The domestication of deer in New Zealand has been remarkable achievement. Deer are the first new animals to be domesticated for farming in over 5000 years. Large scale commercial farming of deer started in this country and New Zealand has the largest and most advanced deer farming industry in the world.
It may be pointing out the obvious but deer are not native to New Zealand. The first deer were brought here from Great Britain for sport in the mid to late 19th century, and released mainly in the Southern Alps and foothills. The environment proved ideal and the uncontrolled feral populations grew to high numbers. By the middle of the 20th century feral deer were regarded as pest and deer cullers were employed by the government to keep the numbers in check. Suddenly we had another crop to flog to the Northern Hemisphere, and so the export of venison from feral deer started, turning pest into money spinner.
Hunting became so lucrative that the deer population dwindled; to the point that people started wondering whether it was feasible to farm deer to supply this rapidly growing European market. In 1970 the first deer farming licence was issued and keen young idiots started capturing live deer from the wild and the first deer industry pioneers started farming them.
These were interesting times and Kiwi ingenuity was employed in all sorts of (sometimes) successful ways. We built ingenious traps of netting and saplings, fools (the writer included) leapt out of choppers on to the backs of animals with that all important tool, piece of baling twine. little later it got really clever with some crazy experiments – couple that even worked occasionally including net and tranquilizer guns. But it was worth the cost of choppers and the odd broken rib as by the frenzy of the late 1970s we were getting up to $3000 for hind and $800 for fawn.
So new industry, deer farming, was born and from what started out as just half-baked idea 40 years ago. Deer are now farmed in all regions of New Zealand. We have at least half the world’s farmed deer population (more than 1.3 million) on 3200 farms throughout New Zealand.
Farming the deer allowed vast improvement in the quality and quantity of venison available to the world. Animals could now be bred, fed and selected for better meat production and in 1992 the Cervena appellation was introduced. This trademark gives purchasers guarantee that they are buying the best venison available, fully backed by quality assurance programmes that guarantee naturally raised, farmed venison.
Cervena is New Zealand farmed venison but not all New Zealand farmed venison is Cervena.
Cervena is not brand, it is quality assurance programme; and New Zealand farmed venison other than Cervena can be just as good, but with Cervena you have that guarantee of quality.
In order to qualify for the Cervena label, New Zealand farm raised deer are entirely grass fed (this may be supplemented during the colder months but with only natural feed like hay and silage), to produce tender, mild meat. The deer are raised naturally – no steroids or growth promoting drugs are used. Cervena deer must be three years or under to ensure tender, mild flavoured meat. The older the deer the tougher and more ‘gamey’ their meat becomes. Younger animals produce consistently sized, tender cuts – increasingly important to the foodservice industry – and the flavour is delicious. The Cervena appellation applies only to the saddle and leg cuts.
Quality Assurance New Zealand has led the industry in establishing international quality standards, including all-natural feeding, free range grazing, record management, animal transport and processing. To the New Zealand deer industry, ‘quality’ is the essential element of its philosophy.
It takes broad view of the definition, including animal welfare, animal health, food safety, identification and traceability, and environmental sustainability in addition to the quality of the venison itself as part of its quality assurance programmes. M
INNOVATION IN THE NZ DEER INDUSTRY
The industry renowned for entrepreneurship and innovation in its formative days continues to develop in response to consumer and resource demands including the development of consumer-ready meat cuts for retail display.
Both here and in export markets New Zealand venison marketing companies are working with packaging firms and product development companies to design retail items that are easy to cook, have long shelf-life and are great to eat. New meat cuts like the 400-gram roast cut from the shoulder offer New Zealand consumers great taste and tenderness at lower price point. Ready meals suitable for festive occasions have been developed with Dutch food manufacturers for sale through Holland’s biggest supermarket chain. New formed products are in development with leading UK multiples that add value to the cheaper cuts of meat and increase returns back to New Zealand.
On-farm innovation continues with the deer industry embracing NAIT, (National Animal Identification and Tracing), and the benefits that individual animal identification bring to farm management.
Satellite positioning systems have been used to track farmed deer in New Zealand’s extensive high country pastures, to model optimum feed systems, while protecting biodiversity in these areas.
The deer industry continues to strive to improve productivity and product quality and the Deer Progeny Test is bringing together breeder, deer finishers and processors, along with geneticists to identify the stags in the deer industry with the most desirable traits to produce faster growing deer that produce tastier and more tender meat.