If you visit Fiordland National Park, Nelson Lakes, or another wilderness area in New Zealand, and you hear an eerie roar booming through the forest, chances are you’re in ‘red deer country’. What you’re hearing is the rutting call – the ‘roar’ – that a stag uses to establish territory and attract mates.
The red deer is one of the best loved, and most damaging, of the approximately 25,000 species that humans have introduced to Aotearoa New Zealand since coming to this land. (1)
European settlers first brought red deer into the country in 1850. By the beginning of the 1900s, red deer could be found over much of the country. Their population growth was a result of their highly successful reproduction combined with periodic introductions of the animal.
The New Zealand Department of Tourism and Health Resorts had a big hand in importing red deer. In controversial moves, they released the deer on Stewart Island (1901–02), in Tongariro National Park (1905), and in the West Coast Sounds (1909) – all to attract tourists.
In lowland forests, red deer eat most native shrubs, bark, and just about any plant they can reach – up to a height of three metres. (2) People soon began to recognise the damage to native forests that these animals caused. As early as 1911, the lighthouse keeper at Cape Palliser reported that:
‘The terraces have been made passable by the Red Deer, which have eaten away all the lower branches and foliage … There are no pines, ratas, fuchsias, native currants or other berry-bearing trees, on which many native birds make a living. There are no native birds seen, except a few bush-wrens, and one tui was heard. Silence reigned. (3)
Red deer benefit from New Zealand’s mild climate and its varied and nutritious vegetation. They also thrive in the absence of their usual European predators and parasites. As a result, they are typically larger and healthier here than in their native Europe. (4)
Most New Zealanders see red deer as a positive resource. There is, however, a wide range of public opinion about this creature. Some see the deer purely as a pest and support its complete eradication. Many hunters enjoy the sport of stalking these animals – along with the meat they provide. Commercial deer ‘harvesters’ and farmers make a living from the animal.
These differences of opinion cause difficulties for those responsible for maintaining the ecological balance of New Zealand’s wilderness. For these managers, canvassing public opinion and educating people about the issues involved are as important as wildlife management.
1. Fraser, W (2001). ‘Introduced Wildlife in New Zealand: A Survey of General Public Views’. In Landcare Research Science Series No. 23. Lincoln: Manaaki Press, p 25.
2. Thomson, G M (1922). The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 46–47.
4. Nugent, G and Fraser, W (1987). ‘Red Deer’. In The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals. C M King ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 416–418.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2006)