Welcome to the 2nd episode of our Living Wild series, where we take a different tack and delve into what is quite a mysterious existence in New Zealand, the life of a bush trapper. Guys like Sam are the front line in NZ's fight against introduced invasive predators that decimate native bird populations.
New Zealand was once a land of birds with no native land mammals (bar a tiny little bat which just won bird of the year! 🤔 ). So when the first colonisers arrived and brought with them some nasty mammalian predators, it wasn't long until this utopia was overrun and the birds were the most to suffer.
These days, predator eradication and control is a key part of the NZ outdoor landscape and it's likely you would have seen the many traps along your hikes.
Sam is one of the many that lay and service these traps so I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about the life of a bush trapper and hopefully provide some inspiration for us all to do our part in the fight for Predator Free 2050!
There are some great insights here so I hope you enjoy. Thanks, Matt.
So, how long have you been trapping and what inspired you to start?
The first trap I ever set was to catch a stoat that ate my chickens. As a seven year old it was my job to check the eggs and feed our whanau chickens. We lived in a lockwood cabin that my Dad built on the banks of the Hamanatua Stream 15 minutes from Gisborne. When you're a young fella caring for a flock of chickens is a big responsibility and I took it pretty seriously. I knew each one and their personalities so when the stoat killed them all, not even bothering to eat them, I was pretty devastated. It's probably the first time I ever felt like taking an animal's life and it was really clear in my mind that that stoat needed to go, my chickens and the eggs for our whanau were a priority.
Later on at the age of 12-16 my parents would send me bush into Te Urewera to lug big wooden traps up steep hills. I was getting a bit big for my boots and this was a welcome distraction. Growing up there were lots of distractions in my neighbourhood. The bush and trapping kept me on the straight and narrow to some degree. I trapped alongside some of the world's leading innovators as well as some top notch Tuhoe bushmen.
It was this community of hard working innovators that didn’t drink, hardly smoked, and started their day on the hill with a flashlight at 4am that really inspired me. They were a stark contrast to the slightly bogan, slightly druggy surfing community of the neighbourhood I lived in of which my parents were a clean living anomaly. That culture of working harder and with more attention to detail than the next man was quietly addictive and as a teenager I was looking for a deeper connection to life, a place of belonging. Te Urewera has a way of getting under your skin and I never really looked back from the bush.
Te Urewera National Park is located off the East Cape of NZ
What species do you focusing your trapping on and what methods are your go to’s?
These days it's the stoats I’m mostly focussed on. I’m working alongside other hunters and fishers to restore our dwindling Whio and Kiwi populations off the East Coast. We do a lot of rat, ferret, cat and possum control also but the big one is stoats. They affect our bigger birds and are an easy place to start. As projects build momentum and financial backing we tend to overlay our stoat networks with possum traps to restore the canopy, then infill with rat traps so the small birds can flourish too. But it all starts with stoats.
Predator #1 - The Stoat: A cute but deadly serial killer...
NZ is notoriously under siege by introduced pests/predators. Do you feel we are making substantial elimination progress or are we just keeping up?
In the most part we are either treading water or heading backwards as far as biodiversity goes, Key species such as Kakapo and Takahe that were once at risk of extinction are now stable but if we are talking about the general biodiversity of our country we are probably heading backwards. We are however making huge inroads into the social appetite for biodiversity gains. With Predator Free 2050, trapping being taught in schools and the amount of close to home community groups picking up their piece of the puzzle we have really managed to transfer the management of our native species from a rather under-resourced Department of Conservation to the general public.
The benefit of this is as hunters we have the ability to protect the areas and species that are important to us in a way that is palatable to our user group. The downside is that a large proportion of funding is now being channeled into the front country towards people focussed projects rather than where our remnant threatened species are actually located. We now have the likes of Tieke breeding and nesting in central Wellington, Kiwi being translocated to cities and huge amounts of urban conservation work being done.
I’d like to see us as hunters lead a lot more biodiversity projects in the backcountry with the funding that is available, particularly around managing our game herds and trapping around nationally significant species. No one knows the back country like hunters and no one else has the skill sets to work it. We need to get organised and educate ourselves in ecosystem restoration. Along with asking some big questions such as whether we are doing it for biodiversity or to protect our game herds.
Other introduced species such as the Himalayan Tahr, Deer and wild Pigs also impact our biodiversity
There is also a lot of new technology coming into the space (self re-setting traps, drones for poison application ect,). What are your thoughts on these and where do you see the future heading as we attempt to hit Predator Free 2050?
