Highland Stags of Otago by D. Bruce Banwell

Value $125-$300 | Published 1968

D. Bruce Banwell’s own words in the preface of Highland Stags of Otago summarise this book when he says “this book outlines the history of these Highland deer, their establishment and acclimatisation in Otago and South Westland, and the adventures and successes of sportsmen who have stalked them.” I would only add that this is the story of New Zealand’s herd of wild Scottish red deer from Invermark.

Highland Stags of Otago is one of the most sought after New Zealand hunting books, with good reason. It is informative, inspirational, well written and enjoyable.

Like the trophy heads produced by the Otago herd, it is of superior quality both in subject matter and substance over most other hunting books — for lack of a better expression, it’s a “trophy book”.

The Publisher’s blurb, set out at the end of this review, provides a detailed synopsis of this book’s subject matter and also of Bruce, the author, so I do not think it’s worth setting out both again for the purposes of this review other than to add a bit of colour.

Chapters are logically divided roughly along the following lines:

  • background to the Otago herd’s Scottish Highland origins and importation
  • their acclimatisation and 1871 releases at Morven Hills station, Lindis Valley and Bushey Park estate, Palmerston, at Otago, South Island
  • the issuing of hunting licenses by Acclimatisation Societies to deer-stalkers and some background to the first “gentlemen” hunters
  • following the spread of the herd from valley to valley and detailing noteworthy trophies, from its original release in the Lindis catchment around Timaru Creek and the Ahuriri (1878–1895) to the following famous valleys and “trophy eras”:
    • Dingle, 1898–1910
    • Waitaki area, encompassing Hopkins-Huxley and Dobson, 1895–1920
    • The Hunter, 1905–1927
    • Makarora, 1911–1935
    • Matukituki and Minaret Burn, 1916–1922 and 1929–1945
    • Haast Pass, Wills, Burke, 1918–1930
    • Landsborough, 1918–1935
    • Waiatoto, Moeraki, Paringa, Mahitahi, Copland, Twain and Karangarua, 1950s and 1960s

Bruce’s passion for red deer, especially for the Otago herd, is obvious, with the work being thorough and well researched.

Apparently Bruce measured each of the deer heads referred to in this book and by virtue of that would have also listened to many first- or second-hand accounts of their taking by owners or family members. Those stories are recorded in this book.

An interesting and recurring quirk in Bruce’s books is the quips he makes when correcting factual mistakes in T. E. Donne’s great work, The Game Animals of New Zealand: An account of their introduction, acclimatisation, and development (1924). For example, Bruce says, rather than merely correcting a mistake on the topic of the deer’s original importation, that “Donne could not have searched the records of the Otago Acclimatisation Society, for it appears at least three times in the minutes between 1869 and 1872”. Perhaps Bruce had relied on Donne’s false data at some point and was proven wrong, thus scorned?

It is the quality and sheer number of photos of the trophy deer heads that really elevate the appeal and desirability of this book. Presented as compilations, the photo plates are all in black & white.

Although Bruce has written many books (a complete list of which can be reviewed here) there are only two which can be considered part of a series along with Highland Stags of Otago; its predecessor, Wapiti in New Zealand: A history of the Fiordland herd (1966) and follow up, The Red Stags of the Rakaia (1970). All three of these books were combined into one book by Halcyon Press under the banner of ‘The Halcyon Press Sporting Heritage Series’ and entitled The Banwell Books (1985). This omnibus is very sought after and is worth up to $400 due to its limited number of 500 copies.

This book is a true great of New Zealand’s hunting literature and is written by New Zealand’s pre-eminent author on deer and their hunting history.

If you have your own copy or manage to find one, treasure it.

The Hunter’s recommendation is: buy it

The Hunter’s ratings are:

  • Overall rating: 9.5 out of 10
  • Photos and illustrations: 5 out of 5
  • Trophy quality: 5 out of 5
  • Writing quality and style: 4.5 out of 5
  • Page-turner status: 4.5 out of 5

Publisher’s blurb

For your information the following is the book’s blurb:

THE OTAGO HERD of red deer is the only herd in New Zealand that is descended from wild stock; the other herds derive from “domesticated” park-bred animals.
The author, whose Wapiti in New Zealand is the standard reference-work on the Fiordland wapiti, gives us the romantic history of Otago’s red deer. His careful research has resulted in a remarkably interesting and accurate picture of the herd’s Highland ancestry, going right back to before the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745.
He then traces the moves leading up to the importation to New Zealand of the wild progenitors of the Otago herd, their liberation, and the history of their winning world fame once licensed shooting was authorised.
The legendary hunters, homebred and overseas, of the past are detailed, with authenticated dimensions of the great trophies; and the heard’s spread through Otago and into Westland is fully and carefully recorded.
Trophy statisitcs, fully checked for accuracy, are given. And the quality of the photographs — inlcuding superb scenic shots as well as trophy photos — can be seen at a glace.
An invaluable work of reference for all keen New Zealand deerstalkers, the book is, also, a delight to read.
D. BRUCE BANWELL is essentially Celt — his Highland-Scottish and Irish background ensures that. He numbers MacFarlanes and Campbells among his ancestors (his grandfather was wearing a MacFarlane kilt the day he stepped ashore at Dunedin in 1872). And it was from the Campbell country clan that the ancestors of the Otago deer came, so it is not suprising that Mr Banwell has a special interest in the Highland-bred deer of this famous herd.
Bruce Banwell himself was born in 1932, son of a keen deerstalker. He registered his first rigle at the age of 16 and has been an active hunter ever since. His Wapiti in New Zealand, published in 1966, has become the standard reference work on the subject and is a model of painstaking research, both in text and illustration.
He is a bank officer by profession (at present at Dunedin), and his family includes three daughters and one son.
Mr Banwell’s research into the Otago herds’ Highland origins led him into many fascinating byways of Scottish history, and he is proud of being their first recorder in New Zealand.
He has, though, one reservation about this book: “My publishers and I have had to disagree over the spelling of tahr,”, he says. “They spell it thar, and throw the Oxford Dictionary at me. But one of these days I’ll get them round to my way of thinking!”

Bibliographic information

Title: Highland Stags of Otago
Author: D. Bruce Banwell (David) (1932–2013)
Editions: 1968, 1985
Publisher: A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, New Zealand
Format: Hardcover, 170 pages, black & white illustrations, 24 cm

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