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Ben's People: 'Meet Mark'

Ben Ulisse
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Mark at home beside his monkeypuzzle tree.  Ben Ulisse

West Coaster Mark Weir talks about the picturesque playground he calls home.

To many, the wild and untamed West Coast exists only in myth, a primordial province seldom visited due to the mountainous drive between Christchurch and Hokitika. But to some, the rugged left side of our southern island means everything and more.  

Nestled below the mossy hills of Harihari, one such individual and his family are embracing this lifestyle fully. Mark Weir is your typical outdoorsy West Coaster: pragmatic, humorous, and occasionally philosophical.  

‘I like the peace and quiet, and the fact that we’re about twenty or thirty years behind the fast pace of the rest of the country. The Wild Foods Fest and other activities also make this a nice place to live, not to mention the small-town comradery.’  

He invites me into his home for a coffee, the instant Nescafe kind from a sachet: an everyday product to most folks, but a luxury to some coasters. The nearest supermarket is 45 minutes away, so I brought him a few supplies on my way down. You won’t find Uber Eats out here.  
We sip our coffees and chat about the wild red deer, a controversial pest species once kept at bay by the government deer-cullers of days gone by, characters immortalised by writers like Barry Crump and “Big Al” Lester. Mark fondly remembers hunting alongside these professional bushmen during his youth, and spoke of their ingenuity, resilience to harsh conditions and understanding of the natural environment needed to survive. ‘I’ve worked with the old deer cullers who were dropped off in the bush in South Westland down around Haast, with ammo and enough supplies to last them three months. You’d get a bag of flour, bag of salt, tin of tobacco... they’d herd mobs of 120 deer into valleys and take care of them with good old .303 rifles. Then they’d take the tails to collect the bounty, sometimes paid in rounds of ammunition if I recall.’ 


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Red deer thrive in the hills behind Harihari. Ben Ulisse

For the relationship between man and nature to be healthy, it must be symbiotic, as any scientist would tell you. Hunters like Mark know this too, and each deer they kill has a two-fold effect on the ecosystem: it provides venison for hungry bellies in a place where kai can’t be bought nearby, and it helps to even the playing field for native species forced to compete with these newer arrivals. In short, less pests means a better habitat for natives.   

Unfortunately, the working relationship between those who live in the bush and those in charge of pest control is not so symbiotic, and Mark is saddened each time he finds the remains of a once beautiful forest bird that has died after feasting on the carcass of another animal poisoned by 1080 pellets. ‘A vicious cycle,’ Weir says.   

‘Not only that,’ he adds, ‘but the poison can leech into the environment, and a lot of us rely on rivers for our drinking water. Also, that ruined meat starts to rot and stink up the bush. It’s no respect to the animal, or to the people who live amongst it.’   

According to DOC, it’s been seven months since the last drop near Harihari when 1080 was used in South Westland to fight Bovine TB. The department also says after monitoring indigenous fauna for several years following 1080 drops, they have seen boosts to native bird populations in bushland areas where predators are known to raid nests. DOC acknowledges that some birds will inevitably eat the poison pellets first-hand and die, of course, but claims the benefits of 1080 keeping down malicious pests such as stoats, possums and ferrets outweighs the loss of a few birds each year.     

One of our native birds most affected by 1080 is the famously cheeky kea, but Kea Conservation Trust founder Tamsin Orr-Walker says this is mainly due to overseas visitors offering the inquisitive parrots edible treats to lure them closer for photos. ‘And those birds are the most likely to pick up 1080 baits,’ Orr-Walker explains.  

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A 1080 sign seen from SHW73. Ben Ulisse

Now retired and enjoying his time, Mark Weir has little energy for fighting 1080 these days. Continuing the home tour, he proudly shows me his new toy: a drone and camera that connect to a smart phone. With this, he captures eye-poppingly beautiful nature footage worthy of an Air New Zealand ad. We watch a birds-eye-view panning shot of the Wanganui River before the drone swoops down and zooms across shimmering blue water toward a rocky beach, a tiny airplane about to land. It doesn’t stop though, and it zips past a happy Mark with a whitebait net nearby. The video ends with his grin reflected on the black screen. ‘Not a bad wee spot to call home. We know just how lucky we are.’ He’s not wrong there.   

