New research warns native forest under threat if deer numbers aren't dramatically culled

New research says recreational hunting doesn't keep sika deer numbers down low enough to let native bush thrive in a forest park in Hawke's Bay.

The study says large parts of Kaweka Forest Park will be reduced to scrub if sika deer aren't dramatically culled.

But when Newshub asked the new Conservation Minister if reducing deer numbers was a priority, he wasn't aware of the issue.

Kaweka Forest Park is a playground for hunters. However new research shows hunters aren't shooting enough to keep sika deer numbers down to protect the native forest.

"To get regeneration in places like Kaweka Forest Park, deer numbers need to be lowered really, really low in the vicinity of one deer per square kilometre, and we found there is at least four deer per square kilometre in Kaweka Forest Park," said forest ecologist Sean Husheer.

That's a problem because native bush fares much better in storms like Cyclone Gabrielle than farmland or exotic forest.

"Recreational hunters might make a contribution but it's certainly not enough, it needs to be enhanced with Government-funded deer culling, and maybe subsidisation of commercial hunting," Husheer said.

So does the new Conservation Minister, National's Tama Potaka, have more deer culling in his sights?

"I have no comment on that at this time," Potaka told Newshub, adding he wasn't aware of being briefed on deer.

Potaka needs to get up to speed quickly. New Zealand's native ecosystems are in peril and deer damage to plants, trees and seedlings is contributing.

"That mountain beech forest is at significant risk of imminent collapse, there are no seedlings coming through," Forest and Bird CEO Nicola Toki told Newshub.

A paper published this year in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology noted a shift in conservation priorities to focus on predators like possums and stoats, leaving ungulates like deer largely uncontrolled.

It said this is despite their increasing populations and evidence of their negative impacts on a wide range of native species.

But decision-makers have to balance conservation with hunting - a valued pastime for many Kiwis. National recognised this with a new Minister.

"There'll be an opportunity for us to work more closely with DoC [the Department of Conservation] and hunters to actually get those numbers under control," new Minister of Hunting and Fishing Todd McClay said.

The recreational hunting lobby says the research overstates the problem.

"This data is six years old and a heck of a lot of work's been done since then," said NZ Hunter Adventures presenter Willie Duley.

"The Sika Foundation, a group of volunteers have done a heap of mahi - ground-based deer management, aerial deer management."

The report author said not enough deer have been shot in the past six years to restore forest regeneration and the study is based on 60 years of data.

Himself a hunter, he suggests we devote certain areas to eradicating all pests - including deer.

"And other areas that we just say 'hey we're not gonna do conservation here, we're gonna walk away from this forest and we're gonna have good recreational hunting here'," Husheer said.

How many deer is too many? That's a question proving difficult for everyone to agree on.