Words by Richard Rennie
Many farmers are hunters, but not all hunters are farmers, and Canterbury man Marc Featherstone has worked out a way to bring the two together with some innovative thinking. It promises to ensure not only farmers and hunters, but the environment and safety are also big winners with its launch.
Using a phone-based app to do anything from shifting stock to ordering a ride in town is second nature to most people, in both rural and urban New Zealand today. Marc Featherstone, the creator of HuntingHQ is confident he has come up with a similarly easy to use solution to link farmers with land suitable for hunting on, and hunters keen to make use of it.
“Over the years the willingness and ability of farmers to make parts of their farms available for hunting has reduced, for a number of reasons.”
“Traditional access hunters may have enjoyed of a farming family’s land may disappear when that family has moved on, or often farmers have been so inundated with enquiries they have simply stuck up a ‘no shooting’ sign and shut the gate on it.”
Of course, there has also been a growing health and safety concern about visitors coming onto what is essentially a farm business premises to conduct what can be a risky activity at the best of times.
Under work-place health and safety regulations there is greater responsibility placed upon a landowner when someone enters their property.
“A farmer is known as a PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking) and as such that farmer is responsible for the health and safety of the hunter. The HuntingHQ App provides a tool for the farmer to identify and communicate all hazards and health and safety farm requirements to the hunter prior to them arriving on the property. This tool ensures the farmer remains health and safety compliant.”
A late returner to hunting, Marc has spent the past several years as an avid sport gun competitor. But recent changes to the rules around gun type and ownership put an end to various aspects of club competition and he started to think about re-igniting his earlier interest in hunting.
“I talked to guys who have hunted for a long time and they describe how much harder it is finding suitable land to hunt on.”
Marc has spent time talking to farmers, finding out what deters them from allowing hunters onto their properties.
“And while I had a lot of farmers offering reasons, there were really only a few key things farmers said they need to know when people come to hunt on their property; - ‘how many hunters, when, how skilled, and when did they arrive and leave?’”
With safety a priority he turned his digital marketing mind to developing an app driven system that ensures visiting hunters are health and safety compliant, covered by insurance and competent enough for farmers to allow entry. Meantime, farmers can list their suitable properties with peace of mind knowing this.
Due to launch this summer HuntingHQ is the result, with hunters paying a $199 yearly subscription to belong to a virtual hunting community Marc likens to an “Air BnB for hunters”.
The subscription includes full liability insurance cover for hunters up to $10 million.
“This was one of the main things farmers wanted to know when we talked to them about hunting access - ‘are they insured?’”
To register on the site intending hunters have to create a detailed profile introducing themselves and their prior hunting experience, upload their firearms licence, then pass an online health and safety and code of conduct exam, and only a 100% pass mark enables them to proceed.
Passing automatically gives them a “four star” hunter rating – if they belong to a gun club or have a first aid certificate they will be upgraded to a “five star” rating.
Once the hunter’s registration has been verified, they can begin booking suitable hunting locations, with options available from Kaitaia to Stewart Island.
“So far, we have 170 farms registered with us, but we could do with quite a few more. We already have 2,000 hunters registered and good to go.”
HuntingHQ enables registered farmers to enter an array of hunting block details, including what species can be hunted, the daily rate per hunter and size of the block. A detailed map means they can highlight access points and the boundary of the block.
Most importantly from a health and safety perspective farmers can identify hazards they are legally required to notify hunters about– this could be ground hazards like old mine shafts, or potentially hazardous farm activity that may be carried out.
Marc is excited about the potential of the HuntingHQ app, and how it is going to expand into a number of hunting related areas, including hunter education.
“There is the opportunity here to really improve the standard of hunters heading out. Often keen hunters will video what they have shot, and there will be opportunity to view a variety of educative videos – from how to choose a firearm right through to skinning, gutting and preparing your kill for cooking. HuntingHQ provides a supportive community for anyone with limited hunting experience to expand their knowledge. HuntingHQ also provides the ability for a new hunter to book an experienced hunt guide to show them the ropes.”
There is an online community forum for hunters and landowners to chat and Marc sees the opportunity to rekindle the link between the two, creating a stronger bond between landowner and hunter in the process.
