Wildfire: Dion Patterson, celebrating 30 years in conservation

Department of Conservation —  04/08/2021

This month Dion Patterson, Living Water site lead for the Waikato Peat Lakes, celebrates 30 years at DOC. Dion tells us about the little spark that lit the way to a career of purpose and passion. 

Lake Ruatuna, a Living Water site, inspecting the new koi fish barrier with Katie Collins. Photo: DOC

Dion Patterson was 13 years old when he went on a family tramp to the Ruapane Lookout on Mount Pirongia, Waikato.

“While up there my father told me about cullers – professional hunters paid to hunt goats and deer,” says Dion. “So set a little flicker of light in the back of my mind.  My father did a little bit of hunting, but this only resulted in two or three hunting opportunities for me in my early teens. So I didn’t give it too much thought.”

Dion with Whareorino sika deer. Photo: DOC

Dion left school at age 16 and started an engineering apprenticeship.

But still, the flicker. The collection of moments making up our lives mostly pass without us giving them much thought, and pivotal moments may unfold undetected until decades later, when we look back in search of the initial spark, the tiny flash of light that set a fire blazing for a lifelong pursuit of purpose.

“I wasn’t too long into the workforce before a couple of mates and I decided hunting would be a good recreational pursuit,” says Dion. “So it was into the local Police station for a permit to buy a rifle and then straight down to the local gun shop.”

“We started hunting goats in Pirongia Forest park to develop our hunting skills.  Before too long we were venturing into Central Hut and Pahautea Shelter.  We were only on our second or third trip into Central when we encountered a couple of goat cullers who had taken up residence and were expecting to be based there for four or five stints – three and a half weeks in the scrub, four days off,” says Dion.

“Being young and impressionable, we were in awe of the cullers and carting ‘refreshments’ every weekend became a ritual for us.  On occasion, if the weather was too foul for the cullers to hunt, they would allow their young groupies to take their dogs out to collect a goat tail or two while they sought refuge in the hut.”

Dion kept in touch with some of the cullers and helped them out during the live capture boom. It was the 1980s and still, the flicker grew.

“By the time I was completing my apprenticeship the little spark of interest in hunting was a raging inferno, so on a whim, while passing through Te Kuiti I dropped into the DOC Office,” says Dion.

“On enquiring at the reception about culling jobs, I was soon greeted by one Ray Scrimgeour.  Ray asked a couple of rudimentary but all important questions: what guns do I have?; and the second question – did I have a dog?”

Ray Scrimgeour, then Conservation Officer at the Te Kuiti Office, recalls.

“I asked those important questions and took his phone number. A couple of weeks later, Doug Taucher, then Conservation Officer, was on the phone offering Dion a job.”

Dion started at the Department of Conservation as a Workman, essentially a hunter. Dion reflects on those early months.

“My first three-and-half week stint was with the head man, Steve Haraway.  On arrival at our intended camp we discovered Steve had grabbed a caravan awning rather than a tent, which made for a rather open-plan living arrangement for the next three weeks.  On the second day, Steve announced he had some business to attend to in town and he’d be back the next day,” laughs Dion. “He arrived back four or five days later. It was an old school induction!”

A few months later, Dion took a break from DOC before returning.

“The burning desire to get back into the hills was immense and in 1991 the opportunity to join what was then the Waikato Conservancy Hunting Team presented itself,” he says. “The team roved throughout the Conservancy controlling goats and, in some cases, deer at priority sites.”

Around the late 1990s Dion took up the role as Hunter Supervisor, and in the early 2000s, Programme Manager Biodiversity Threats. 

Dion preparing for helicopter work. Photo: DOC

Back then, hunting teams were predominantly made up of blokes, described by some folks as being determinedly independent, rugged individualists. Kim Dawick, former DOC hunter and colleague, reflects on the time.

“There was a wildness to the work,” says Kim Dawick, “We returned to nature for days at a time and could immerse ourselves in the job. Dion brought his professionalism into everything he did, and hunting was no exception.”

