Zane Mirfin – Wildside – Up in the snow with a chamois in sight

December 11, 2010

Trophy: Zane bagged this chamois buck near St Arnaud. Photo: SCOTT MIRFIN

The graceful chamois proves a worthy subject for a weekend hunt.

High above the bush line, perched on a rocky crag and surrounded by snow, my brother Scott and I searched with binoculars for the elusive alpine chamois.

It was the Saturday of Queen’s Birthday Weekend and we had obtained a leave pass for the day from our families, who were based at the family lake house in St Arnaud. Suddenly, two resting chamois appeared through the lenses of my binoculars and Scott quickly spotted others bedded down nearby.

The chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) – it’s sometimes pronounced as ‘‘shammy’’ in New Zealand – is a graceful and attractive animal that thrives in our high mountain country.

It has always been a hunting favourite of mine and they are distantly related to the goat and antelope families. Chamois are native to the high mountain systems of central and southern Europe, being most common in Switzerland and Austria.

Chamois are similar in size to domestic goats but have longer legs and carry themselves in a more proud, erect manner. A mature buck will weigh somewhere in the vicinity of 45 kilograms, while the smaller nannies will rarely exceed 30-35 kgs.

Probably the most distinctive feature of the chamois is the black, vertical horns that curve back to form sharp hooks. Trophy horns on the buck stand erect above the ears and horns in excess of 20 centimetres long are coveted by any chamois hunter.

The coat of the chamois varies over the seasons, with the black winter coat and visually striking cream and yellow face markings being my favourite phase. During the summer, animals turn a brownish-fawn colour with a dark band running along the back and neck and also an attractive dark face band, beginning on either side of the nose, surrounding the eyes and ending at the base of the ears and horns.

Chamois rut in April and May and the buck covers vast areas searching for fertile females. Males and females live separate lives during the year except for the rutting period, and savvy hunters will find where the nanny groups live. If you can find female animals during the rut, a mature buck is probably not too far away.

Chamois have tremendous eyesight and a well-developed sense of smell. Their distinctive alarm call is a sharp whistle, but their downfall as a game animal is their curiosity and they will often wait and watch just a little too long. They tend to be most active early and late in the day, and can be almost impossible to locate during the middle of the day, when they bed down and ruminate. Each member of a herd will sit scanning a different direction for danger, and often a sentinel will bed down some distance from the main herd.

Chamois tend to range high during the warm summer months and be confined to the forest or scrub-covered bluffs in winter. Throughout the year, they survive on short grasses, herbs and shrubs.

The first chamois, released in 1907 near Mt Cook, were a gift from the emperor of Austria and numbered only eight individuals. They have since spread throughout the South Island mountains, now populating northwest Nelson to southern Fiordland Here in the northern South Island, we have some of the best trophy chamois in the country. Bill English’s latest Budget is likely to further help alpine chamois populations and hunters, too, with decreased bureaucratic budgets putting the squeeze on mindless 1080 poison drops and helicopter search-and destroy missions.

While Scott and I watched the Queen’s Birthday chamois below us, we heard a whistle. The bedded animals glanced upward as a young buck appeared from around the hill. Down through the rocks and herb fields he came, sniffing another small buck bedded down that posed no threat. Then, out of nowhere, a big buck exploded from cover, chasing the intruder out of his territory. It was a magic spectacle as the two animals ran up and out of sight at great speed. Soon after, the big buck was back, standing on a pinnacle above his harem.

At 400 metres, the buck was a long shot but we had a good shooting position and could get no closer. Scott graciously offered me the shot, his reasoning being that he had taken the best trophies on our last two hunts together. The buck looked small through the 7x rifle scope but I had a good rest over pack and boulders.

Squeezing off a careful shot, I was horrified to miss, but Scott was calling the shots through his binoculars. ‘‘Low. Aim higher,’’ he instructed. The second shot hit the buck as he travelled with the other animals across the opposite face, through the gully, and toward us. ‘‘Wait, he’s getting closer, let him come,’’ Scott instructed. As the buck came on to the snow face 200 metres below us, his fate was sealed and a hail of lead put him down in the snow. The other animals scattered. We let them go – we had the animal we had come to see.

Zane Mirfin –

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