Story: Deer and deer farming
Introduced for sport in the 19th century, deer became a pest in New Zealand’s forests. Hunted first by government cullers, and later from helicopters in remote areas, today deer have also become the basis of a thriving farming industry.
Full story by Ken Drew
Main image: Stag with velvet antlers
The Short Story
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Introduction of deer
Deer were first brought to New Zealand in the late 19th century for sport. They spread rapidly because they had no predators, there was plenty of food, and at first they were protected from hunting.
Red deer now live in many forests, and there are also fallow deer, wapiti (elk), sambar, sika, rusa and white-tailed deer. Moose were introduced but may have died out.
By the start of the 20th century, deer had spread throughout the forests. Herds of wild deer damaged pasture, young exotic trees in plantations, and native forests, by eating the plants.
From the 1920s, the government employed cullers to shoot deer. Hunters also went into remote areas to kill deer so they could sell the meat (venison). Later, deer were hunted – and brought out of the mountains – by helicopter.
Capturing live deer
In the 1970s people began catching live wild deer. They leapt from helicopters and grabbed the animals, tranquillised them with dart guns, or used a net gun, which fired a nylon net over the deer. These live animals were sent to deer farms.
Deer farming began in the late 1960s. Today there are more than 1.7 million deer on New Zealand farms. Deer are farmed for venison, and for the velvet from their antlers.
Deer are easily frightened, so their yards are specially designed to help keep them calm. They live in fields with high fences, to stop them jumping over or pushing through.
Deer mate in autumn, and their fawns are born in early summer. They prefer to find a private spot to give birth and hide their fawn, such as under trees.
Venison (deer meat) is very healthy – low in fat, and high in protein and minerals. New Zealand venison from wild deer was first exported to Germany in the 1960s. Some venison is sold overseas under the name Cervena.
Stags (male deer) grow antlers every year. The new antler tissue, called velvet, is soft and grows fast. The velvet is cut off under anaesthetic. It is then frozen and exported to Asia, where it is used as a health product.
Some overseas visitors come to New Zealand for trophy hunting – they shoot a stag and keep the head and antlers as a trophy.