The Red Stags of the Rakaia by D. Bruce Banwell

Published 1970 | Value $50 – $250

The Red Stags of the Rakaia is the third book written by the late D. Bruce Banwell. Similar to its predecessors, Wapiti in New Zealand (1966) and Highland Stags of Otago (1968), it is a historical account about a famous herd of deer, in this case, the trophy red deer of Stoke Park, England origin released inland of Christchurch at the Rakaia River valley.

At the time of liberation little did the liberators know that the deer set free would soon produce antlers that exceeded the size attainable elsewhere in the World, second only to the Otago red deer heads shot farther south. Word soon spread among sportsmen and the Rakaia herd became a mecca for trophy hunters. It is this story that Bruce documents.

The Publisher’s blurb below offers a detailed synopsis of the book and of Bruce, the author, so I will limit this review to providing more specific details about what the reader can expect, starting with listing the book’s chapters:

  • “A Little England”
  • The Red Deer in Merry England
  • The Stags of Stoke
  • From Parkland to Alp
  • The Pre-war Years
  • Five Great Years
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • The End of an Era
  • The Spread South
  • To The North–The Selwyn
  • The Hokitika–Mecca of the West
  • North and South of Mecca

In these chapters Bruce details the acquisition, introduction, acclimatisation and stalking through the decades (from their release in 1897 through to the 1960s) of these majestic and coarse red deer. The Rakaia deer were labelled “coarse” because they were the biggest bodied of their type in New Zealand, owing in part to their German heritage, and their antlers were unmatched for mass and weight.

There are a total of 16 photo plates which are compilations of black & white photos. As with all of Bruce’s books it is these photos that make this book interesting and a standout.

Bruce’s first two books were written with such passion and knowledge that it would have been hard to replicate their class. Bruce didn’t live in the subject area nor did he hunt it as extensively as he had Fiordland and Southland, therefore didn’t intimately know the locations and the local hunters of the day.

The result is this book feels more like an almanac recording dates, names, locations and trophy statistics. You could argue it doesn’t impart the same passion, context, flair or background as Wapiti in New Zealand or Highland Stags of Otago, however it is still amazing to read and you find yourself imagining what it would be like hunting Rakaia stags in the ‘halcyon days’, as they are now known.

It’s worth noting I am comparing The Red Stags of the Rakaia to Bruce’s other titles so when compared to general hunting books this one is still a standout.

There are two notable excerpts that Bruce includes — both are supremely vivid and enjoyable to read. The first is respected Otago deerstalker Harold Hodgkinson’s report from 1914 to the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society about the status of the Rakaia herd. The second is a short story written by Dame Ngaio March about her 1927 roar trip.

In summary, this is another must read book for hunting enthusiasts and is a collectible and valuable book to boot.

The Red Stags of the Rakaia, combined with Bruce’s first two books, were compiled into one volume 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. A recent copy that was up for auction sold for $500.

The Hunter’s recommendation is: buy it

The Hunter’s ratings are:

  • Overall rating: 8.5 out of 10
  • Photos and illustrations: 4 out of 5
  • Trophy quality: 5 out of 5
  • Writing quality and style: 4 out of 5
  • Page-turner status: 4 out of 5

Publisher’s blurb

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

THE RED DEER of the Rakaia herd, whose ancestors were liberated in Canterbury in 1897, have rewarded New Zealand and overseas hunters with some of the most magnificent trophies ever seen in the world.
The herd’s history can be traced back to the Domesday Book of 1086 AD and thence through the centuries, with the addition of German blood to the English park-bred stock, to the period when the North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society empowered one of its members to arrange the purchase of ten animals for introduction to New Zealand.
This history, and the growth and spread of the herd north and south of the point of liberation, and its crossing of the Main Divide over into the Westland valley, are recorded fully and with meticulous accuracy by Mr Banwell, whose two earlier books — Wapiti in New Zealand and The Highland Stags of Otago — demonstrated his skill in combining thorough research with a bright and fluent style.
He has gone to the greatest possible lengths to secure the authentic details of the great stalks and trophies, giving the dimensions of each trophy and the circumstance in which it was secured; and his narrative is interspersed with the typical yarns — humorous and not-so-funny — that hunting in New Zealand’s most rugged and inhospitable areas always produces.
This book is an invaluable work of standard reference. It is also a most lively and readable saga of a herd whose trophies have become world-famous among sportsmen.
D. Bruce Banwell is an Otago man by birth and a Southlander by education. He is also a dedicated hunter whose keenness has driven him not only into the pursuit of trophies but also into the fascinating task of discovering, for his own satisfaction, just how and when the South Island’s wapiti and red deer were introduced, how the herds multiplied and spread, and what sport they have given hunters since shooting began.
Inevitably, he had to share his knowledge with others. Wapiti in New Zealand (1966) and The Highland Stags of Otago (1968) established him as New Zealand’s first serious historian in this field, and The Red Stags of the Rakaia has the same qualities that distinguished its predecessors, namely; the highest possible standard of accuracy and reliability; a practical first-hand knowledge and understanding of the subject; and a lively, readable style.
Mr Banwell is a bank officer by profession, and lives and works in Dunedin. He is married, and the father of three girls and two boys.
As a postscript, Mr Banwell notes with satisfaction: “At last I’ve been able to persuade my publisher that tahr not thar, is the proper spelling for this game animal!”

Bibliographic information

Title: The Red Stags of the Rakaia
Author: D. Bruce Banwell (David) (1932–2013)
Editions: 1970, 1985
Publisher: A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, New Zealand
Format: Hardcover, 165 pages, black & white illustrations, maps, 24 cm

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