Weka farmer takes on DOC: 'I'm prepared to go to jail'
Decades after he began farming and eating weka, renegade conservationist Roger Beattie is ready to become a martyr.
The Christchurch man has long dreamed of commercialising endangered species as a means of saving them.
He believes weka and kiwi should be farmed like sheep and cattle, cooked and served on dinner plates for a premium price.
Beattie farms eastern buff weka, a species extinct on the mainland, on his property in Lansdowne Valley. He has given hundreds of weka to wildlife reserves since he started in 1994 – one of his birds bred 17 chicks in a year, likely a record.
In that time, the odd weka has ended up on a dinner plate. They're top tucker, he said, and could be our national dish – a culinary curiosity attracting foodies the world over.
Beattie's views often put him at odds with Government authorities, particularly the Department of Conservation (DOC).
The agency is investigating Beattie for his latest venture.
The Weka Woo beanie, made from a blend of sheep and possum fur, comes with a single weka feather, a political statement symbolising Beattie's conservation battle. An identical beanie, Wyld, does not come with a weka feather. All profits go towards private weka conservation.
It is an offence to sell protected wildlife, including their feathers, under the Wildlife Act. The maximum punishment is two years' imprisonment.
Beattie maintained he was not selling the feathers – they came free with the hat, he said, and it was not illegal to give protected species away. It is a grey area.
Regardless of the investigation, Beattie said he would not stop.
"Do they want to take me to court?" he said.
"I'm prepared to go to jail over it. You put me in jail and you make a martyr of me."
DOC declined to comment, citing the investigation.
Buff weka have maintained a healthy population on the Chatham Islands, where they can legally be hunted and eaten.
On the mainland all weka are protected, which means they cannot be killed, captured, or sold without DOC's permission.
Beattie has permits for his weka and does not kill them. However, he has had a number killed by predators, including stoats. Cooked weka looks a bit like a small roast chicken but according to Beattie tastes better than chicken, with a hint of mutton.
He feeds them organic chicken feed, which he scatters through his predator-proofed reserve while shouting "Weka Weka Woo." He cannot recall the origin of the phrase, but it was effective in summoning the birds from deep in the undergrowth.
Beattie has been described as an eco-anarchist with a knack for turning obscure ideas into successful businesses.
He farms giant kelp, sells paua pearls and breeds lines of obscure sheep, including one he helped invent.
He is a staunch libertarian. His conservation ideals stem from his belief in the power of commerce to solve problems.
"Passion lasts for a certain period of time, but commerce has stamina," he said.
"The thing about bureaucracies is they would rather not make a decision that's positive and run the risk of it turning sour when it's much easier for them to say no.
"I'm the complete opposite. I'm a serial entrepreneur – I understand risk, I can manage it."
Because weka cannot legally be sold, Beattie gives the birds away. In 2010, he planned to give away cooked weka at the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival, which led to police investigating him.
An earthquake meant he never made it to the festival, but he said he planned to try again at some point.
Earlier this year one of the Port Hills fires started across the road from his farm. He joined firefighters and his neighbours in putting out the fires, which razed the hills opposite, now a patchwork of green and rusted grass as it regenerates.
When the area was evacuated, Beattie refused to leave. If they forcibly removed him he would have sneaked back in.
The same principle of civic disobedience applied to his conservation beliefs.
"We have the world's worst statistics for birds becoming extinct, becoming endangered," he said. "If we don't do something about it it's going to keep getting worse.
"Bureaucracies are totally risk averse, and no one is panicking. The public get it very, very quickly. We need to have a series of circuit breakers. There needs to be a tipping point, and I think we're on the tipping point."
While not an expert when it came to conservation, he had successfully predator proofed part of his land and filled it with native plant species.
Since he first acquired weka, they have bred aggressively. His weka farm was among the most successful private conservation projects in the country, he said.
If Beattie – a self-confessed amateur on conservation matters – could succeed, how well would an expert do when untethered from the strict rules and regulations governing the conservation estate?
"No farmed species has ever gone extinct," he said.
"We need to have weka as numerous as sheep are. They used to be, so why can't they be again? It's just as viable as chicken farms, sheep farms and dairy farms.
"You can eat them, use their feathers, use them for pest control... There's 101 uses for a weka."
Top chefs have shown interest in the possibilities of serving weka on the menu. Roots in Lyttelton, often ranked among the country's finest restaurants, is the latest to explore the possibility, so there was a market.
The counter-argument is that domesticating species inevitably changes them, and encouraging farming may reduce their natural habitat even further.
There was also something off-putting about eating a native bird; there may be a social barrier to putting kiwi on the menu.
For Beattie, who had considered the arguments for decades, it was time to take a stand, and his beanies may be the vehicle to do so.
"I'm resigned to going to jail, if necessary. I don't want to go to jail but I'm prepared to," he said.
"It's not smoke and mirrors: This is what I believe in, and that may be the tipping point, me going to jail over a weka feather."