On the hunt for wallabies in the Waitaki Valley
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 6 February 2017
Izaak Mirfin, 14, with double wallaby success.
"They have to be here somewhere" I whispered to Ike, 14, as we looked with naked eye and binoculars for game I had spotted from far below.
We'd climbed high and crawled the final few metres across a dry, dusty, and rocky ridge, through prickly matagouri bushes, while the wind fair howled around and above us. Finding a near perfect shooting platform, Ike settled down behind the 7x57 Mauser rifle with bipod fully extended.
"There's one" Ike murmured excitedly, as I ranged the animal at 86 metres true ballistic range (TBR) through my rangefinder. 'HOLD LO 5' my device told me as I quietly instructed Ike to screw the rifle scope up to 9x magnification and aim 5cm low.
In Search of Wallabies: Ike, Rosie, and Jake with their grandfather Stuart Mirfin.
At the shot the animal slumped forward and Ike reloaded the bolt action rifle as another appeared from nowhere. The big old buck was a real beauty, about a metre tall, weighing perhaps 25 kilos, and at 129 metres was dead out of luck with a crack shot like Ike behind the rifle.
Other animals thumped away through the vegetation, too fast and elusive to offer a target, but it had been yet another successful stalk on the wallabies of the Waitaki Valley.
Kurow is a long drive from Richmond, but it had long been a goal of my father Stuart to take his grandkids wallaby hunting, something he had done with my brother and I as boys.
In the intervening years during and after university I had hunted wallabies often in the Hunter Hills near Waimate but never before in the Hakataramea region, and never before with my nephews Lochy and Ryan, and my own kids.
The kids were excited and a delight to take hunting over several days, but high winds and rain made for difficult hunting conditions but always a most excellent family adventure.
Everyone wanted to hunt with Grandad Stuart, 74, and we made sure all kids got a fair share of Grandad out there for afternoons on the hill.
Wallabies are most active at the change of light, with midday hunting virtually a waste of time as the animals seek shelter and shade from the heat of the day. Actually there wasn't much summer happening down South, with strong cold winds, and it reminded me of US author Mark Twain who famously said "The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco".
The kids were well rugged up in camo fleece and windbreakers and determined to have a good time.
Using rifle calibres .22 hornet, .223, .243, and 7x57 we stalked the hills in three separate teams (including brother Scott) in search of wallabies. Jake, 16, also used a shotgun with some success, firing SG buckshot containing 12 lead pellets at the rapidly departing wallabies jumped at short range. One thing the kids soon learned was that wallabies are tough critters that can really soak up some lead.
In some ways they are a challenging target with a small head and chest area but large powerful hind legs that can propel them forward at great speed to safety.
Looking for all the world like giant rats on stilts, the Australian marsupials have impressive claws, large padded feet, and are fully covered in soft fur. Being one man's trash and another man's treasure, wallabies are reviled as a pest by sheep farmers but welcomed as a valuable hunting resource by local recreational hunters.
Actually there about five or six species of wallaby living wild in New Zealand but most of them restricted to Kawau and Rangitoto Islands having been first released by New Zealand Governor Sir George Grey in about 1870.
For practical purposes though, there are two main populations of huntable wallaby in New Zealand with the smaller Dama or Tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) around Lake Tarawera and Rotorua area in the North Island, and the much larger Red-Necked or Bennet's Wallaby (Macropus rufogrisea) widely colonised throughout South Canterbury in the Waimate, Fairlie, and Timaru areas.
They continue their expansion outwards with wallabies now being seen in Twizel and the southern bank of the Waitaki enroute to Otago. In some ways they are wily and adaptable marsupials with high fecundity, breeding like there is no tomorrow.
Apparently females can have a young one at foot, a baby in the pouch, and be pregnant with another – all at the same time.
With three wallabies equalling the grass eating efforts of a merino sheep, control efforts haven't been especially successful with sporadic and uncoordinated efforts enabling wallabies to flourish.
Bureaucratic efforts by regional councils and now-defunct Wallaby Boards have had minimal impact with wallaby virtually impervious to 1080 poison, cyanide, and shooting.
Many landowners now employ helicopter shooting using shotguns and buckshot to thin wallaby populations but the wallabies learn fast, holding tight to cover, resisting rotor-wash and even screaming sirens at short range. As a recreational hunter it is a reassuring thought to know that the wallaby as a hunting resource will always be with us.
Wallabies are totally edible, and also yield high quality pelts for ornamental rugs with a distinctive long tail, the key to their extraordinary balance and warp speed in escape.
Charli, 11, decided not to hunt this time but Stuart's other five grandkids all successfully harvested many wallabies each. Rosie, 13, was rapt to shoot five wallabies in total and Jake shot more than a dozen. Each kid wanted a wallaby skin to take home as a souvenir of success, and we skinned and salted six hides to make the journey home
On our last hunt, the rain poured down as Jake and I slugged it out back to the Hilux, wet as shags.
Fifty metres from the truck, a sodden and miserable wallaby broke cover and bounded across our path and up the hill, but making the fatal mistake of stopping to look back. It was a great finish to a magical few days hunting the wallabies of the Waitaki.