It's no secret that we can’t achieve predator free with the tools we currently have available. Aotearoa is actually the world leader in predator control technology with many of our tools and methodologies being exported overseas. Surprisingly we have a lot of companies trying to refine old technologies when what we really need is something totally ground breaking and new.
To me the key just comes down to budget. If we want to achieve predator-free as a nation we just have to bite the bullet and pay for it. If we decided to resource a nationwide operation I believe we could achieve predator-free in the next few years. We as a nation just see it as a nice to have rather than a need to have and are not prepared to take on the level of debt it would require to achieve it.
Sounds like you have a finger in a lot of pies.. What is the underlying purpose behind the type of adventures you pursue?
To me the ultimate adventure revolves around gathering kai and improving an ecosystem. I will happily be the forager on someone else's hunting adventure, I enjoy taking photos and cooking over the fire. I don’t need to be the one slaying the deer or catching the trout but it's an extra perk if I get the opportunity.
Some of the greatest adventures I have been on are a bit quirky. I have harvested Titi (mutton birds) on the Titi islands with Ngai Tahu partaking in their traditional practices. This was one of the most special hunting trips of my life, having the opportunity to hunt and eat such a unique traditional mahinga kai (food) species and be taught the tikanga (cultural practice) associated with it.
Another great adventure was when I was fortunate enough to be on Pure Salts boat The Flightless with Ron Bull and Fluer Sullivan where we cooked rat that had been fattened on kahikatea fruit deep in Dusky Sound. It was surprisingly delicious and helped me understand how so many of our cultures favoured and still favour rat as a game animal. We also cooked cod in traditional poha (kelp bags).
Partaking in these traditional forms of hunting and preparing kai (food) is definitely my favourite form of adventure. I feel that we are in an incredibly fortunate position in Aotearoa that by harvesting our contemporary game species of deer, pigs, trout etc. we are actually helping our ecosystems to increase their biodiversity and to some degree aid us in our journey to reestablish our traditional game herds and kai resources. The trapping and conservation work is a natural flow on from that.
My purpose is definitely to absorb as much knowledge about our wild places as possible and share it. Hopefully we can spark an interest in our people and a desire to connect with and reestablish the unique ecosystem functions of Aotearoa. Hunting has always been here and always will be but it's about creating a hunting landscape that is reflective of us and unique. It's about creating a hunting landscape that is of Aotearoa, not a hangover from a colonial notion.
Considering your work is varied and mostly spent in the wild, how do you manage your time in the outdoors vs at home?
This is a massive question and something that's been a bit of a journey for our little whanau (family). I’m used to being on the road for months at a time and working in the scrub on two week stints. While that worked when I was single and when Roi and I were first dating when you add a kid into the mix it all has to change.
In short I just told my work that I wasn’t going to be on the road as much and the fall out of that was while work was supportive of me being a Dad we were both aware that I wasn’t able to deliver in that role and prioritise my family at the same time.
Roi and I decided that I should look for a new role with a new organisation that would allow me flexibility and the opportunity to be at home. It knocked my ego a whole lot not being able to be the best at what I do. I’m no longer the guy that can go all day every day working harder than anyone else and leaving behind a high quality of predator control. I have a bit of a Dad bod that's taken a bit of getting used to looking in the mirror.
Instead I have turned my attention to our local region off the East Coast and starting a stable of young bushmen and women. In a health and safety conscious world, where the contractor model of getting as much work done in the shortest amount of time, our culture is a bit of an anomaly and an oasis.
Kids that are interested in the bush grow up on the writings of Barry Crump and Collin Mackenzie and expect to be able to live those adventures in this day and age. That's what we aim to offer and not something people can get anywhere else. We focus on bush knowledge- on knowing your edible plants and Rongoa (traditional healing), on ecosystem knowledge and how species interrelate with one another, we move slower, offer a better quality of predator control and there's always time for a fish or a hunt after the day's work. We are having contractors being sent to us from all over the country just to spend a week in the scrub absorbing our culture.
Thats really where my attention lies these days. I'm at home 4 nights out of the week and our 2 and a half year old son Rehua comes with me on the easier days. There's a lot of admin and computer work but I still get in the scrub most weeks. I have to remind myself it's just for now, just while my young fella gets big enough legs under him to keep up. Then we are back to the bush full time and it’ll be his turn to do the hard yards on the hill.
Hunting is a key part of food gathering in the bush
How did you pickup plant foraging and what are 3 tips you would give someone interested in pursuing it?
