Tuesday, November 15, 2016


I was reminded recently of the role chickens have played in my life when a stray one lolloped across the road ahead of me at Blackmount.  I braked but there had been a time in my life when I would not have.  As students we ate potatoes, cabbages and what we could run over.  Feral ones are a bit of a rarity in Southland.  Too many predators and a coolish and wettish climate – the same factors which have counted against the establishment of other related birds, the Californian quail, partridge and pheasant – have kept the population low.

In the North Island, however, there are feral fowls at every roadside layby.  They are a pest in parks, they probably harbour chook diseases and they forage in the bush where they can damage new plantings.  They appear for food whenever a car pulls up. 
In Niue I found twenty sorts of birds, the commonest of which was the chicken.  The roosters started each morning sometime between 1.52am and 2.03am.  I should know; I timed them!  Being interested in birds I enquired of the Ministry of Agriculture if there was anyone who knew about birds.  “O yes”, said the girl, “I know the birds.”  “That’s marvellous,” I said, “Can you tell me what they are?”  “Oh yes,” she said,  “They’re called chickens.”  “I’ve seen the chickens,” I said patiently.  “What about the others?”  “O yes,” she said, “They’re the others.”

In Tonga there was a sign ‘Moa and chips’.  Moa meant chicken.  The Pacific had chickens for a thousand years – one of several food species derived from Southeast Asia.  It is natural that the name was transferred to the new edible species in Aotearoa.

In Dunedin our scouts had a troop chicken called George Trigwell Johnson.  George wore a miniature scarf and earned the Buk Reader badge.  She was handy for testing cooking on, for rescuing from various dangerous situations in emergency training and for first aid.  Ever tried to put a sling on a chicken’s wing?  Instead of the usual things you see on a knotboard, scouts had to invent their own knots.  One was Brian’s Cacklebend for securing George to a peg by both legs.  There was also Jeremy’s Milo-hitch for tying a full mug to a rope so it could be hoisted up to someone trapped in the treetops and the Warren Knot which stayed firm if two enemy captives pulled the same way but released them if they pulled in opposite directions.

George’s first and only flight was as test pilot for the trebuchet.  Cackling hysterically from delight or something, she went up in a wide arc and dropped, flapping vigorously, onto the neighbour’s roof.  From a vantage point on a park above the city we aimed the machine.  A dead possum cleared the trees and the fence.  Spinning lazily and silhouetted in the evening sky, it vanished into suburbia below.

On a seabird count along Oreti Beach, one of the hikers arrived with a bulging sack.  “They’re chickens,” he said.  “Well,” I said, delighted at his innocence,  “we don’t call them chickens.  They are shearwaters, prions, petrels, shags and gulls.” He up-ended the sack.  They were chickens.  One sort of seabird is called a chicken.  These are ‘Mother Carey’s chickens’ which is a sailors’ name for the tiny Storm petrel.  They were believed to be the restless spirits of drowned seamen.  Mother Carey was the conscience of the sea, the female equivalent of Davey Jones.  Her name probably comes from Mater cara which means caring mother.

Back to the chickens…  I’ve kept odd ones.  I’m not particularly fond of them and it’s always going to be cheaper to buy eggs than to keep chooks.  Some people are simply terrified of them.  Alectorophobia is fear of chickens.  “Having to hold a chicken is my worst fear,” a friend told me.  I didn’t believe her.  “It’s your third worst fear,” I said.  Number two is appearing naked in public.  Number one is appearing naked in public whilst holding a chicken.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


I was driving up the road near Hauroko Valley school recently when a hare came loping out of the grass.  We paced each other, glancing across to see who was winning.  I was hoping he would zip in front of me so I could squash him but he turned aside eventually and in the rear-view mirror I could see him sitting up on a bank; he raised a paw and gave me a cheery wave.  A cynic might say he was brushing a grass stalk out of his face. 

 When I was a student we used to rely on what we could run over for part of our food supply.  I remember hares, rabbits, possums and a turkey.  Of these the hare is the best.  Old ones get a bit woody but a young hare roasted in the camp oven is a great meal.  The custom in wealthier families in England was to hang the hare, guts in, until the fur came loose or the ears fell off or something.  In New Zealand they were not hung but jugged.  The hare was cut into small pieces which were marinated in a jar of port wine – jugged – then stewed and served with gravy and red currant jelly.  For those who arrived too late to enjoy their piece of the hare there was an expression – kissing the hare’s foot – implying that that was the only taste you would get.

We are familiar with the hare as the gingery and long-limbed creature, loping through the tussock and pausing momentarily to check that there is enough distance between him and us.   The hare elicits from us a different and more kindly reaction than if our encounter had been with his cousin the rabbit.  He bears the virtue of being a modest rather than a profligate breeder, carries himself with a little more dignity and shows himself as a lone spirit, a creature of the remote places, and independent of the company of his fellows.  He is a virile and sometimes stroppy animal and you will recall the diffidence with which Dog, the hero of the Footrot Flats series, approached his hare duties. 
British Naturalist J.G.Millais said of hares, They are very gentlemen, just as the rabbit is a very cad." 

The hare has a place in folklore, representing speed, fecklessness and fertility.  
As with rabbits, the chief defence is flight and they are swifter – 72km/h for a short burst, it is said – and the marvellous zig-zag course of a pursued hare has made it a favoured game animal. 
The antics of hares can be amusing, with chasing, sparring and running in circles, the Mad March Hare syndrome.  These are the responses of uninterested females to the advances of males.  The young, called leverets, are born furred and with eyes open and reach independence earlier than rabbit kits. 
Two to five are born at a time and there can be a number of litters in a year.  Individual hares have much greater natural range than rabbits, feeding broadly rather than intensively cropping a small area.  Each occupies several hundred hectares while the typical rabbit range is about a hectare.  Rabbits are often seen in groups but the hare is solitary or as Ogden Nash says, ‘The hare is rare but the rabbit is a habit’.