Dion is known for saying and living by the old hunting phrase, “an empty kennel is better than a bad dog”. He is respected by his colleagues for many things – his principles, his sense of responsibility, his high standards.

The hunting culture back then was largely driven by a mantra “hunting for results”.

Chainsaw work, one of Dion’s many skills acquired at DOC. Photo: DOC

“Dion had morals around how the work was done, though,” says Kim Dawick. “Results were important, but not at any cost.” And despite this, ask anyone and they’ll tell you Dion was amongst Waikato Office’s top hunters.

“Dion is an excellent hunter. He’s so good he’d find a deer in Queen Street,” laughs Kim Dawick.

“And he didn’t cheat. He introduced checks and balances into the work, and he established a dog policy. He was passionate about hunting and with that came a vision to do things differently.”

But in 2013, following a restructure, the Waikato Conservancy hunting team operations were halted.

Te Kuiti Senior Ranger, Ray Scrimgeour reflects.

“The Waikato Conservancy was disestablished, the Waikato District was created and Dion took on a new role as Integrator for the Northern North Island,” he says. “It was a specialised role which involved the integration of activities between DOC’s different groups.”

In 2016 Dion took on the role as Regional Lead for Living Water, the partnership between DOC and Fonterra.

“In this role Dion has led the delivery of Living Water over a mix of land tenures in both the Hauraki and Waikato District Offices,” says Ray Scrimgeour. “No other DOC regions have two Living Water sites or a single person looking after two Living Water projects.”

Talking Living Water with Tim Brandenberg on site at Lake Rotomanuka. Photo: Living Water

And when asked what his top two highlights of his career are, Dion reflects.

“Some great conservation outputs were achieved.  Across the board goat numbers were controlled to low densities at priority sites.  And some great friendships were forged with many of the teams and individuals now operating as contractors.”

Dion’s second highlight is the diverse range of opportunities he’s had at DOC.

“Long periods of time in our forests gave me greater appreciation for our natural environment beyond my ‘dream job’ of hunting.  I have been fortunate to build on skills and experience in a range of activities, including rural firefighting, working on and around helicopters, wetland restoration, working with Iwi, rural communities and landowners (farmers),” he says. 

“Another unique opportunity emerged when NIWA proposed a West Snapper Tagging Survey through the core Maui dolphin habitat,” says Dion.

Approval was granted provided DOC observers were onboard the Sandford Pair Trawlers. 

“Good friend and colleague, Garry Hickman, offered our services and literally overnight we were part of the crew on the vessels San Hauraki and San Rakino respectively, steaming out of the Manukau in very high seas embarking on an all-expenses-paid cruise for the next eight or nine days.”

Thirty years into his career at DOC, what is it keeping Dion motivated to do the work?

“It’s the sense of achievement, doing things well and efficiently. And, as weird as it might seem, where challenging situations align with logic and personal values – I relish the courageous conversations needed to get the work done,” says Dion. “Getting this stuff out the way allows me to sleep easier and unblock the bottlenecks restraining our work.”

And isn’t that the way when it comes to the things we care about and love? We invest ourselves into the work, we give parts of ourselves to the grand vision of creating something better; and we expose ourselves, our values, when we dismantle the pieces that no longer serve us, our people, and environment and replace them with things that do.

Meeting with Jacinda Ardern to discuss Living Water. Photo: Living Water

So does the raging fire still burn?

“I think discarding the trappings of a public service career and becoming a proper hunter for a few weeks each year is an important part of keeping himself sane,” says Ray Scrimgeour, “…and well connected to both the natural environment and the public we serve.”

And perhaps therein lies the happy secret to a 30-year career in conservation: when your work is so tightly connected to your core values it can fuel a lifelong blaze in the fulfilling of purpose. Happy 30 years, Dion.

Waikato Conservancy hunting crew circa early 2000. Photo: DOC

Our 10-year partnership with Fonterra supports work to enable farming and freshwater to thrive together.

Find out more about the Living Water partnership on our website.