Deer-netting in the 90s.

Now that I am old and irrelevant, it’s clearly time to divert the focus of this blog to unreliable memories of ‘how things used to be’.

I was talking to a friend and fellow dog walker on the beach this morning. She recounted how she’d confidently told her niece (years ago) not to worry about school because she obviously wasn’t going to do well at it, so she should focus on something fruitful with her life.

Fair enough, I suppose. After all, as proof of her prophetic advice, the niece went on to manage a video store, very successfully.

It got me thinking about jobs that no longer exist, or at least wondering if they do.

As a teenager, stone broke, I got a job on a ‘farm crew’. Now, my memory of the details is hazy at best, but I think basically we got fed and had a shearer’s quarters to stay in, and in return we did three main jobs – shearing and associated tasks, deer-netting and shooting rabbits.

Let’s begin with deer netting because it’s perhaps changed the most. Most people, when you say ‘deer-netting’ think you’re hanging out of a helicopter with a .308. And indeed, this used to be the case. However, New Zealand’s shift to neoliberal austerity in the mid 80s spelled the end of bounties for pest animals. This, combined with another regulatory peculiarity – that New Zealanders could ‘maintain’ their own helicopters – meant that by the time I was in primary school deer recovery (as it was known) was pretty much finished. It was said at the time that one in three helicopters in NZ crashed. In hindsight, it was probably ambitious to expect that the personal characteristics of; ‘able to shoot a rifle’ and ‘able to resurrect a Robinson R22 without having an ice cream container of bits leftover’ would overlap.

So, deer-netting in the early 90s looked like this;

Get up very early in the morning. Eat a bit of bread and jam (the shearer’s quarters ran on a bank of old car batteries and an ammonia fridge that required laps around the paddock in a trailer to redistribute the gas).

Climb up onto a tractor trailer. Bounce over a river bed in the manner of a mining grader, in the vain hope that your teeth will end up on the top. Freeze. Climb out on the edge of a river bank.

Here’s where the trick is. The previous crew had been in one year earlier and cut a large swathe of riverside grass and bracken right down to the nubs, and built a large, high fence with a ‘maze’ as an entry point. The young deer make their way into the maze in search of the delicious new shoots. Some find it impossible to get out. There’s enough food growing in there to keep them alive and gradually, over the course of a year, the netted area fills up with the silliest deer in the south island. Then, a helicopter comes in and collects the deer by netting them and choppering them out to a nearby farm. They are then kept on the farm for a year or so and then slaughtered for venison, or used as breeding animals.

I can’t remember exactly what time of year we did this, but I think it was summer, because although it was freezing, we were in the high country and it was always bloody freezing (I also worked on the farm during the roar but that was crutching I think, and I only remember it because of the endless roaring from the deer on the neighbouring farm).

So, the job of the netting crew is to remove the fence so it can be moved to another location. Now, as I said, it sits on the edge of a river. With a kind of crow-bar thingo, you go around and in thigh deep, freezing, tannin stained water and then remove the staples (also underwater) from large tanalised poles that are about 8 metres high but half submerged in water. I fondly recall whacking my ankle against something sharp and it gaily bleeding into the river for ages before I noticed, as my legs were completely numb.

This is a couple of day’s work. Then, at the end, when all the fencing is removed, you roll up the wire into long bouncy rolls and load it onto the trailer and then sit on it, all the way back to the farm.

From memory, this is about where we were working. This is the junction of the Ahaura and Waiheke Rivers.

It sounds like hard work, and it was, but it was also beautiful, and compared to some of the shit jobs I’d had up until that point, it was borderline heaven. I loved being in the back-country and by the age of 14 I’d been out tramping (as it is known in NZ) on my own in the bush many, many times.

It still amazes me to this day that people get anxious about being ‘away’ from civilisation, as if it’s not safe. What’s truly dangerous is people. The further away you get from humans, the safer you are. Like Australia, the main danger comes from the elements – certainly hypothermia was a real risk. In Australia people perish every year in the heat when their cars break down or they get some silly ideas about directions from the sat-nav thing on the dashboard of their 4WD rental car that isn’t actually 4WD. Likewise, any number of tourists plunge to their deaths or shiver themselves into extinction in the New Zealand wilderness, but generally, these are things you can prepare yourself for. Nature is not out to get you.

The other jobs on the farm were simpler – shooting rabbits with a .22 or shotgun, riding around on small, gutless motorbikes on the most foolish of pretences and tagging, crutching and drenching sheep. Maybe I will recall them another time.

So ends story time with Old Cranky. STAY IN SCHOOL.

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