Sir Tim Wallis: a reflection or two | Issue 195

Dec 14, 2023

In 1979 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) ran an introductory 3-day deer farming course at Telford for aspiring new deer farmers/managers. Among its highlights were an afternoon fieldtrip at Invermay’s deer farm and research unit and on the final afternoon a drop in visit from Tim Wallis. The legendary sale at Criffel Game Park had been held and there was real excitement as the mix of city investment and farmer share farming options was being enacted across NZ. On time Tim’s Hiller touched down outside the Telford main building and for the next 2 hours we newbies listened spell bound with Tim’s enthusiasm for deer and these new products we’d been introduced to… velvet antler, tails pizzles, farm raised venison. Tim passion was infectious as he shared his vision for the future, explaining the mystery and the future domain of velvet antler and its potential in a new export market. Tim’s videos showed incredible capture footage in the Otago and Fiordland mountains, the legendary first Criffel Game Park farm sale and views of large herds of captured deer.

The group was energised and enthralled and all shared Tim’s infectious enthusiasm for this rapidly growing new industry. We began our own journey based on Tim’s respect and passion for all things deer and a future new pastoral industry. Tim’s vision alongside the Invermay visit was first experience of the value and role of the Fiordland Wapiti in a new emerging venison cross breeding rapid growth production and top end velvet niche market.

Tim’s enthusiasm for NZ Wapiti was also in parallel with many early Southland specialist deer vets and deer farmers who quickly became avid wapiti farmers and breed promotors. That focus led in the mid 1986 after a spectacular wapiti field day in Winton to the formation of the NZ Elk and Wapiti Society (EWSNZ) with Tim elected as the inaugural president supported by Dr Mike Bringans as secretary and coordinator and a very diverse committee of Wapiti enthusiasts.

The EWSNZ driving objective, well defined and led by Tim and Sir Peter Elworthy and the first committee, was to promote wapiti as a terminal sire capable in cross breeding with red hinds to accelerate growth of progeny that would meet the carcase weights and yield and timing for the European chilled markets. Tim and the founding group of farmers were defined by being passionately vocal about their animals, their role in the deer industry and supported through work at Invermay with pioneering wapiti farmers.

In its history while Tim was the EWSNZ President, he had also been an early NZDFA council member and was a major figure in creating the strength and activity of the NZ Deer Farmers Association (1987-1993). That commitment was acknowledged alongside Sir Peter Elworthy with life membership of the NZDFA and the Deer Industry Award in 1994. That leadership and friendship with Sir Peter and Tim were also to fore with the founding of the EWSNZ which was not affiliated with the NZDFA formally.

Tim believed that it should be and arranged a referendum with EWSNZ members to get support for that affiliation At the EWSNZ AGM the votes were counted, and the proposition was emphatically rejected. Tim was not pleased and asked the meeting since this was clearly the wrong outcome. “So… How do we fix this?” said Tim. Sir Peter advised that it was a clear democratic direction and the members had spoken. Tim responded, “They may well have, but they are wrong, and I want it fixed!” Well, it wasn’t, and the EWSNZ remains supportive of the NZDFA but not formally connected that to this day.

Early imports of superior Canadian elk genetics were also underway with the first shipment sourced and pioneered by Criffel Game Park in 1981 with shared air transport with selected elk from Elk Island National Park in Alberta destined for MAF and Invermay through Canadian government generosity and others bought from leading in Canadian private herds.

Such was the demand for stock and value and role of the early wapiti herds that there was little culling for wapiti aggression and temperament but there was certainly trading of the more spirited breeding wapiti cows and bulls often to new entrants to crossbreeding for rapid growth. Tim’s view was that there was little to be concerned about with a bit of stubbornness and teeth clicking (as long as you didn’t suddenly hear it loudly from behind you), that was just part of the spirit of the breed.

Good temperament did become a bonus especially with new production potential that the recent elk imports offered in upgrading the Fiordland Wapiti genetics and Tim and the EWSNZ agreed to fund and write an informative wapiti management handbook to be available across the industry and became the genesis of the eventual David Yerex edited and published book “Wapiti Behind Wire”.

Tim advised he was having a family holiday on the Ranganui in Breaksea Sound, Fiordland for a week and suggested that I join them, and we’d create the draft copy during this rare leisure time. It was an incredible week. Writing and drafting started at dawn and off and on throughout the day for a week which was interspersed by being taught along with the Wallis boys, scuba diving, fishing, recovering in the Ranganui’s giant spa pool and talking related to wapiti, the wider deer industry and Tims expansive passion and vision for the NZ deer industry and the role of elk in both venison and supreme elk antler production. The book was eventually launched by David Yerex and the EWSNZ in Palmerston North and well received.

