by Kim Dawick
“Golly—that’s one huge chunk of Forest!’’ (Well, truth be told, I may have used a slightly different adjective, but you get the idea).
My view from the helicopter was daunting, but the idea of hunting this block entirely on foot was starting to hurt my knees just thinking about it. Luckily I knew I had a good team behind me willing to do their fair share…. You know that old saying “many hands make light work?’’ or something like that. I had to now convince myself the task was achievable and not let on to the hunters that we were in for a big job given the timeframe available.
Whareorino Forest lies 30 kilometres southwest of Te Kuiti and is the largest and one of the most significant forested areas in the western King Country. When you see it from the air it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by its size. It is dominated by the Herangi Range, a bluff system that would make most people produce an evil taste in their own mouth if faced with the challenge of climbing its sheer walls of loose flaky vertical rock and deceptive trees that give way as you use them to try to haul yourself up.
Whareorino features tawa, hinau, kamahi, rewarewa as well as podocarps and is particularly special for its range of vegetation—from coastal and lowland vegetation types to subalpine and montane. And it had a large number of goats eating everything they could!
To succeed in reducing goat numbers, over the past years various innovations have been progressively introduced by the PMs to gain any edge possible, enlisting technology not often associated with primal activities like hunting. Tools like GPS and GIS mapping allow the tracking and recording of the hunters and their kills, and when overlaid on a map it’s a very powerful tool which can show trends, check for gaps and identify hot spots to focus on more intently. But unfortunately, no matter how high-tech we get inside the office, the goats aren’t going to remove themselves from the forest. To do this we enlist our DOC rangers and contractors to ground hunt the area with dogs.
The hunters operate in the remote back country, often staying out there for 10 days at a time in order to get right back to those hard to reach places. If you want to catch a mountain goat, you’ve gotta be fitter than one! And our hunting team/s sure know how to do the hard yards!
So why are goats such a problem? Early on, European sailors chose to release small numbers of goats onto islands within the Pacific and this included New Zealand. This was done as a future food source for sailors in case they became ship wrecked, or decided to relocate there, as many of these islands had no mammals to eat. You could say that their thinking was quite ahead of its time (you could use a buzz word like “future proofing” or something like that to describe it), but in those days it was all about survival. There was no regard given for environmental effects and as you can see from the below photos of the same area before and after goat control, there certainly is an environmental cost to pay when there are goats in a forest.
But why did the sailors release goats—why not dairy cows or sheep? If you focus on the reason why goats were chosen, then you’ll soon start to understand the problem we face when trying to get rid of them. Goats are hardy, intelligent animals that can adapt to any extreme (deserts, jungles, mountains or islands). Goats are prolific breeders and will do so at an alarming rate—approximately a 40% net increase in population per year i.e. 20 goats will become 107 goats in the space of just five years if left uncontrolled!
If we were to look at Whareorino (one of six blocks hunted in 2012 by our Waikato staff hunters), 3,420 goats were shot. If no control was done, those 3,420 goats could have potentially become 18,393 goats after just five years! You can now see why the sailors released the small handfuls of goats they did eh? But food (native plants in our forests) is the governing factor, so it’s more likely that we’d end up with about half that number of goats as food starts to run out—but it would come at the cost of an absolutely denuded forest.
So you can clearly see that when it comes to goat control, doing nothing isn’t an option, but thankfully the Department of Conservation has several teams throughout New Zealand keeping things under control. After all there wouldn’t be much point carrying out any other conservation activities if there isn’t a forest for our icon species to inhabit.