Limiting rabbits is no massacre
The humble, doe-eyed rabbit looks harmless but to the farmer it can cause incalculable damage, with some landowners left bankrupt by the impact of the pests.
In Marlborough, the hills have been alive with the sound of munching rabbits. The infestation had reached such heights for one farmer that hunter and firearms expert Karl Slape founded Rabbits Unlimited three years ago to eradicate the pest.
The hunters quickly found that they could not deal with the sheer numbers and needed to work as a larger and more organised group. From a core group of four hunters, they now have 12 on their team.
The group offers their time to land owners around Marlborough with the only payment being their enjoyment of the hunt and the challenge that shooting small game offers.
With the onus on busy farmers to control their pest populations, Rabbits Unlimited has proved a crack shot at culling rabbits.
Today, I join Slape and members Jimmy Saunderson, Eric and Geoff Warmouth and Uri Cohen. We are heading off to Kevin Loe's beef and sheep farm in Ward.
Rabbits Unlimited have been going to the farm for the 3 years and have culled 7000 rabbits on his land.
The hunters are on what they call a maintenance mission to ensure our furry non-friends don't return.
They gather at Slape's house in Blenheim with military-like precision. Slape likens them to an army, who believe in discipline, precision and getting in and out of a hunt safely. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses when they go into an area to hunt.
Being from Northern Ireland, I didn't know what to expect of rabbit hunting. My Hollywood-inspired misinterpretation is of gun-toting, khaki-wearing killing machines hell-bent on a bloodbath. In reality the guys are all soft-centred souls who want to provide a service to farmers and the wider community.
The lads all come from rural backgrounds and have been hunting rabbits since they were nippers. Slape fired his first shot when he was 10 and culled rabbits at a farm in the Northbank of the Wairau Valley as an after-school job.
"We all started firing rifles long before the law probably said we could," Slape says. "But if you didn't know how to shoot on a farm, it didn't stay in business. I had no reason to feel frightened. I saw adults shooting and it was a normal thing that had to be done."
He was taught by Eric Warmouth, 79, a farmer and expert marksman, who is still hunting. Warmouth says the standing of a good hunter is patience and the ability to observe. These men are not anti-animals but take a common sense attitude to hunting.
"The rabbit in the right environment is not a problem," Slape says. "In our environment he can become a huge problem to the point that landowners are driven off their land. In some cases, man has to be the predator. When it comes to rabbit, that is the case."
Geoff Warmouth says sentimentality doesn't come into it.
"The rabbit is eating the grass that the farmer needs to feed and fatten their sheep or cows. It is a necessity to get rid of them."
Saunderson says shooting is more humane than using poison. Poison causes a slow death and can potentially endanger other species, he says.
The hunters have science on their side. They use state-of-the art guns and silencers, which have proven a game changer and make the team more efficient. They need every available tool at their disposal. Rabbits may be seen as simple-minded but they are extremely clever.
"Rabbits have an in-built survival mechanism. If they come under pressure from predators they instinctively know to breed a larger litter to compensate. They can also hold a pregnancy," Slape says.
Rabbits Unlimited have been concentrating their efforts between the Awatere Valley and Clarence River where the dry environment has led to a rabbit population explosion.
The term "breeding like rabbits" has never been so apt as in the case of Kevin Loe's farm in Ward.
Three years ago, the farm was plagued by rabbits and some of the fields resembled dirt paddocks barely covered by grass.
"The rabbits were terrible, they will eat out as much as they can," Loe says. "They loved the sheltered, sweet-grass areas. They dug holes into the earth and created erosion."
Loe uses a combination of poison, the calicivirus virus and Rabbits Unlimited to cull rabbits. He has spent $8000 in the last three years on ammunition and says Rabbits Unlimited have proved to be a crack shot.
"It was more cost effective to hunt the older rabbits," Loe says. "I could have spent up to $40,000 on poison, which in wet weather would not have worked."
As we negotiate the rolling country of Loe's farm we keep our eyes peeled for sightings. I am straining my eyes so hard, I mirage a rabbit in my head but it's only a tussock. I have already failed rule No 1 of hunting - recognise your target.
Each hunter has their own patch to stalk. Eric Warmouth, who will be an octogenarian come October, focuses on an area near Ward beach.
I join his son, Geoff Warmouth, to stalk a patch of land adjacent to where he once culled 100 rabbits in two hours. I didn't know what I expected, maybe sitting on a tartan rug, smoking a pipe while we aimed at rabbits. It proves a bit more physical than that. It's up hill and down dale as we dodge ankle breakers - little burrows rabbits have dug into the earth.
Geoff Warmouth is like the Sherlock Holmes of rabbit tracking. In short grass areas he pins his eyes to the ground, looking for "scratchings", a sure sign of rabbit activity.
He says he expects to see maybe three or four rabbits but with every hill we quietly and cautiously climb there is no sign of a single one.
It dawns on me that rabbit hunting isn't the massacre I had been expecting. The culmination of the stunning scenery and the fresh air makes it a surprisingly calming experience.
Warmouth has been shooting since he was a 9, growing up on his parent's Northbank farm in the Wairau Valley. He tells me he enjoys the challenge of the hunt but, more importantly, the service that they provide to farmers.
"The public don't understand the damage a rabbit can do. We are not ogres. Some guys go ripping around the countryside with semi-automatics blasting rabbits. We are more efficient."
Slape comes over on the radio after finishing his 2-kilometre circumnavigation. "I haven't seen any rabbits, it's like they are extinct," he says.
Geoff Warmouth beams with self-satisfaction; all the hard work over the years has been worth it.
"It is actually a pleasure to see no rabbits, it shows me it has been a job well done," he says.
In the fight for farmers against the rabbit infestation it's Rabbits Unlimited 1, rabbits 0. "The rabbit has got beat. We gave the farmer the win we told him we would get," Slape says.