Wahine picks up rifle to protect forests and feed community

Source: Sunday

Environmentalists say the deer population is pushing some of Aotearoa's forests to collapse, now one wahine is on a spiritual mission to protect the whenua while feeding her community.

For Tui Keenan, quietly stalking deer through the forests of the East Coast is a way to connect with a heritage that was almost lost to her.

"I learnt from a very young age to not learn about my Māori side because it’s important to live in the Pākehā world.

"Coming here as an adult and learning my Māori side, through the bush, through the land, has been an incredible journey, one I’m proud of."

The mother of five is on a mission she began half a decade ago after she and her husband packed up a tent, and a bottle of champagne and headed into the forest.

Learning to hunt became a new year's resolution for Keenan. Every trip is a learning experience, she says, deer are hard to hunt, they’re skittish and stealthy.

"I made the decision very early on that I’m going to hunt like a woman, I’m not going to try and be like a man.

"If I can’t carry a heavy animal, I won’t carry it. If I’m not comfortable taking a long shot, I won’t take it, because I’ll injure the animal and it will suffer."

“We made another new year resolution of let’s not buy meat for a whole year. We called it operation ‘fill the freezer’”.

She's been successful. So successful, her donated kills are processed by an MPI-certified butcher and the meat is distributed to a local school and whanau in need.

"Families subscribe for $10 a week. And they get a box of pantry staples that get delivered every week, we chuck in a freebie bag of organic meat to go alongside these other ingredients."

To Keenan deer are a taonga, a source of kai.

But there's no denying their impact on the environment.

“It does sadden me when I go into some parts of the bush and I can’t hear the birds."

Department of Conservation's, Ben Reddiex says high-density populations devour woodland saplings, disturbing the biodiversity of the land.

"That can have a change in the makeup of those forests, over time they can impact on the future structure that grows back in those places."

Deer were first released in Aotearoa in the late 19th century, a gift from the United Kingdom, where deer stalking was a sport for the privileged and noble.

Populations exploded and by 1912, even reaching Rakiura Stewart Island, causing major havoc in our forests, and chewing their way through native species.

'We can't shoot deer fast enough'

Geoff Reid is an environmental activist who travels the country documenting the devastation on the ground.

“Some of our forests, you could play a game of rugby in. We’re not seeing the regeneration [of flora and fauna]."

Actual deer numbers are unknown, but it’s estimated over 230,000 of them are shot yearly by both recreational and commercial hunters.

However, commercial hunter and director of Trap and Trigger, Jordan Munn, warns that with deer populations growing it's a losing battle.

"We can’t shoot deer fast enough.

"The more people that can go and shoot some deer, the better.  And if they can utilise that resource in the process, that’s a win-win.

"But while I like those initiatives, if they shoot one out of six deer they’re not doing it for the environment."

Reddiex says DOC is in talks with the Ministry of Social Development to push further commercial hunting in vulnerable regions, as part of a $30 million four-year deer and goat management programme.

But with deer farming driving the price of venison down, shooting deer for profit, only works in areas that are densely populated and easily accessible.

"When we’ve done work in Fiordland unless it’s heavily resourced, it’s just not that economic to be shooting animals, bringing them out, it’s about three to four times more expensive [than culling]."

He says initiatives like Keenan's can help fill that gap.

“[Keenan’s] work is fantastic, there’s a range of others that are also playing in that space.

"It’s a big challenge across the country it’ll take different approaches in different places, working with different people."