A Non-Hunter’s Thoughts on the Tahr Cull

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taken from issue 6
"A Difficult Treasure"

It’s easy to not want to involve yourself mentally in every single news story fed to us via TV, social media and our timelines. It’s understandable that we have a limitation on how much we can take on and process, especially when right now it feels like there are so many things that are demanding our minds and attention. 

The crusade against tahr is one of those things. There are so many wheels turning and unless you are part of the outdoor and hunting community it can fly by your radar. It flew by mine for years and before I met my now-husband, I had no idea these incredible animals existed. There was something in the way he told me about them in his stories – he was in awe of them. As a non-hunter myself – and I am sure there are so many who can relate – it’s easy to get pretty tired of your other half showing you pictures and videos of what they saw and what excited them while on their adventures. I was fascinated with this animal though and found their babies so damn cute, so those photos, videos and stories were always welcome. 

One thing I noticed when he shared his experiences with this animal is how much those moments and memories appeared to have shaped him. The species live mostly in alpine areas, so a trip to find them usually isn’t a mellow one. Most of us call this character building; I call it sheer f*cking dangerous when I see the terrain they are hunting on, yet he calls it therapeutic. To him, it’s never been about shooting an animal. Sure, that’s welcomed if they see the right one, but the journeys of hunting to kill aren’t of much importance. The hunting to learn, for the challenges, the achievement, the admiration of another species, the vastness of the landscape, the sun whispering goodbye in soft gold, the infinite healing in the repeated refrains of nature, the dawn that comes after night, spring after winter, the snowmelt, being chilled to the bone, hot coffee, blowing tents, knowing that nothing is guaranteed in the hunt but everything is guaranteed in the adventure. 

All of those things, all of those wonderful things this wonderful animal offers. What a huge loss it would be for them to no longer exist here and instead be blown to bits on the side of the mountain by helicopters gunning them down. It’s heartbreaking. It’s inhumane. It’s not us and we can’t allow it. 

It was an experience like no other heading on a trip to actually see these animals in person, and it was also something that I never thought I would do. Despite everyone assuming I also hunt (whenever I mention to anyone we publish a hunting magazine I have blokes launching into stories about their latest trips having no clue I just do the invoicing), I have actually never hunted before and I’ll be pretty honest and admit I have next to no inclination to. I’m quite content on flat ground in the comfort of my own home and you’ll most likely never catch me on these pages again! But, despite all of that, I was actually pretty excited to see what all the hype was about, plus there was the bonus of a heli flight and Cam told me the hut was pretty nice … so I was sold! 

After a couple of hours’ drive south to Ben Mcleod Station, we met the rest of the team at the Station Air hanger. Here we were: a long-haired cameraman, a uni student studying to become a teacher, an Auckland based denim-clad photographer, a PE graduate, a blonde-haired wedding photographer and finally our absolute legend of a guide, Snow Hewetson. Probably the strangest mix of people he had ever guided.

While flying into Taffy Hut we got our first sight of tahr. They were crossing steep mountainscapes at speed, with such sure steps and agility it’s hard to believe they didn’t originate in our mountains. I think we were all in awe at this stage, seeing them cross this gnarly, rocky terrain like it was a flat, grassy, bouncy paddock. It was a pretty cool introduction into what we were going to be spending the next couple of days doing: learning about this species, seeing its impact on our landscape, and watching it in our environment. 

After we landed and the sound of the helicopter faded away, we started with some ham and chicken buns, a coffee and an adjustment into how damn cold it was in the valley the hut was in. The sun reached the hut at about 2 p.m., and we got that glorious warm glow for a couple of hours before it cruised off again behind the mountains by 3 p.m. Pretty much as soon as we arrived Snow was setting up the spotting scope and pointing out tahr to us on one of the faces behind the hut. I still have no idea how he could spot them without even looking through binos, my 25-year-old eyes couldn’t see a bloody thing. I was so impressed. He did explain to us that we would see higher numbers of tahr on this trip due to being on private land. It was a wee thrill seeing them through the spotting scope, and we were all drinking up the info that Snow was sharing about them in their habitat: their movements and all these other wicked facts about this species he is so clearly passionate about. I think I learnt more on the first day there than I did in my almost three years of university. It makes such a big difference when the person you are learning from has such a great wealth of knowledge. 

