It's about much more than hunting

  • 17/04/2024

It's about much more than hunting

Written by - Jacob Lucas

Game bird hunters and wetlands are a natural pairing: as areas to recreate, harvest food, and immerse in wild environments, it is no surprise we have an instinctive affinity towards these places. We all understand the benefits of wetlands. They act as ‘kidneys for the land’, filtering nutrients, slowing down runoff, trapping sediment and providing important habitat for waterfowl, native birds and fish

Sadly, New Zealand has a poor track record of draining wetlands, and even in relatively recent times, 5761 freshwater wetlands have been lost in the years between 1996 and 2018. In the past few years, however, there has been a surge in interest in the wetland space from farmers and custodians like duck hunters who realise the benefits of wetlands to their land and the wider environment. Wetlands are currently ‘on trend’ – they are being actively promoted and funded through catchment groups and councils, and long may that continue

Fish & Game, through funding from game bird hunters, has been at the forefront of protecting, restoring, and creating wetlands across Aotearoa for decades though. From Northland to Southland, and every region in between, there is a long list of wild areas and wetlands that have been saved, created or enhanced through funds generated through the sale of game bird hunting licences. Positive news stories are steadily rolling in about how game bird hunters and the habitat they are creating are providing valuable space not only for game birds, but for native species too. 

As a game bird hunter, you automatically have skin in the game when you buy a licence. With this purchase you are ‘passively’ contributing to a significant amount of environmental advocacy and on-the-ground habitat conservation efforts Fish & Game are involved with through becoming a member of the organisation. It’s no small change either – in partnership with hunters and landowners Fish & Game has spent around $22 million of licence-holder contributions creating and restoring wetlands to date. Each year around $3 million is spent on national and regional planning and policy and on-the-ground efforts to protect and restore freshwater habitats.

A portion of your licence money also goes to the Game Bird Habitat Trust (GBHT), an organisation, like Fish & Game, that punches well above its weight with the funding it receives. Using a $5 grant from every game bird licence that is purchased, the GBHT has been involved in some monumental wetland projects, and to date has provided $2.4m in funding to almost 300 wetland projects, with around 2000 hectares of wetland habitat either created or enhanced.

Underwood Wetland, near Dargaville, is one such example of a hunter-led wetland project that has become so valued by licence-holders and conservationists. The land was originally purchased from local farmers David and Gloria Underwood through a grant from the Nature Heritage Fund, which included hill country with remnant native forest, and 40ha of grassland which Fish & Game was entrusted to develop into a wetland. 

Although initially commenced in 2017, Fish & Game has recently completed the second stage of the wetland development, which included the construction of a 210m long and 4-metre-high bund to block the valley floor and flood the area above to create an additional 5ha of open water and vegetated shallows, on top of nearly 5ha of open water already developed. This is an example of money from licence sales going directly into the creation of wildlife habitat, where $259,000 of funding from the GBHT and Northland Fish & Game has been used to construct the wetland, including the planting of thousands of native plants and newly created access tracks.

The earlier vision by the Underwoods and Fish & Game is now a reality and is already bearing fruit. While this project will be highly valued by hunters for its game bird habitat and hunting opportunities, there have already been some significant successes in terms of what has been achieved for our native taonga species. The wetland has created ideal habitat for bittern, crakes, herons and pied stilt, as well as waterfowl, which are now thriving there. Native freshwater fish such as mudfish also benefit from this wetland. All told, this is an extraordinary hunter-led conservation achievement within a relatively short timeframe, a concept which proves that if you build solid habitat, nature will take care of the rest.

Staying in Northland, the 470ha Jack Bisett Wetland which is owned and managed by Northland Fish & Game is yet another example of another major conservation win. A recent region-wide survey of bittern distribution in Northland revealed that Jack Bisset Wetland and nearby Greenheart Wetland have some of the highest bittern densities in the region. Other taonga species such as fernbird and spotless crake have also been recorded inhabiting the wetland, and being adjacent to the Wairua River it also has a very good tuna (eel) population, which is of importance to local hapu.