I get asked that all the time and the answer is a little bit here and a little bit there.
I first was inspired as a 12 year old by a man named Keith a Tuhoe (iwi/tribe) bushman who wore fleecy trousers, a black woollen singlet and no shoes. Keith resembled an old tuna with blue glazed over eyes, gums where his teeth should be and much taller and skinnier than most Tuhoe I have met. Keith would head bush at 4am with his head torch and machete. He wouldn’t take food or water with him on the hill relying on what he could hunt and forage as he did his traplines. To me Keith was a bit of a legend, the archetypal bushman.
I picked up a bit from Keith and a bit from other legends of the back country as I met them and spent time following them around the hills. Most guys wouldn’t stop to explain what they were doing you learned by watching and imitating. Some guys would explain identification to you while others would just ignore your questions. Usually they were old and unconsciously just did what they did because it was simply the way it had always been done.
I also read a lot. There are a few books out about foraging in Aotearoa but not many that resonate with my approach to kai (food). I am yet to find one that captures the spiritual side of living with the Ngahere (forest), the interrelationships of species and the matauranga (traditional knowledge).
If there were three tips it would be to:
- Take the time to find mentors. Old people that aren’t on social media. People that don’t even think about what they do consciously, people that gathering kai from the ngahere is just as much of an un-noteworthy part of life as putting your shoes on in the morning. Take time out of your life to spend with these people and always make sure you're contributing more than you're getting.
- Read books. While books are a poor way to transfer such practical knowledge they are a start. There's a lot of information and ID tips.
- Go slow and listen to your tapping. When we move slowly and pay attention to the ecosystem around us we start to understand how much we can take, what a plant can afford to give you and at what time of year we can harvest. This can all be learned from other people but if you don’t have the luxury of mentors you can always use your observation and tapping. What is tapping? Have you ever looked at a Kawakawa bush and felt that that leaf is the one to pick and that other one is not? That is tapping. Chances are it will point you towards the north side of the tree, to the leaf that's right for you and a leaf that the tree can afford to give you at that time. Lots of people come into the ngahere (forest) relying on their understanding of science and rules. But there's a lot more to it in my opinion.
Kawakawa is a edible plant pieces found that is on the menu for many foragers
You must carry some interesting gear with you, what are the top things that are a must have for a trapper?
Like Keith you can get by with very little but there are a few items that definitely make life easier and more comfortable. These are mine:
- MKM Classic Woollen T- The unofficial uniform of bushmen for the last 100 years. Wool stays warm when you're wet and cool when you're hot. It breathes and is long enough to cover your shorts. Just a brilliant and simple piece of apparel and I live in them.
- Twinneedle Capsule V2- I like to have my tools front and centre so I’m not stopping to get things out of my pack. Twinneedle gear lasts forever and bumbags are super functional for my kind of work.
- Speed Brace- It's the best of both worlds. Quieter than a battery drill and it doesn’t run out of batteries. Much easier on your wrists than a normal screw driver at the end of the day as well. This is my number one tool, I use it every 100m to unscrew trap boxes and reposition tree mounts.
- Crispi Titan Boots- If you're not wearing these you obviously haven’t tried a pair on. They are light, comfortable and waterproof. I grew up wearing buller gumboots on the hill as they were the closest to wearing bare feet I could find. Since finding CRISPI I haven't looked back, good support and comfy as.
- A telescopic fishing rod- Got to get the boys a feed after work so there's always a telescopic rod in my pack with a few lures kicking around.
- A cut down bushpig .308 rifle- I never know when the opportunity will present itself so the bushpig comes with me everywhere these days. Short enough not to be a hassle and with enough take down power. In most of the places I trap these days deer are having a big impact on our ecosystems so if it's brown it's down and you can’t beat venison for dinner.
What is it you love most about being outdoors and what keeps you going back?
It's just home. I’m not that flash at living in town. Not great at reading the signs of urbanite games. The bush isn’t simple, it's really complex, but it's also honest. The animals and trees have a purpose and make their intent known and folks that live and work in the bush are usually the same. They are really easy to understand and interact with. For me it just takes less energy to be in the bush. I don’t have to worry about people's egos or alternative agendas, there's no political correctness, no keeping up with the Jones’. In the bush I can just work really hard to help the Ngahere flourish and if I do my job it will give me a deer or a trout and a handful of Pikopiko, Kareao and Kowaowao leaves for dinner. It's just a place where I can be me.