Setting the Scene
From Stone Age to Space Age
New Zealand was probably the last country on earth to feel the tread of deer feet. Yet this country of four million people was the first to develop a viable modern deer farming industry, along with the processing and marketing operations needed to sustain an export industry.
While deer farming may be new, humans have a long history of game consumption. Archaeological evidence shows humans have been eating game, including venison, for far longer than today's meat mainstays – chicken, beef, lamb and pork.
Middle and later Stone Age Europeans may also have domesticated deer in some form, before turning to the more versatile cattle and sheep, which provided not only meat protein, but also milk, hides and wool, fat for lighting and traction power.
In some regions of the world, of course, deer have provided these functions, most notably around the Arctic Circle, where reindeer herding has a long history. And certainly, in other parts of the world, deer husbandry has long been practised, as in the European deer parks dating from the Middle Ages.
In the east, Chinese farmers have kept deer in enclosures for several centuries, while more recently Korean and Taiwanese farmers have kept deer as a source of supply for velvet antlers and other products. These have featured in oriental medicine for at least 2000 years.
But it's only within the last 30 years that deer have been successfully introduced into modern farming systems, and been subject to domestication and genetic selection. Farmers in Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand saw the opportunities offered by deer for the production of a "new" meat. It's low in fat and therefore appeals to the sensitivities of modern, health-conscious consumers. Other farmers have actively selected for velvet antler growth, to meet the needs of the traditional Korean market.
What is different about the "new" deer farming is not so much the realisation that deer could be domesticated – the historical record is evidence of that – but that deer farming was placed on a modern agri-industry footing, with the scientific, processing and marketing support.
While deer farming in other countries has struggled to develop "critical mass", the NZ industry has grown more or less steadily to the point where it now commands serious attention, with 4000 farmers running 1.84 million animals behind wire fences.
What has New Zealand got over other countries that has allowed the industry to have such a quick development? Some may point to the character of the NZ farmer – self-reliant, adaptable, inventive – living in a country unfettered by the laws and traditions of the "old world".
There's a lot of truth in this. But the visionaries who saw the potential of deer for farming also had several factors running in their favour:
In New Zealand, deer are an introduced species, and until recently there was an abundance of them in the wild. The early European settlers – mainly of British stock – began arriving in increasing numbers from the middle of the last century. Very soon they began importing Red deer from British parks for release into the wild for hunting.
The feral stock quickly spread and expanded in numbers in New Zealand's benign climate, to the point where, by the middle of this century, concerns about their impact on the indigenous environment prompted the government to hire hunters, known colloquially as "cullers" to control numbers, if not exterminate them outright.
This eventually led to the development of a commercial feral venison industry, and the first links were made with export markets in Europe. This trade was so successful that by the late 1970s it seemed the feral source would soon be exhausted. At this point, NZ farmers began trapping animals that strayed onto their property, or hiring professionals to capture them by helicopter. Deer farming had begun.
The processing and marketing of farmed venison grew on the back of the feral industry, and farmed venison joined feral in shipments to established game markets in northern Europe, and particularly Germany.
Marketing NZ venison
The NZ deer industry has grown in numbers and experience over the years. Until recently, exporters were mainly small, lacking the capital to finance major market thrusts. They were also still dependent on unstable commodity markets.
The creation of the Game Industry Board (now known as Deer Industry New Zealand) in the mid-1980s was designed to strengthen the marketing sector. It has since developed a number of processing and marketing initiatives. The first was the promotion of Quality Assurance in processing, which led to nearly all processors becoming ISO 9000 series accredited – the first meat industry in the world to achieve this status. It then focused on Quality Assurance in transport and on-farm.
The 1990s saw the creation of the Cervena appellation, also under Game Industry Board/DINZ auspices, as part of an ambitious marketing strategy designed to do for NZ venison what Champagne did for French sparkling wine. The strategy was aimed initially at premium markets in Australasia and North America. Returns from the US have shown slow but steady growth and stable prices ever since.
The latest DINZ-fostered marketing venture is a strategy, launched in the spring of 1999, to position venison in high-value market segments in Europe.
Marketing NZ velvet
Deer antler velvet is a unique product – mammalian tissue which renews itself every year. It comprises the whole antler, not just the velvet-like skin.
Removing the antler is necessary for farm management reasons. Stags normally become very aggressive during mating each autumn and if left with antlers would pose a serious risk to both themselves and to those who look after them.
The velvet is harvested under veterinary supervision using anaesthetics. It is then frozen, before being cooked and dried for export.
Extensive research has shown that velvet has amazing health properties. These range from increasing the stamina of athletes and promoting healing following surgery, through to the prevention of osteoporosis and arthritis.
The velvet trade began in earnest in the late 1970s, and for a while NZ farmers gained very high prices for product that was exported mostly to Korea, where it has a long history as a health product.
China, Taiwan and Hong Kong also joined the roll-call of export markets. However, velvet markets have proved unstable. They are highly sensitive to volume fluctuations, trade and political protectionism, and the economic health of the Asian economies. China has in recent years become a bigger indirect importer of NZ product, while many New Zealanders also pin their hopes on the development of the Western "neutraceuticals" market. North America, which has its own velvet industry, is seen as a major potential market for this type of health product. Recent research showing the benefits of velvet for athletes has boosted this potential further.
Income from velvet is not available to European deer farmers, whose governments have banned the practice of velveting, reputedly on animal welfare grounds. The New Zealand, Australian and North American industries have responded to welfare concerns by putting in place mandatory velvet harvesting standards for farmers, under-written by the veterinary profession.
World deer farming by country
Deer farming around the world is much more widespread than most people imagine, and many countries have at least a few thousand deer behind fences.
As the following table shows, world-wide, the farmed deer industry has grown to a sizeable force. The main deer types are Red and Fallow in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, with some Elk; Red, Fallow, Elk and the local White Tail in North America; and Red, Sika and Elk in Asia. Small numbers of other species, such as Rusa, Sambar, Axis and Musk deer are also raised according to region.
However, the marketing arrangements of many venison producing countries are limited to "boutique-type" operations serving a local area.
One spin-off from deer farming is the trophy antler market. This is a potentially highly lucrative business, and for some deer farmers in Europe and North America represents the difference between profit and loss on their deer farming operations.