The West Coast is his whole world, New Zealand his outer universe, but his contentment within this slice of heaven is accompanied by a sad frustration at the lack of communication across the divide. ‘Us normal people who are against 1080 get a lot of negative attention, because it’s only the extreme groups making silly protests and threats which the media seem to focus on, and those individuals do not portray the average West Coaster’s perspective. We’re regular, caring people, and we don’t like being associated with that crazy lot.’   

You can tell Mark loves it here, a paradise free from the hustle and bustle of city life. But that isolation comes at a cost. For him and many others living in this remote region feel that being so far from the main centres puts them at the back of the room, as far as representation goes, not helped at all by their comparatively miniscule volume of registered voters. ‘If everyone on the West Coast signed a petition to ban 1080, I don’t think it would get enough signatures to even get looked at in Parliament. The average member of the public outside of here has no idea about 1080 because it doesn’t affect their world.’ His cat meows at me for a pat.   

‘Let’s go visit my boy Dougal, he’ll be good for a yarn or two.’   

We take my car up the main thoroughfare (Harihari highway) and turn onto a dirt road through green farmland. Dougal’s place is much like his fathers, built solely for functional purposes. But it’s not without its charm, and a trusty 1980s Toyota Hilux with whitebait netting in front sets the West Coast scene perfectly. We sit down to afternoon tea with sumptuous home-made chocolate banana cake and talk about life on the coast. Dougal has found the same serenity out here that Mark has. A self-described hunter-gatherer, he talks of how yabbies (freshwater crayfish) he caught in his youth were up to 30cm long, now they average only 5cm.

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Dougal and his loyal 'lux. Ben Ulisse

Naturally, discussion turns to 1080 again just as the third generation Weir climbs up onto one of the chairs, having spied his mother’s baking. I push the plate nearer to him so he can grab a piece. Dougal looks at his son and appears deep in thought. ‘We don’t swim in the rivers right after a poison drop, as a precaution.’ While the West Coast Regional Council doesn’t carry out tests on water quality due to the difficulty of monitoring waterways in the region, OSPRI, one of the contractors carrying out 1080 drops, hands out bottled water to residents if they’re worried about the risk.     

I take Mark back to his place and get ready for my long trip back to Christchurch. There’s time for one more chat, so I ask whether he thinks government deer cullers could return. He chuckles. ‘In those days, in the days of the deer cullers, there’d be no 1080. But you know, as admirable as giving the pest control job back to hunters would sound today, I don’t think recreational hunting, even with bounties on tails, would make enough of a dent in the deer population. There’s more deer now than there are guns and bullets.’   

Mark has one final thing to say, something unexpected that strikes a chord. ‘Because of the nature of the West Coast, and the fact that ninety percent of farm income over here is through dairying, there’s risk of large financial cost to farmers with the threat from Bovine TB which can jump the species barrier and be transmitted from possums and deer. If we eat anything with that in it, it can mutate into Tuberculosis.   

‘It’s all well and good for people to be anti-1080, but, unless there is a viable alternative, it will remain in use until Bovine TB is gone. We must weigh up the risk, and as much as I’m for no more 1080, I’m also for no TB in the cows because our community relies on the dairy economy so much.’ As of 2020, New Zealand is the largest dairy-producing nation per capita.  

‘I was a meat inspector for seventeen years, and I was lucky enough to get inoculated against TB because in those days it was rife, and we were exposed to it. It’s not as bad now, but it has not been eradicated fully. That’s why they resort to using poison.’  

Some might say it’s a catch .22LR situation.   

Mark welcomes me back for a future visit as we make our goodbyes. ‘It may not be perfect, but the West Coast is the place I want to be.’