This fantastic outcome is a testament to the preservation of quality wetland habitat through hunter efforts in the form of ongoing predator control and funding through game bird hunting licence revenue.

Down SH1 Auckland Waikato Fish & Game owns and actively manages an impressive 1665ha of wetlands for the benefit of hunters and the environment; the team at Eastern look after 759ha of wetland under Fish & Game management; meanwhile Wellington Fish & Game owns several wetlands in the lower North Island and manages numerous others as public hunting resources. The majority of these precious places were donated or purchased with game bird licence funding to save them from being drained, while providing for waterfowl and other native species, as well as safeguarding hunting there into the future.

As we move down the country, Para Wetland, situated alongside State Highway 1 south of Picton is Nelson-Marlborough Fish & Game’s hallmark wetland project. Over $1m of funding from the GBHT and Fish & Game has transformed this 120ha ‘willow-choked bog’ into a habitat where waterfowl and native species now thrive. As one of the GBHT flagship sites to publicly showcase the role hunters have in wetland conservation, Para Wetland has essentially now become a ‘social licence’ initiative for Fish & Game and game bird hunters. Thousands of native trees have been planted through staff and volunteer efforts, including trying to restore the kahikatea forest that was originally abundant in the area.

Down south, Otago’s Takitakitoa Wetland is another shining example of hunter-led conservation. Since the wetland was re-flooded, native species such as tuna, inanga, grey teal, fernbird and fantails have returned to the area. While the wetland provides excellent hunting opportunities, Fish & Game understands the importance of this place to native species, including indigenous fish, and has installed fish ladders at the bund gates to assist native fish entering the wetland. Staff and volunteers have been actively planting around 8000 native plants since 2016.

In neighbouring Southland, where game bird hunting is a way of life, hunters and farmers are very active in developing waterfowl habitat, which recent research has proven to be hugely beneficial for tuna (eels) and other native fish. Put simply, eels and native fish love to live in the wetlands that hunters have created.

These examples are just a snapshot of what is happening in this space across New Zealand through the combined effort of Fish & Game, hunters and private landowners. There are hundreds of other wetlands, big and small and too numerous to list, that wouldn’t be there without the funding and endeavour of game bird hunters.

A lot of good work is being done across the regions, highlighting how funds from licence sales are being used for the greater public good. For some hunters, it begins and ends with the purchase of a licence. That’s fine. Your contribution to Fish & Game and the GBHT is a great starting point. Many others are taking things further through their own wetland creation and enhancement, predator trapping and planting initiatives as well – all great actions that benefit our ecology and the wider public, also enhancing the profile and public standing of game bird hunters and hunting. 

Take the Swamp Comp, held by Hunting & Fishing, for example. The competition was initiated in 2012 to draw attention to the significant impact of predators on duck recruitment and encourage hunters to get involved in their own predator trapping by offering prize incentives. The competition has been a runaway success, and since its inception a staggering number of mustelids have been removed from the environment – over 26,000. The 2023 Swamp Comp was the most successful yet in terms of the number of people participating: a total of 4395 stoats, weasels and ferrets were accounted for, which has been the highest annual tally to date.

Arguably, Fish & Game has historically been an organisation that does the heavy lifting in the environmental space and didn’t like to crow about it. In many cases, only those in planning, policy and politics fully appreciated the significant work done by the organisation, whether they were in agreement or not. Those days are gone. With increasing pressures on our recreational way of life and the spotlight turning on hunting, Fish & Game has been active recently in raising the profile of the organisation after a period where we perhaps weren’t doing this effectively and lost some traction in the public eye. 

Hunters were the original conservationists: we are part of the environment we live in, and we act as guardians for our wild places. It’s important not to lose sight of this, especially as society has become exceedingly detached from the rural way of life and where food comes from. As hunters, it's important we continue to do good things that benefit the wider society and promote this through positive media that portrays hunting and the actions of its participants in good light. The more active and engaged hunters become, the more robust we are in a political and societal sense to retain our valued recreation for now and for future generations.

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