It's not just the world-class trout fishing and deer stalking that makes New Zealand a sporting paradise, says Peter Ryan, the driven pheasant shooting is just as spectacular.
Imagine, if you can, flying over the United Kingdom in 1570. Most streams and rivers sparkle clear and clean, and great swathes of dark forest still hang sombre and brooding on steep hillsides. Outside a handful of cities, the countryside is thinly settled, a homely blend of oak, elm, beech and pine around scattered farmhouses, at every turn a tidy orchard or flock of sheep grazing a green hillside.
Depending on where you are, the mix of names will be English, Welsh, Scots or Irish. There are only four million people, a stark contrast to the 60 million plus of the UK today. It is, of course, a sportsman's paradise of deer, trout, salmon and game birds.
Now imagine that the same countryside is well serviced by first class roads – most of them empty – with good food and wine, cable TV and internet. Shooting and fishing are not just a way of life, they are literally a birthright for all.
That place sounds like a fantasy, but it isn't. It's New Zealand.
Obviously there are differences too, with many people from around the Pacific, tongue-twisting Maori names, and a young culture that is all its own. For all that, there is no way around the fact that of all the places on earth it is the farthest away, but where the echo of empire still rings loudest.
The history goes deep. Red and fallow deer, brown trout and mallard all made the long journey, some by crooked paths, from Britain. Tahr and sika were the same, gifts to the new colony from the Duke of Bedford's Woburn Estate.
Pheasants were among the earliest imports from England – there were even pheasants on the four ships that arrived in 1850 to establish the colony of Canterbury. With no predators at that time, those releases and others spread widely and the population boomed over coming decades.
In the wake of the game came the gear. The timing was perfect – just as the new fish and game resource was hitting its stride, Britain was producing the finest sporting equipment on earth, the Edwardian heyday of fine side-by-sides, stalking rifles and split cane rods. The Great War would bring that golden age to an end, but there is still a special aura to the craftsmanship of that time.
The settlers of New Zealand were not forced to go there. Often they were well-financed families and it showed in the gear they brought with them. Many of the guns were solid working pieces from respected makers like Greener. But serious sportsmen, feeling the move to the antipodes deserved London's best, took a Purdey, Holland & Holland, Churchill or Evans to the new world – most of which are still around today.
The reasons are not always to do with collecting. Much of New Zealand's terrain offers challenging shooting and quality driven pheasant have appeared in recent years, along with emigrant English gamekeepers. Many of the old pieces are now back doing what they were made for. It's a sentimental journey – in some cases the ‘bests' are seeing their first driven birds in a century.
Pete Gifford formerly owned the famous Clovelly shoot in Devon, whose drives bordering the sea offer some of the highest birds in Britain. He also has experience ranging from keeping to running picking-up teams on the exceptional North Molton shoot. In short, he's a hard man to impress. Today he is keeper at the Rathmoy estate on the North Island, an example of old-world tradition meeting new-world opportunity.
“The topography is amazing for producing quality birds, and the scenery is breathtaking,” he says. “We keepers can get a tan and the Guns are able to enjoy the attire and customs of a proper English shoot day. The job here is one that any keeper would recognise – managing birds and working with beaters and pickers-up, but there's freedom to do as you please, to shape the shoot into something really exceptional. Who could ask for more?”
There can be no argument about the scenery. Much of New Zealand's hunting and fishing moves through landscapes framed by towering alps, rolling hills and forest, silhouetted by the sweeping seascapes of the Pacific – as seen in Lord of the Rings as the film was shot across both islands.
All great shoots have a tale to tell and Rathmoy is no exception. “Like all farming families, we're just caretakers of the land for the next generation,” says owner Mark Grace. “Twenty-five years after the last native forest was cut, my mother and I began replanting. As a ten-year-old, I also raised pheasants and red-legged partridge. That mix – a love of trees and birds – is a solid foundation for a driven pheasant shoot.” In 2007, 1,000 birds were released, with 29 per cent shot over four driven days. Since then, the shoot has gone from strength to strength and 13,000 birds are now put down, all of which are bred on the farm.
Mark's enthusiasm is infectious, but it is always clients who have the final say on the quality of an estate. Lars Magnusson is a candid man of serious shooting know-how, having experienced the best shoots of the West Country, Yorkshire, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, and now running his own outfit in Wyoming. “My time at Rathmoy was magical. I truly believe that New Zealand will become a new destination for driven shooting. If you ever find yourself debating a shoot in the southern hemisphere, this estate should be high up on your to-do list.”
At a glance it is clear that Rathmoy runs on traditional lines, with breeks, legendary shoot lunches, sloe gin and all the trappings and customs of a great day in the field. English springers bustle through cover under southern skies just as they do at home. It is both instantly familiar, yet strangely exotic.
By contrast, Craigneuk on the South Island is a completely different style of operation. It's not a formal shoot, but a family outfit run over 11,000 acres of high sheep country. The landscape is pure heartland, with vast sweeping valleys and mountains often dusted with snow during the season. Birds can be walked-up on the flats or driven through steep rocky gorges, where they rocket fast and high around sheer cliffs. There are also plenty of California quail and, uniquely, drives for wild turkeys left by gold miners a century ago. The owners, John and Judy Duncan, are classic high country farmers – staunch, hospitable and passionate about what they do. Shooting here is to be invited into a family, but also into a way of life now mostly lost to the world.
Rathmoy and Craigneuk are just two examples from several dozen shoots now running across New Zealand. There's one to suit every taste and budget.
When the first British settlers arrived, one of their great ambitions was to create a sportsman's paradise, and they worked unceasingly to bring the salmon, deer, trout and game birds to make that possible. By any measure they succeeded. Today there are shooting and angling magazines in every supermarket, and even newsreaders wish their viewers good luck when the first Friday in May rolls around – the next morning is Opening Day. Bringing guns in and out means dealing briefly with a friendly and most likely curious policeman for about five minutes.
It's a long flight but with some Canterbury lamb and a decent Hawkes Bay cabernet (or smoked salmon and a zippy Marlborough sauvignon blanc) to sleep on, it passes comfortably enough. Maybe it's time to visit that long lost brother-in-law after all. No matter where he is, there's something to do with rod or gun in every corner of the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The plain truth is that New Zealand and Britain are family, and in a family, although everyone is different, there is no getting around the fact that the past is always with us. There are ties that bind, and nowhere are these clearer than in far-flung gems like Rathmoy and Craigneuk – places where the last echo of empire never died away.