According to a 2021 Department of Conservation (DOC) monitoring report, feral deer, goats and pigs now roam 82% of the conservation estate, up from 63% in 2013 – and some groups believe that is an underestimate.
Wild animals and pests certainly don’t stick to boundaries and have no issues jumping fences or roaming the countryside as they devour pasture and forests, much to the dismay of farmers who neighbour Crown and local authority bush and reserves.
Up and down the country, the talk in many districts is that the feral pest problem is getting worse – and even in areas where sustained control of possums shrunk or eliminated the TB problem, possum numbers are in resurgence.
Dean Rabbidge is the Federated Farmers Southland meat and wool chair and is increasingly frustrated by the rapidly growing numbers of wild pigs and deer in his district of Wyndham.
Earlier this month he sent Federated Farmers a video of some of his paddocks uprooted by wild pigs.
“We’ve only got about two hectares that’s effectively been ruined by them, but I know farmers around our area who will lose that area in a night.”
He’s lost count of the number of hours he’s wasted, gun in hand, waiting for the marauders to make an appearance so he can bag a few and scare the others off.
“They’re becoming nocturnal. They’re very hard to control, especially at this time of year when everyone is lambing, and you don’t really want hunters with dogs on the place.”
If they’re doing that sort of damage to productive farmland, he has no doubt they’re also wreaking havoc in all the bush on private land in the district, never mind the neighbouring DOC estate at the western end of the Catlins.
“Farmers are spending a lot of time and money on pest control on their own land, trying to make as good an effort in denting the populations as possible.”
He strongly suspects DOC has dropped the ball with their own efforts on that front.
Southland’s rabbit control boards have done well, Rabbidge says, and he’s aware Environment Southland has also made a big push on rabbits, hares and rooks – but in his view pig, deer and possum numbers are exploding.
“Ten years ago, you’d get into the bush and you wouldn’t see a possum. Now you lose count of how many you shoot, which is a real shame when you consider all that investment and time that went in almost eliminating them.
“We seem to be back to square one.”
Deer are just as bad, he says.
“You can see the start of dieback of trees, and small seedlings are being eaten. Regeneration of bush has gone stagnant or is going backwards again unfortunately.”
The deer numbers are starting to have a serious impact on farming operations and paddock selection for crops.
“It pretty much doesn’t matter where I plant swedes now…even two or three paddocks away from the bush, the deer will get into them.”
Rabbidge sums up the extent of the problem in his district like this: “Fifteen years ago, if you saw a deer you got your camera. Ten years ago, you’d shoot one to keep your freezer full.
“Now you’re just shooting to control them. It used to be a sport and recreation, now it’s just a chore.
“About the only positive is that all our toys we use for hunting can now legitimately be claimed as pest control tools.”
A recent post to the Federated Farmers Facebook showed a group of feral deer moving across the slopes of meat and wool national chair Toby Williams’ property in Gisborne – a beautiful sight from a nature point of view, but not great when they’re chewing through grass meant for his sheep.
“We’ve probably got 200 feral deer on the place at any one time, across three or four mobs,” Toby says.
“Getting up into our top flats, I know why they’re not growing. The 40 or so deer grazing there each night are keeping them down.”
Williams says they’re something of a mixed blessing, “being part of the attraction for staff who enjoy hunting, and it’s nice to see them”.
“But we’re getting into riparian fencing and putting natives in as part of the work protecting waterways. Deer will strip all your natives overnight.
“It adds to the cost and complexity when you’re a farmer trying to do what’s right for the environment.”
The extent of the deer problem is pretty similar to his along the East Coast, Williams believes, “gets worse the further north you go”.
The bigger issue is wild pigs.
“You’ll find guys who shoot 200 or 300 pigs on their property in a year.”
They’re really bad for lambing losses and their ploughing up of fields and slopes when the soil is soft in winter adds to erosion issues.
Both pests just scoot back into forestry land when hunters go after them. While some forestry companies work alongside farmers on pest control, others lock their gates and save the hunting for selected mates – which means feral population increase can get away.
“It’s not really fair to the farmers trying to make a living.”
Williams is in favour of increased targeted funding on wild pig, deer, and goat control, “and it has to be a catchment-wide approach”.
It’s pointless farmers or DOC or whoever working separately.
“We need a formal action plan moving forward, and I think there’s an opportunity here as well.
“Think about the Jobs for Nature programme, and the wild meat recovery work that happens down south. We’re look at this as a pest problem, but it could also be an opportunity.”
Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.