By Brian Boyle
This year marks 50 years since I first experienced hunting when I went duck shooting with my father on the outskirts of Invercargill in New Zealand. In the time since I have been lucky enough to work in areas and jobs that had a lot to do with hunting. Over that time, I have met and shared a friendship and campfire with some great guys who also shared a passion for hunting, deer and the wild places that we hunt deer in. Bruce Banwell is one of these.
As a kid in New Zealand I grew up reading Bruce’s books which documented the origin of all the various red deer herds and the wapiti herd in New Zealand. His books had pictures in it of heads that in the 1970 and 80s you could only dream about as the venison recovery industry was in full swing and the deer, tahr and chamois were taking a real hammering.
Late in 2003 while I was attending the World Wildlife Management Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember a budding young deer researcher (Andrew Moriarty) from New South Wales came up to me at one of the break-out session said, ‘There is an old guy who has got a poster stand on the taxonomy of deer and it is off the show, he’s probably the best deer taxonomist in the world’. Andrew was referring to Bruce Banwell. I thought to myself, I’ve always wanted to meet Bruce, so I wandered over and introduced myself.
Bruce picked up straight away that I was a Kiwi (I had only been living in Oz for 13 years at this stage) and asked me where I was from. When I replied ‘sunny Invercargill’, he then let me know that he was from Gore in Southland and that his family tree had Boyles in it and we figured out we were related. I was stoked to learn this and over the next couple of days spent a lot of time with Bruce outside the conference sessions having the odd cuppa or beer and talking deer, as you do at conferences. Bruce did most of the talking and I was more than happy to listen. He really was a lovely guy and had a huge amount of knowledge on deer.
Bruce Banwell was born in Dunedin on September 11 1932 and he was brought up and raised in Gore, Southland. He said his father first took him hunting wild sheep and pigs in the Hokonui Hills behind Gore when he was just a young kid. Like a lot of Kiwis he started hunting deer in earnest when he was 16 years old. He hunted locally for a start, then all over New Zealand for red deer, sika, tahr, chamois and wapiti. Bruce joined the New Zealand Deer Stalkers Association in 1948 and over the years had considerable involvement in the association and filled a number of executive roles in a number of different branches throughout New Zealand.
In the 1980’s Bruce began studying, observing and photographing deer in earnest. This is where his interest in the biology, taxonomy and origins of deer started and he was especially interested in those species that were introduced into New Zealand. Bruce and his wife Barbara travelled extensively and visited over 100 countries across Europe, Asia and North America to observe and study deer. I can remember him telling me once that he spent over $300,000 travelling to look at deer. I would hate to put that in today’s figures, but it was a measure of how keen and committed he was to learn about deer. Bruce took great delight, while sharing an after-dinner whisky, in showing me his considerable photograph collection of his travels. What was remarkable was that he and Barbara did a lot of travel to states and countries within the former USSR - Soviet bloc to really remote areas behind what was then the Iron Curtain where few westerners travelled.
For the last 25 years of his life Bruce was heavily involved with the NZDA deer head measuring and judging. He was the Deputy Chief Judge of the judging panel and also responsible for training the judging panel. He was a Trustee of the Douglas scoring system and having known Norman Douglas was protective of it. In his own words, he ‘didn’t mind how people scored as long as it wasn’t called a Douglas Score if it wasn’t done according to Norman Douglas and the Trust’s system’. Bruce had a ‘slight’ bias for red deer and for the Otago herd that is derived from Scottish red deer. He helped establish a captive herd of pure Scottish reds in Otago as the species is actually threatened with genetic ‘pollution’ back in Scotland through the introduction of foreign red deer and sika. Bruce had quite strong views on trophies and one of my favourite quotes from him was ‘If it’s a red deer head and it’s not going to go 300 Douglas Points it’s not worth getting your measuring tape out for!’
Bruce was a member of the Species Survival Commission and Deer Specialist Group of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) and wrote over 15 books on deer, game animals and hunting. A few months before Bruce died he phoned me to tell me had an inoperable tumour on his brain and in his own understated way he said ‘It’s a bit of a bugger really Brian, I’ve got this book on tahr to finish and then the game animals series will be complete, but I am not sure I will get it done’. Sadly, Bruce didn’t finish that last book but Marcus Pinney did. Bruce chose Marcus and he did a fine job of completing the eighth and final book in the New Zealand Big Game Records Series.
I count myself as being incredibly fortunate to meet and befriend Bruce and spend time with him and Barbara at their home in Ashburton. I very much enjoyed going with him to his office and having a look at his considerable library and photo collection. He also took delight in teaching me the finer points of the appreciation of truly good whisky, drunk straight with a wee drop of water (and I was a very keen student). Bruce’s contribution to the knowledge of deer and their history has been huge and he is sadly missed. It was a privilege and a pleasure to get to know the man and spend some time with him over the years. Sláinte Bruce.