredictable hunting on public land, nearly all guiding operates on private land.

Russ Meyer with a giant free range archery stag.
Russ Meyer with a very good free range stag in the 300″ Douglas Score(DS) class.

Hunting ‘Game Estate’/High Fences or ‘Fair Chase’

The deer farming industry originally focused on venison and velvet production, but in recent times we have seen an increase in game estates/trophy parks and farms focusing on breeding stags purely for the trophy ‘hunting’ market. Deer farmers began cross-breeding red deer subspecies (There have been a number of imported strains from across Europe) to increase both body weights and velvet production, Cross-breeding with elk is also common. The results have been amazing. In a very short time, the body and antler sizes of farmed stags have increased dramatically. A true testament to the ability of the NZ farming industry.

The bulk of hunting outfitters in NZ operate on some form of ‘Hunting Estate‘/ hunting ‘ranch’/game park. Some of these estates run full herds of Stags and Hinds and are merely a ‘wild’ self sustaining herd behind wire, others are hunting areas where stags are ‘released’ into for the hunting season, and there are all manner of combinations of these systems.

I am not going to go into too much detail about this type of hunting, as there are some very differing views about how it should be conducted, and “ethical”, “free range” and “fair chase” seem to be very subjective and emotional terms these days. But this is a world of big stags and big money. There are many misconceptions about these animals, but if a stag is pushing 350 inches, the chances are that he has spent at least some of his life behind wire. There are truly massive stags out there approaching 800+ inches of antler and it probably won’t be long before the 1,000 inches of antler is cracked.

A good representative Red Stag from the top of the South Island, 37″ long, 11 points. Note the missing bey/bez tine quite common in a lot of NZ herds
A good representative Red Stag from the top of the South Island, 37″ long, 11 points. Note the missing bey/bez tine quite common in a lot of NZ herds

Free Range Hunting

To me there is one natural state of an animal and that is free ranging. Red deer are the most widespread and commonly-hunted game animal in New Zealand and they are found in a huge variety of terrain and habitat types, from dense forests and farmland to the alpine mountain ranges above. Hunters typically pursue stags by “bush stalking” (still hunting), spot and stalk, or calling, depending on the terrain and season.

So what can you expect from a real, free-range red stag? A stag will reach his potential somewhere in the 6-8+ year age bracket and should be carrying 10-16+ points. There is a large variation in the shape and size of stags throughout the country, and the increase in farmed deer releases (both accidental and “accidental”) results in a few random stags that do not match the traditional genes of the area.

A nice stag
Guide Jimmy with a classical ‘Scottish’ style stag

What you are looking for in a top trophy is a ‘Royal” 12-point (6×6) or better stag with length and spread around the 40” mark. This is the basis for a typical 300 Douglas Score (DS) Stag, which is the ultimate goal of the New Zealand Red deer hunter. The Douglas scoring system, which is the South Pacific’s measuring system, does not have a non-typical category so it’s based heavily on symmetry. Red deer antlers are very similar in structure to elk antlers (they were long consider to be the same species). You will notice the main difference in antler is a crown, formed by the top tines, red deer are also much smaller in body size and less vocal than elk.

As with all deer species there is a huge variation on the ‘typical’ antler formation and age, genetics and food all play a part in a Stags development. Some areas of NZ will never produce good ‘trophy’ stags and other areas will produce them regularly.

Two fairly ‘typical’ free range South Island Stags

These properties range in size from 10,000 to 60,000 acres, and are generally open hill country, with some more mountainous country.fairly ‘typical’ free range South Island Stags

How To Get A Big Free-Range Stag!?

Just in the last few years the public land hunting for stags has been very good, and some very impressive 300 DS reds have come off public land. This is, in part, related to changing attitudes of many Kiwis hunters. But finding quality red stags on public land is a very challenging, low success game, and there are very few guides that will take on such a hunt. By and large, the majority of guided red deer hunting here happens behind high fences or on managed private land — for good reason. Public land can be unpredictable and faces huge uncontrolled hunting pressure during the “roar” (rut).

Good stags can be found on both the North and South Island, and most outfitters will offer high-fence hunting and some free-range as well. A North Island hunt will typically take place in ‘hill’ country, with forests, and can often be better for bow hunting. The South Island terrain is generally more mountainous and open. Both can produce good trophies despite the differences in surroundings. If you after a big (280-300DS) stag you have to be hunting in the right area, there are a lot of areas that historically have never produced big heads. This is changing as released/escaped deer from farms can improve an areas genetics. They can also contaminate and change the style of some of our best traditional herds. Over time I would predict Red Stags in general will get bigger across the country but may lose some traditional ‘style’. This is already happening in some areas. You will need time and patience to take a big stag. You will hear of hunters coming on a NZ ‘safari’ and taking 5 animals in 3 days, this is generally only possible in high fenced or helicopter hunting operations. For a Free range Stag hunt I would plan on at least 5 full days of hunting with more being best if you are after a really big free range red.

You will need the right outfit. There are a few outfitters in NZ that ONLY hunt free range. If you are after a genuine wild Red Stag focus on these operators. They may even be more expensive than some stags from high fence operators but the hunt is completely different.

It’s not all about size. This goes without saying that for any hunt there is a lot that makes up a ‘trophy’, adventure, effort, time, conditions, method of harvest, age and size. There are areas of NZ that have very good exciting hunting but don’t offer ‘big trophies’. These hunts should not be overlooked. They can often be at a lower price than ‘trophy’ hunts but still offer an amazing hunting adventure.

If you want a serious mountain adventure, look for South Island operators that specialize in true free-range hunting and you will not be disappointed. A free range Stag can can be a very physically demanding hunt depending on the area you are hunting.

The free-range stags of New Zealand are waiting for you, with more quality opportunities than ever before.

unts are generally 5 days, but can be extended for those wishing to hunt multiple species. Best dates are from 20th March through to Around 20th April. The peak of the rut is normally the first two weeks of April.
A very nice Royal, 12 point or 6×6 stag, in January, late stages of Velvet. This is a very good stag that will push 300″

When Should I Book My Hunt?

Most stag hunting will be focused around the ‘roar’ or rut, from late March through April. Roaring stags can be hunted in a similar way to bugling elk, and calling an aggressive stag in is an awesome experience. As with all species there will be year to year variations with the exact timing of the ‘roar’/rut.

Early season hunting, from January to end of February, can also be good. Like mule deer and elk, the stags are often found high above treeline, fattening up before the roar. I would wait until February to ensure that the stags are in hard velvet or starting to strip. Some older stags will come into hard antler earlier, but I think it’s best to ensure they are well and truly ready to strip, as summer temperatures can quickly ruin a soft velvet head.

Hunting during the winter is another option as stags are hungry to feed after the roar.

We offer great options to hunt Red Stags across a number of large private hunting areas, mostly free range. If your after a trophy of a lifetime or just want to experience hunting Red Stags in New Zealand book with us now!

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