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Greg Van Der Lee started life in DOC as a goat hunter. He now works in Hauraki as a Partnerships Ranger—engaging more people in conservation. Come behind the scenes and into Greg’s world…

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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 – view from main Herangi Range looking west

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. 

Goats will even climb trees to get food – there are two goats in this photo,
one is asleep

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.

Staff hunters and their dogs – nothing like wet boots to start your morning!

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!

Typical hunters camp (Awakino River – Whareorino). Flown in by Helicopter
and home for the next 20 days

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.

Before and after goat control – Moeatoa/Whareorino

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.

Jake – A veteran goat dog bailing a billy (goat) in a creek

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.

by Kim Dawick

The extremely demanding nature of goat control work means most hunters only last a year or two in the role. The hunters in this story have all moved on to new things, but the dogs have been passed on and are still working for DOC.

Tahi was the result of a purpose-bred combination thought up by Joe Gurnick for use in goat control. Joe had worked with dogs his entire life, and over the years he’d seen both the good and the bad. He had very strict criteria for his hunting dogs, with a desire to breed a litter of intelligent bailing dogs, but of slightly smaller stature to the classic border collie/heading dog used by the majority of goat hunters.

Joe was the Team Leader for the (DOC Hauraki) Peninsula Project goat
control programme. Joe is an exceptional hunter with approximately 15
years goat control experience and a lifetime of pig hunting. Photographed
above working a mob of four goats with two dogs in a large bush clearing.
Note Joe’s casual approach, showing total confidence in his dogs’ ability.
Getting a working-dog to this level takes years of training

The mother to this litter was an easy choice for Joe. He chose his three year old Border Collie bitch Bella, who was shaping up to be an exceptional finder/bailer. However, choosing a sire was not so easy, despite the many tongue in cheek offers to use dogs owned by his team mates.

In the end, Joe found a sire for Bella. A 1st cross Fox Terrier/Whippet that belonged to Don Thompson, a professional rabbiter and a team member of DOC’s high priority Rangitoto/ Motutapu Island pest eradication team. It was love at first sight, and Bella soon began nesting and preparing herself for motherhood.

Goat up a tree

The day came when Bella was due to give birth. The entire goat team was there to witness it and each of us had our eye on Bella ready to choose one of her puppies for ourselves. Finally a puppy appeared, then… well…, then nothing…. To everyone’s surprise that was it! It is very unusual for a bitch to only have one puppy, so Joe claimed his puppy and named her Tahi (means ‘one’ in te reo Māori) and sent the rest of the goat team home very disappointed.

Tahi grew up fast, totally submerged in a hunting lifestyle. She was everything Joe had hoped for; small, fast, intelligent, very trainable, and with lots of tenacity.

In 2010 the Peninsula Project goat team came to an end when the hunters achieved their goal (after six years of hard toil), shooting themselves out of a job; a credit to the hunter/dog teams carrying out the goat control. Joe decided to venture overseas, having hunted his entire life; it was time to do something else. So Tahi (now a very sought after hunting dog) was gifted to Michael Walker (Programme Manager Bio Threats Hauraki, and an ex-goat hunter/team mate and close friend of Joe’s) who let Waikato hunting team member  Thomas Malcolm borrow her on a short term loan.

The Bluffs – typical goat country

It was in November 2011 when everything went horribly wrong for Thomas while hunting on Mount Pirongia (Waikato). His day started out the usual way however, at the end of the day Tahi and another dog, Haka, were missing with no explanation! Having a dog stay out overnight is not an everyday occurrence, but from time to time, as all those who hunt with dogs know, it can happen.

Thomas desperately searched every inch of the mountain looking for his hunting mates with days turning into weeks, and weeks into a month. All hope was fading for the return of his dogs, when on the fifth week we received a call from a local farmer regarding a dog which had just turned up at his house.

We asked for a description of this dog and he replied, ‘”Small, black and white, very skinny, extremely friendly, and it may have a broken leg….”

Everything matched Tahi’s description however, we didn’t want to get our hopes up—after all, five weeks (lost) in the bush is a very long time, and it may not be her.

As you can imagine, we played it cool and headed straight out there trying not to show too much emotion (as us tough hunter types do). Much to our delight, it was indeed Tahi, and the emotions were a little harder to hide this time!

Shae Turo (DOC Hauraki) holding Tahi who is sporting her trendy pirate skull
and cross bone fibreglass arm cast. She is now back in prime condition
after a week on a special high protein/fat diet

Haka was also found four months later—he was being used by a pig hunter all that time!

DOC’s use of dogs

Dogs are an essential tool in the department’s wild animal control programmes because of their ability to find wary animals in dense vegetation.

Dogs are used by DOC to find goats, deer, pigs, stoats, cats, hedgehogs, mice, rats, kiwi, blue duck, wallaby, ants, and many more animals for their handlers, all in the name of conservation.

The use of dogs in areas containing endangered bird life and/or adjoining areas of farmland is of concern to some members of the public and landowners. In order to address these concerns, DOC have strict policies in regards to the use and training of its dogs.

Every hunter/dog combination has its own particular hunting style preference.

Acceptable styles for use in the Waikato region include dogs that find and bail and/or dogs that find and indicate.

  • A bailing dog locates its target species (sometimes up to 300 metres away), and mostly works out of sight of the hunter. The dog will head (run it down, cutting in front of the animal to stop it), and then constantly bark in order to tell the hunter where it is.
  • An indicating dog stalks its target species, tracking the animal (or sometimes a mob of the target species) always within close sight (less than 10 metres) of the hunter. When the quarry is very close to the hunter, the dog will show a positive indication, e.g. it may lock onto a classic ‘point’ with one leg off the ground, a fixed tail, with the head indicating the exact direction of the quarry.

Meet the team (from top, left to right): Dudley, Dylan, James,
Kim, Paul, Ruby