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Hunting a legal solution

PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

A controversial decision in Masterton District Court has reignited the debate on illegal hunting penalties and police powers to catch and prosecute poachers.

Mathew Stewart, a Napier wood merchant, was recently sentenced to 60 hours community service and reparation after poaching a trophy stag from a Hawke’s Bay station.

The police prosecution strongly opposed his application for discharge without conviction.

For unknown reasons, he appeared via audio-visual link in Masterton District Court for sentencing by Judge Barbara Morris.

Hawke’s Bay’s Ngamatea Station called the ruling a “poor decision” and “a missed opportunity”, while Federated Farmers said the decision did not reflect the seriousness of the crime.

Ngamatea Station deer hunting operator Bruce Bates said people roaming farms with firearms was “incredibly dangerous” and considered the incident with Stewart “a near miss”.

He said he “absolutely did not accept” Stewart’s defence that he unintentionally poached the stag and that the judge had made a mistake in the ruling.

Stewart said he was fishing on the river bordering Ngamatea Station when he saw a stag in the water on Easter Weekend last year.

He shot the deer from his boat.

“It was not the king hit that he hoped for, but rather mortally wounded it,” Morris said summarising the defence.

“As a hunter, he was conscious of his obligation to dispatch the animal humanely but was also motivated by wanting the deer,” she said.

Stewart pursued the stag 500m onto Ngamatea Station land, where he finished it off with a close-range bullet.

The Wild Animal Control Act 1977 states the Crown owns wild animals until the moment they are killed, either by the property owner or by a person who has the owner’s permission to hunt.

Once killed, the ownership of the deer is conferred to the hunter.

Illegal hunting carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and $100,000 fine in New Zealand.

Morris said a highly publicised penalty would make the court’s stance on poaching clear and “send a strong message of deterrence”.

She said if Stewart were found to be marauding Ngamatea Station when other hunting parties were present, “I think the time has come to send that message”.

“However, that was not the case.

“Mr Stewart did not intend from the outset to go onto the property.”

She said the unusual circumstances of the poaching swung the balance in Stewart’s favour.

Morris said it would be “extremely unwise” for Stewart to attempt to shoot a deer in a river again.

She adjourned the sentencing until reparation for the stag could be decided upon.

Bates, who has run hunting parties at Ngamatea Station for the past 25 years, said it was immaterial whether Stewart set foot on Ngamatea land or not.

“The judge made a real mistake. He shot the deer in the river, and we own the middle of the river.

“But that’s the judge’s prerogative.”

He said the value of the deer also was not up for debate, with $7500 the typical price tag for a hunting package.

“If he didn’t want to pay that amount, he should have poached somewhere else.” Bates said poaching was a huge problem in the area, and the station lost between $50-60,000 a year.

In addition to the financial burden was the real risk of encountering armed poachers, he said.

“We’ve had two occasions in recent times where we’ve had firearms pointed at us, and our guides have been assaulted.

“Police are hamstrung a bit by the law, it’s been strengthened in recent years, but in rural areas, they’re still over an hour away.

“We were just lucky two of our neighbours saw it happen.”

A Federated Farmers May 2021 rural crime survey revealed out of 18 respondents in Wairarapa, 11 either had or suspected poaching on their farms.

Last year, two Masterton men, father and son Daniel and Justin Mullen, were convicted of unlawful hunting and fined $2000 each for hunting on a Tinui property during New Zealand’s first lockdown.

The case was brought to court after the pair were identified in CCTV footage.

Wairarapa Area Commander Inspector Scott Miller said that the case was an example of what could be achieved if incidents were reported to police.

However, a South Wairarapa station owner, who preferred to remain unnamed, said poaching had been a persistent problem until the family took matters into their own hands a few years ago.

He said a Masterton man would frequently “pick off trophy stags” in the night.

He said the $5000 loss of each stag and the stress of knowing someone with a loaded firearm was wandering near the house took its toll.

“It went on for years. I was on the phone in tears one night to the cops, ‘if you don’t get here and do something about it, I’ll do something I regret. I’ve had a gutsful.’

“We said enough is enough. And waited for him in the scrub the next week.

“He got a bit of a tickle up.”

The station owner said the police could not do much beyond warning the poacher and said catching illegal hunters red-handed was extremely difficult.

Okau Station hunting operator Boyd Vermeer said the family-owned station in Mataikona was a regular target for poachers until cameras were installed in the community.

“The problem pretty much dropped off overnight.”

He said that previous reporting to police had not yielded results.

“You basically have to sit up in the bush 365 nights a year.

“It’s a real hard thing to catch.”

Federated Farmers Hawke’s Bay provincial president Jim Galloway said police had prosecuted the Ngamatea incident well, but the decision was underwhelming.

He said the basic fact remained that someone with a high-powered rifle was on a farmer’s property without permission.

“Our children could be out there, our stock is there, and accidents happen.

“It’s far more nefarious than people think.

“You’re a long way from police, and you don’t want people taking the law into their own hands.”

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