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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

A Wild Cattle Shooting Case

A Wild Cattle Shooting Case

In August 1885 Captain Wray had another opportunity to use his influence and good judgment for the bush settlers' benefit. This time he did so by page 75 disclaiming any involvement with the prosecution of two Kaponga men for the alleged unlawful shooting of wild cattle. Wray was now no longer a magistrate but Commissioner of Crown Lands for Taranaki, in which capacity he was the officer authorised to sell wild cattle depasturing on Crown lands. This, however, he did not do, but instead tacitly consented to their being freely hunted by the bush settlers. His attitude was a wise acceptance of local realities.

When settlers occupied the Waimate Plains in 1881 they found them alive with feral animals, especially pigs and cattle, which had to be removed before the land could be effectively farmed. For months there was a tremendous slaughter. In April 1881 one plains settler was reported to have killed 303 wild pigs in a fortnight and a neighbour many more than this over a longer period, while a hunting party of four shot 47 wild bulls in the first week of the month. Parties were also formed to round up mobs of wild horses bought from the Maori.3 The plains were soon cleaned out but hunting and shooting went on for years in the bush, mainly for cattle as pigs and horses did not take kindly to the bush. These cattle provided a handy source of meat for both surveyors and settlers, and their hides provided useful supplementary income. They were also hunted because they were a nuisance. The Kaupokonui ‘Our Own’ of 20 May 1886 reported most settlers having lost cattle, some as many as 20, and that an expedition was to scour the bush in an effort to retrieve some of them. Wild herds would have been a major cause of these losses as well as being a nuisance in breaking through fences and raiding pastures and crops. The settlers had a clear claim to unbranded animals running wild on their own sections, but they must also have felt that the wild herds ‘owed’ something for the losses they caused.

The two Kaponga men whose misfortune it was to be hauled before the bench of the Manaia Magistrate's Court in August 1885 were George Melville* and James Hayes.* The charge was of having ‘unlawfully shot two cattle, the property of the Crown, with the intent of stealing their carcasses’. Sergeant Anderson of Hawera who prosecuted told how, from information received, the police had gone to Block VI Kaupokonui (west of upper Rowan Road) and there found, about two chains below the forest reserve boundary, the skeletons of two cattle shot by Melville and Hayes, the flesh having been taken by them. These facts were not disputed, rather defence counsel Cuff of Hawera maintained that there was no proof the cattle belonged to Her Majesty and that the whole community hunted wild cattle openly, believing they had a perfect right to do so. Cuff began by saying that

… he was shocked to think that his clients, respectable settlers, who according to the evidence of the witnesses for the prosecution bore excellent characters, should be placed where they were to answer a criminal charge, which if proved, might subject them to 14 years imprisonment.4

page 76

He stated that the Crown had failed to prove the cattle had been shot on its land and as they were only a few paces from the forest reserve, which was not Crown Land, nor was it proved that they had no reputed or apparent owner. He also doubted whether larceny could be committed of wild cattle as fera naturae as in the case of deer &c. He reported Captain Wray as disclaiming anything to do with the prosecution and called Kaponga storekeeper Henry Davy, who

… gave evidence of the fact that cattle hunting was a common practice, that it was a benefit to the settlers to get rid of the cattle and that he did not for one moment think that the accused were guilty of any criminal act.

The case was remitted to the New Plymouth Supreme Court, where it was set down for the sitting beginning on 29 October 1885. However, it does not seem to have been proceeded with. One wonders who initiated the complaint and why it ever reached court. The Yeoman's Manaia ‘Our Own’ commented that ‘This is the first case of the kind ever brought, and excited great interest.’ Like Fitzgerald v Crowley the outcome confirmed customs and understandings already tacitly accepted in the face of the realities of bush frontier life.