When the sun started to disappear we set off up the valley to get a little closer to the ones we had been watching through the scope stopping on the way so Snow could point out plants they had been eating, beds they had made under the matagouri, cool things like frost heave which we found super fascinating, and many other tidbits he had in his filing cabinet of information. While we were walking and yarning away, Snow stopped us to point out a wee face he could see on the ridgeline towards our left. Over the ridge, there was a nanny watching this strange compilation of people walking along up her valley. We could just see the shape of her head and horns silhouetted over the hillside. 

After a small climb up to a better spot, we saw the bulls we had seen earlier and we sat and watched them interact for a while. It was special, and I started to understand the feeling that so many chase. To be here in this beautiful place, surrounded by divine nature, the comfort of a running stream and the flow of freshwater nearby, cool air creating clouds as we exhaled, branches brushing our ankles, it was the beautiful opposite of urbanisation. It’s innate in our core to feel this connectedness with our natural environment, and no matter how much we suppress it during our every day, the internal shift towards peace I felt being there was something I couldn’t deny. 

After a short time, we cruised back to the hut, got the heater cranking and began to defrost. I know on the scale of tahr trips this one was at the extremely mellow and comfortable end but damn the air was fresh! We settled in for the night, red wine was poured, Snow’s EPIC tahr casserole (yeah super fitting and absolutely delicious) was demolished and we spent hours yarning about the most random things, from American politics to wine for beginners and a gazillion stories in between. I’ve heard about the random hut discussions before, and yeah, wow, tangent central. 

The next morning we were gone by around 8 a.m. and set off for a ‘wee walk up the hill next to the hut’. I knew deep down it wasn’t going to be a little wander but chose to stay naive and not think too far ahead. We climbed until we got to a good vantage point which enabled us to look right across the neighbouring ridges, and Snow pointed out to us a bull tahr and a couple of nannies which were about one kilometre away on the same face. Once we saw those, that was it. It was game on and we began the mission to close the gap between us and them, with a goal of getting as close as we could. 

It began to get exciting when Snow told us to lower our voices and keep low. We went through about four gullies like this. Being careful to not disturb rocks and communicating at a whisper. Each time we travelled through a gulley we would reach the next ridge and check to see if our friends were still there, and most of the time they were but we were starting to see more and more over different parts of the mountain which made it even more exhilarating. 

We finally poked our heads over the last ridge between us and them. And it was insane, they were right there in front of us. It was what we came for. We were all just beaming at each other and Eden and I were trying to keep the excitement out of our voices (we are quite loud expressive people, not ideal in this setting). Snow was able to gauge size and age and we just sat and watched them move up the valley and over the top. It was surreal and something I’ll never forget. We celebrated our successful hunt with OSM’s and snickers and set off back to our hut to pack up for home. We were all buzzing with a sense of achievement and exhilarated by the chase and reward. 

Something I mulled over a lot during those two days was the kind of message that needs to be sent out to the general public and how the situation should be communicated to everyday non-hunting folk. I am all for what you as hunters do, your passion, and the fire that’s been ignited in the hunting community to save this species. It’s truly admirable and I take my hat off to all of those fighting the battle. I believe strongly though, that in order to raise public awareness and to get non-hunters onside, the conversation needs to involve less hunting stories and trophy photos, and instead more wicked imagery of these animals. Tell your family and friends tales of your experiences seeing them, talk of their agility, beauty, their history and story. Talk of their fate under the current plan, the lack of consultation, the lack of evidence. Remove hunting from those of conversations, instead, speak of the extinction of a species. We got this. 

Snow’s words

“For me this experience reinforced just what an amazing species the tahr is and confirmed my conviction that anyone who is given the opportunity to view tahr in the wild will be blown away by the experience and the animal.”

“Basically all I did was take them tahr hunting without a rifle. We went through the whole process of glassing for tahr in likely habitats and then once we had found some bulls and nanny groups we assessed them for the right big male that could showcase what a big maned bull in all his winter splendour really looks like.”

“I had a very powerful sense of having really given these guys something special that morning – something they would never forget. That satisfaction and fulfilment was as strong as ever regardless of not having actually taken a trophy. I have always enjoyed sharing what I have learned about tahr and hunting them, and I have come to realise that when you love something, sharing that brings twice as much pleasure and double the reward of doing it alone.”

Snow Hewetson – Chairman of the Tahr Foundation 

Owner and guide for Huntahr