Following the successful import of the Canadian elk, Alpine Deer Group, MAF Tech at Invermay and Dr Whitley Otway also imported the rare endangered species Pere David’s (Elaphurus davidianus) deer sourced from connections with Duke and Duchess of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. Invermay held the main herd and research that developed a unique fertile cross genus hybrid with red deer and became a powerful genetic cross where different growth and production traits could be tracked to the relative genomes. Tim sent his “tame” Pere David stag to Invermay to ramp up the genetics and breeding programme. It developed a special but bizarre interest in a couple of the deer group’s technicians and farm staff and would mount and deliver these brave young men the occasional bonus semen collection in person. In turn these surprisingly anointed young men would race down the hill to ensure the incident wasn’t wasted and the prizes deposit went into frozen storage.

In the later 1980s the Government was directed to commercialise MAF’s research and advisory services and in 1989 MAF Deer was formed. Within the NZDFA a similar venture saw Deer International founded to provide overseas farmed deer consultancy services and some return for the considerable value of the NZ industry’s IP and experiences.

Tim and the Alpine Deer Group were hugely supportive of that concept and an early major client across numerous projects, but spear headed by the exports of live red deer per load. The freighters weren't specially adapted. The crates were purpose built to fit in the flying trucks. The first shipment was a DC-8 with 307 deer loaded. Graeme Ramshaw was heavily involved on behalf of Alpine Deer Group and recalls 3 x DC-8 loads at around 300 per load before switching to the 747s at 1000 red weaner hinds per load. He recalled that the 747B had a 120-tonne uplift which was much more “comfortable” than the earlier 747 at about 96-tonne uplift. I think we did 2 x 747s in the end before it was knocked on the head by Ag-Canada. There were even a few NZ wapiti on one of the DC-8s. “Coals to Newcastle comes to mind” Graham suggests.

The large quarantine property at Coldwater Ontario was a former mink farm and readily was adapted for the extended quarantine period directed by Ag Canada with key NZ leadership via deer specialist veterinarian Dr Mike Bringans, Graeme Ramshaw, Quarantine farm manager Johnny Chapman and Canadian partners and other staff. Simon Bartlett based at Criffel was also a key NZ figure in the exports, especially here but also in Canada.

Tim’s vision was that as USA and Canada became an increasingly significant high value market for Cervena and NZ deer products then it was important to have well managed red deer farms in North America providing management leadership and a link with NZ experiences and support. He regarded the Deer International and MAF Deer initiatives as key support. That opportunity also began my association with Alpine Deer Group’s North American initiative and specifically a huge diverse work schedule with Tim in all sorts of ideas and opportunities that flowed from Tim's very active mind. It was a huge privilege to be involved directly for those years.

While promoting red deer farming to potential clients in the USA, Tim figured out that while travelling with Delta airlines on a Delta pass status that would let you jump on any plane with spare seats. That if we flew west or north or south at the end of the day fly back to Atlanta, recharge and start all over again next day. It could be deer farming, deer capture, aviation, new technology helicopters, avionics. Inevitably the conversation and business revolved around the promotion of NZ styled deer farming and sharing the NZ story. It was also fortunate that the North American Elk Breeders Association (NAEBA) was in its early development largely through the efforts of fellow NZ, wapiti farmer John Barber who was also active in USA. Tim was on hand as the keynote speaker in Fargo, North Dakota for the Inaugural NAEBA international velvet and antler competition and shared his NZ experiences but more importantly his future vision for the role with an enraptured audience of early elk farmers drawn from across Canada and USA.

In recent times Tim made every effort that that could when time and logistics fitted to attend industry events, especially anything associated Elk and Wapiti. He attended the EWSNZ 30th anniversary field days at Cattle Flat Station and velvet awards at the Wanaka Events Centre. As a crowning highlight for all deer science, Otago, Southland, and South Canterbury farmers that attended the 50 Years of Deer Science at Invermay last spring to have Toby and Tim fly in for the late afternoon and for so many attendees to be able to connect and reflect in that typically Tim “I’ve been thinking” motivation to attend somehow and make that possible.

Just as the memory and excitement of my first encounter with Tim so long ago, the farewell at Wanaka airport was an extraordinary moving, exciting event of recollections, connections sadness and sense of great loss. Equally the family and friends shared such a moving feast of recollections, adventures and tributes that vividly acknowledged Tim’s passion for life and its journey. It was an extraordinary farewell of this extraordinary man and I’m very privileged to have had an opportunity to share some time alongside him and his family and colleagues, as have so many others. In summary for me and many others contact with Tim quickly became a life changing experience and adventure.

- Tony Pearse (TP)
With Thanks to Johnathan Wallis and Graeme Ramshaw for reviewing these reflections

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