Hare ranges are not territories and several hares feed in intersecting ranges.  They are particularly damaging to young pines where they nip out the growing shoot, spoiling the tree for optimal timber production.  
In 1922 George Thomson said that hares are said to tend to turn white in the colder parts of their range in winter and in 1921 this was reported to be a familiar phenomenon in Canterbury.  Turning white in winter is a characteristic of the related Mountain hare Lepus timidus and it is possible that some of these had been introduced with the commoner hares.  The phenomenon seems to be quite unknown these days. 

In 1867 three hares were brought from Victoria for the Otago Acclimatisation Society and turned out at Lake Waihola.  The Southland society imported some from Victoria in 1869 and liberated them at Benmore.  They were introduced for sport in the form of coursing which involved flushing a hare and releasing two greyhounds.  The one which nabbed or turned it most often was the winner.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


A really big dogfish
 Every time I do any length of a Southland Beach there is something to remind me that there are sharks not too far away.  Each whale carcase cast ashore has shark bites – often White-pointer damage where large chunks of flesh are torn away.  They also have scars from cookie-cutter sharks which take out small nips of flesh – ouch.  There are often skulls, lengths of vertebrae and whole sharks usually dogfish.  Some of these will have been hooked or netted and cast aside, and a few of the larger examples have been filleted.  There are several species of small dogfish which live in shallow water feeding on shellfish, starfish and other small critters.  These have tiny teeth.  A few times I’ve found a bigger shark – Seven-gilled shark, Mako and Porbeagle.

The Mako had a decent set of choppers on him and the group of kids I was with were keen to extract them.  He was cast up on a remote, rocky beach and had been dead a week or two – leaking, a mass of flies, bloated and altogether unfit for human consumption.  The first kid tried to wiggle a fang out but got his hand badly slashed on the vicious rows of teeth.  Found bandages.  Second kid got slashed as well.  Found more bandages.  My turn.  The only weapon was a blunt pocketknife but I dived in and got badly slashed.  Found the last of the bandages.  After that, we gave him up as a bad job.  I’ve picked up the occasional stingray and I’ve got five spines.  Vicious things, and you will remember that Steve Irwin was done in with one.  I guess if you annoy the wildlife enough you have to expect a reaction.   I haven’t found a White-pointer yet but I have one White-pointer tooth.  It came from the Tory Channel Whaling station where they harpooned the odd large shark and got a few Killer whales as well but found that the latter had no blubber worth processing.  Sharks of course have no blubber either;  being cold blooded they don’t need the insulation, and their large oily liver helps with buoyancy the way blubber does on a marine mammal.

Rays are related to sharks.  Neither has bones but instead, a skeleton of cartilage. About half the shark species and ray produce live young and half lay eggs.  Three sorts of eggs wash ashore once the baby has hatched.  Skate eggs are rectangular, Carpet shark eggs have long tendrils and Elephant fish eggs are massive, flattened, black oddities, sometimes cast up in large numbers.

An elephant fish egg case with a baby

Some of the local species are edible.  Lemon fish is skate and Elephant fish or Ghost shark goes into fish and chips.  Some are inedible and we had an encounter with one of these once.  On one scout camp we had, for some misguided reason, decided to have fish as our main, and only, source of meat.  Visiting the wharf, Phil spotted a large shark about five feet long lying on the deck of a fishing boat.  “How much?” he asked.  I think it cost $5.

We bore to camp, tail waving out the back window.

It was surprisingly hard but eventually slices were carved off the tail end and cooked in the camp oven where they solidified.  We tried boiling some of it but it had so much ammonia in it that we couldn’t stomach it.  The emergency food supply was a large tin of St George baked beans.  You may remember St George, a Dunedin firm that disappeared decades ago.  The tin had been around for many years and it had put in a fair mileage but it had always seemed a shame to open it.  We had got quite fond of it.  Also, because of the shabby nature of the tin, if had almost certainly rusted and become suffused with botulism.

The ceremonial opening proved that they made tins to last in them days and that the beans had survived their years of incarceration in good health.  We slowly ate our way through them over the next day.  They had a rich flavour I haven’t encountered since.  It was possibly the St George recipe, but perhaps they had matured like old cheese

We stopped at Waihola on the way home and pooling their funds, the scouts bought some proper food - $10 worth of fish and chips.  Mind you this was 1978.  It took two scouts to carry the package which was about the size of a fertiliser sack.  Back in those days 50c fish and chips was about all you could handle.  “We’re never eating shark again ever,” they announced.  I wonder if they knew what the fish part of fish and chips is?

We left the shark in Lake Waihola, carefully arranged to show that it had washed ashore after having been bitten in half by an even larger shark.  No point in wasting it.

Finally, some advice on what to do in a shark attack…

  •     Don't swim in the sea.  99% of all shark attacks take place in the sea.
  •     In the event that you are foolish enough to swim in the sea listen carefully for the music.  All shark attacks are preceded by `daah-da, daah-da'  which gradually becomes more rapid as the shark gets closer.
  •     Swim with slow people.  This way you don’t have to swim faster than the shark, you only have to swim faster than your friends.
  •     Play dead.  This won’t work as sharks eat dead stuff as well but you have nothing to lose.  When the shark continues to show interest you might as well fight back.  Try to get in a few well-aimed punches before you die.  This doesn’t apply to White-pointers as they are a protected species.
  •     Don't panic.  This won't help you to survive but people on the beach will appreciate you not yelling as this is quite unsettling.