Barton stalks bunnies from Wales to Wanaka
When Billy Barton played in Newport city’s concrete gutters as a child, he dreamed of rabbiting in Wales’ lush and verdant fields.
He achieved that dream and became a hunting dog breeder to boot.
But by 2008, the qualified fabricator and welder (also known in dog breeding circles as Steve Barton) wanted a change of scene.
He took a punt on New Zealand’s rabbit-infested high country and immigrated with his favourite hunting dog, Zappa, a GreyhoundGerman Shepherd cross named after Barton’s favourite musician and filmmaker, Frank Zappa.
Now Barton runs one of the country’s few Ministry of Primary Industries-authorised hunting ferret and dog teams, and in April this year, he moved to Wanaka to work with John May’s Longview Environmental Trust.
His two hunting ferrets raised eyebrows at first because the birdmurdering predator is on the Biosecurity Act’s blacklist of unwanted organisms.
However, Barton and the ferrets have won people over with their work for public and private landowners, taking out hundreds of rabbits from reserves, farms and gardens.
Breeding ferrets is banned in New Zealand, so Barton catches them in the wild, selects the two most docile predators for training, dispatches unsuitable candidates and sends the surviving boy to the vet for a vasectomy.
Throughout his life, the father of three adult children has woven his passion for hunting around jobs in the steel industry.
But hunting is where his heart is. ‘‘I was brought up on a council estate. And that was just houses, as far as you could see, houses. My playing ground was the road and the gutter. I used to dream. I knew there was a river over the way . . . But we weren’t allowed to go. My father had a mate who used to do rabbiting and all that and he said he would take me out, but he never did.’’
Eventually, Barton got into fishing and in the 1980s he learned the craft of game keeping.
‘‘I met an old time game keeper, what you call old, old school. He was old even back then. He taught me all about trapping and things like that. Then I met another trapper and he taught me more.’’
Barton eventually took up a game keeping job at Blackbrook Manor, Skenfrith, near the border town of Monmouth, and he and his then wife bought their own place on the edge of a forest.
He would pit his ferret and dog teams against others at agriculturalstyle shows and fairs and was eventually selected to represent Wales at field trial competitions.
He also began his 30-year career breeding ‘‘lurchers’’ - a type of British working dog used in pest control - and continues this passion in New Zealand.
Before Barton moved in with his Wanaka partner Mary Hunt, she lived with her two daughters, Jasmine and Acacia, and 10-year-old white labrador, Tom.
Now, the blended family has 14 dogs and two hunting ferrets, which Mary has calmly taken in her stride.
Barton’s original imported dog, Zappa, has reached the veritable age of 13 and is still hanging on in there.
Barton admits but for Mary’s intervention, he would have had Zappa put to sleep by now, as he has collapsed a bit out the back end and doesn’t do much except sit under a tree and smile.
Another Greyhound-German Shepherd cross lurcher, Becca, is following in Zappa’s paw prints.
She is one of the few dogs Barton has not given a Frank Zappa - themed name.
‘‘She was named after a friend of mine. She’d got a terrier and named it Billy. That was a bit of a wind up thing, a bit of fun between us.’’