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Article 6: Know your animals

If you are new to hunting a certain species or you want a high chance of a first class trophy, consider hiring a guide. A guide will know their country, the animals and will have the experience to find animals and the ability to judge mature animals from young animals. Your guide will also be able to judge trophy animals from non trophy animals and males from females e.g. Chamois bucks and does and Rocky Mountain Goat billies and nannies can be difficult to distinguish. Your guide will also know whether the animal you are observing is legal size or not and whether you can legally shoot it.

Whether an animal is legal size or not might seem a foreign concept to Kiwi and Australian hunters but it is the norm in many countries which are home to indigenous game animals. Age, horn length, antler length, number of points and width of antlers are just some of the parameters used in other countries. Because New Zealand and Australia have basically no rules around legal trophy size it is up to hunters themselves to understand our animals and in the case of trophy hunters you need to understand what is regarded as trophy size, or our down under ‘legal size’, no one can tell us what our legal size is so we must establish this for ourselves.

What is acceptable trophy size down under?

So how do we establish our down under acceptable trophy sizes? Well that really is a big can of worms, but it’s a question worth thinking about. We have some references to work with such as the Douglas Score which is our main way of recording wild trophies that are shot in New Zealand and Australia. There is a minimum Douglas Score required for a particular trophy to make the record book, some animals are easier to get into the record book than others, many would argue that to make the record book with a fallow buck trophy when the minimum entry level is 200 Douglas Score its not that difficult, but when the minimum entry level is set for a red stag at 300 Douglas Score it is very difficult.

The SCI (Safari Club International) Score is the most common scoring system used world wide, it is also a useful gauge when judging trophies. Unlike the Douglas Score the SCI score relies on feedback from its members each year and adjusts its record book minimum annually depending on data gathered from trophies shot that year, this seems to be a fair system. I don’t have the column space to go into the differences between SCI score and Douglas score, perhaps another time.

A chamois can reach trophy size (9 inches plus) at three years of age, a tahr can reach 12 inches at four years of age, but a tahr bull generally needs to be five years or older to make 12 inches. A red stag may grow a 12 point head in it’s 3rd year, but that trophy head does not fully mature until it’s eighth year and an elk until it’s ninth year.

At the moment the average age of a Wapiti bull (Elk) being shot in Fiordland is 4 years old, that’s not a trophy that’s a baby or at very best a young teenager, who wants to hang a young teenager on their wall? Many parents may feel like it at times, but I really fail to understand this. I watched a video of a beautiful young Wapiti type bull; he carried a 5×5, 10 point head about 35 inches in antler length. He was parading around the upper bush line, in and out of the monkey scrub, bugling away noisily and happily. After three days the hunter could find nothing better so he shot the young bull, a bull not halfway to his prime or trophy potential, you work that mentality out!

It’s hard when you set yourself minimum trophy standards and others don’t

A few years ago there used to be a hunter who had an arrangement with the landowner in our old red deer area. One particular evening my client and I were working our way in on a red stag up a steep walled tussock gully, we dropped down over a tussock ridge, dotted with a few beech trees and onto the steep upper wall of the valley side to open up enough angle to look in to where the stag was hidden below in the bracken fern. What a magnificent young beast he was, 15 points, 7 points on one antler 8 on the other, but thin in the timber, short in his points and small in body size, with antlers no longer than 32 inches. We backed out of there and left the stag for another year.

The next week I arrived back to the property and met the other hunter, up against the corrugated iron wall of the wash house sat two stag heads, one 12 point, 37 inch stag with weak tops (we’d left that one the week before also) the other a young 15 point head 32 inches long. Next I get told it is the best trophy to come off the property in years, I just kept walking.

Trophy hunters need to know their animals, they first need to lean the skills and techniques of hunting and then when the opportunity does come to take an animal that may be a trophy you need to ask yourself is it of trophy size and probably more importantly is it of trophy age? In the case of the Wapiti bull mentioned, it is a bad decision and was shot because the hunter could not find anything else, that’s a poor excuse, the photos and videos he has of the bull were a good enough prize. The Fiordland Wapiti is a very fragile resource, shooting a young bull like that from the gene pool does not help what the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation is trying to achieve. This animal does not fit into the trophy category in antler length, number of points, or age, it fails in all three categories, the only reason it fails is because it’s a baby, in 4-5 years it would have been a trophy, and unfortunately dead animals do not grow any bigger. In the case of the red stag it has a good number of points, but it is short in the antler, short in the tines and light in the timber of the antlers, it’s not a trophy either, it’s just too young.

Horned species need a good start

Most horned species will grow the majority of their horn length in the first 2-3 years of their life. This being the case if they do not get a good start to life, e.g. if they become miss-mothered, their mother is shot, or sustain an injury while young they will never produce a big trophy. When referring to tahr we tend to call the first 18 months growth of the horns the lamb tips, the lamb tips can be identified by the first growth ring (annuli) working back from the tip of the horn. Correctly speaking the lamb tip is the first 6 months of horn growth while the kid is suckling, there is no age ring to mark this but you will see the smooth thin lamb tip begin to widen and take on a more normal horn texture, the first defined ring will form at 18 months during the tahr’s second winter. If you look at the first 18 months growth of the horns it may be 5 inches, it may be 7 inches and there goes the difference between a 12 inch trophy and a 14 inch trophy when the bull is fully mature.

Horned animals may broom off the ends of their horns and smash off tips. Water Buffalo are a good example of this; younger bulls will carry horns that run right out to polished black tips, really old bulls which once had horn tips as pointed as your little finger will have horn tips as blunt as your fist.

Tahr can often broom off over an inch of horn tip, bulls on the western side of the Alps in harder country seem to be more susceptible to this.

Next time you look at a set of chamois horns have a look at the back of the horn where it curls around. Chamois buck’s love to lower their head and hook their horns around the limbs and trunks of alpine scrub bushes and thrash their heads about, often while marking their country with their postcranial gland which sits between their horns. This thrashing causes wear on the back of the horns, sometimes wearing right through the curl of the horn so a buck will have two spikes instead. In area’s where horn rot is prevalent both female and male chamois can loose their horns, being left with only two small stumps, or often you will see chamois which have lost one horn but will still have the other.

One of the benefits of having no legal trophy size is that you can take young hunters out and help them shoot an animal that has a set of horns or a set of antlers, everyone remembers their first trophy, and mine was an old billy goat. It may not be considered a trophy too others, but it sure was at the time by me. As hunters grow with experience they need to adjust their trophy expectations and do some research on what is an acceptable trophy size, if the animal does not meet acceptable trophy size try shooting with the camera, you’ll get just as much enjoyment. ‘Let him go and let him grow.’

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