Once hunters arrive, they scan a QR code at the entry to the property, and again on the way out. While within the property boundary they can be tracked on the app, giving peace of mind to anyone entering alone that they can be located, and full knowledge to the landowner about a party’s presence on the land.
“There is peace of mind there for all parties.”
While larger corporate style farms are typically more conscious of their health and safety obligations, Marc is confident the easy to use app will engender greater awareness and attention among smaller operators as compliance on health and safety grows in all areas of farm operations.
Listing a property on HuntingHQ is free and the HuntingHQ app provides the landowner with additional income.
“HuntingHQ takes just a small service fee, similar to Air BnB. The daily rates paid per hunter on a block will vary between $30 and $150, depending on the type of game, animal size and location.”
Marc has one property near Christchurch that is only $30 a hunter per day which is swarming with rabbits and offers an ideal ‘starter block’ for anyone with children who may be interested in having a go at hunting.
Heading into the trophy stag country of the Southern Alps, the app is a lifeline for an industry starved of overseas hunters for the past 8-months.
“Some of the New Zealand’s private hunt lodges who usually only cater for wealthy overseas visitors have now registered with HuntingHQ to enable locals to enjoy their facilities. For someone just looking to shoot a deer for meat, it may cost $100-$150 each per day, but if you want to go for a trophy stag then the rate will be higher.”
As New Zealand ramps up its Covid-19 expenditure on biosecurity and pest control, the app is likely to play an integral role in helping bring pest numbers down.
Whether it is wallabies in Waimate or tahr at Tekapo, the ability for hunters to log their sightings and their kills will over time provide invaluable data about pest locations and density, helping better target government sponsored eradication programmes.
“The recent controversy around tahr populations and the cull intentions has highlighted how uncertain pest numbers are for some species which are difficult to sight and eradicate,” says Marc.
The HuntingHQ app turns the usual pest eradication process on its head. Usually government organisations or landowners have to pay to manage pests.
“For example, the government and landowners have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to eradicate goats on Banks Peninsula over the years, but they are still there. There are plenty of hunters happy to pay for the opportunity to have a go at them.”
Marc is excited about the potential of the HuntingHQ app and how this can assist “Predator Free NZ 2050” and DOC in improving eradication of unwanted wildlife.
HuntingHQ software will make hunting at pressurised times of the year like the roar in April, safer.
“Rather than just passing out permits, the app’s built in safety features have the ability to break down DOC land into smaller blocks, places hunt groups further apart, and keeps track of exactly where and how many hunters are in an area at any one time.
Meantime in coming months Marc and the HuntingHQ team are hitting the road at A&P Shows, field days and farmer meetings, hoping to build up the estate available to keen hunters happy to be part of his growing community.
Dunstan Downs adds HuntingHQ to its bow
For the Innes family of Dunstan Downs near Omarama, the opportunity to be part of the Hunting HQ network gives owner Tim and Geva Innes the opportunity to expand their tourism appeal.
Like many high-country stations relying in part upon tourist stays for station income, this year has been a particularly tough one with their overseas market drying up almost overnight following the Covid-19 lockdown.
The family offers an assortment of accommodation within the station ranging from a farm stay experience at the homestead, a backpacker’s lodge for budget and group travellers. For those seeking to get well into the station’s heart there is also a lodge 15km down a four-wheel drive track offering the ultimate in high country seclusion.
The Innes’s have regularly had people come onto the property to shoot an assortment of deer, rabbits and pests, and Tim Innes welcomes the structure that Hunting HQ will bring to that arrangement.
“This will really be another string to our bow and fit in well with the family business. With HuntingHQ it will be good to know the hunters are coming in fully insured and all the health and safety aspects are well covered. It does take the pressure off us as landowners.”
It is early days and the Innes’s are still sorting through final details with Marc at HuntingHQ, but Tim is looking forward to the network being up and running for summer.
“What I would really like to see by being part of HuntingHQ is that it will be safe and easier for parents to bring their sons and daughters through to have a chance to hunt something.”
“The opportunities today are not as great as they used to be in my day. They may even be able to come away with something they can turn into a meal,” says Tim.