Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Deer and deer farming

by  Ken Drew

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 also became the basis of a farming industry.

Introduction and impact of deer


The acclimatisation movement, which encouraged the introduction of plants and animals from other countries, was fashionable worldwide in the late 19th century. Many plants and animals were introduced to New Zealand, including more than 50 mammal species. Not all of these acclimatised – but those that did often had a harmful impact on an environment with no native land mammals.

Introduction of deer

Between 1861 and 1919, more than 250 red deer (Cervus elaphus) were released in New Zealand for sport. They were either brought directly from the UK or came via Australia. The liberation of red deer continued until 1926. Most came from the great English parks and some from the Scottish Highlands. Only the Scottish deer were from pure wild strains.

Red deer were the most successful of the introduced deer (Cervidae family). However, also liberated were fallow deer (Dama dama), originally from the Middle East; wapiti (North American elk, Cervus canadensis); sambar (Cervus unicolour), sika (Cervus nippon) and rusa (Cervus timorensis) from Asia; and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and moose (Alces alces) from North America. By the early 21st century, red deer were the most common deer in the wild. Wapiti were found in northern Fiordland; fallow deer occur in low-altitude forests; and sika, sambar and rusa in North Island forests. White-tailed deer were found on Rakiura (Stewart Island) and near Lake Wakatipu.

Deer, oh deer

Erlton Wilson, a trophy hunter in the Makarora area in the 1920s, noted the decline in condition of wild deer herds due to overgrazing: ‘As far as [trophy] heads go, they appear to be a thing of the past … the stags’ antlers are poor timber and have neither length nor spread … all flats well eaten out and the few ribbonwood and broadleaf trees eaten bare.’ 1

Wapiti and moose

Wapiti from the US’s Yellowstone National Park were gifted to New Zealand by President Theodore Roosevelt and released in George Sound, Fiordland, in 1905. In the early 21st century, there were still wapiti in Fiordland National Park.

The last proven sighting of moose was in 1952, but there were claims in the 2000s that moose still survived in New Zealand. DNA technology was being used to try to settle the issue.

Expanding population

Deer were released into an ecosystem where they had no predators, food was plentiful, and – at first – they were legally protected from hunting. Populations grew rapidly. Red deer dispersed at a rate of 2–3 kilometres per year, spreading fastest along valley floors and ridges, and in native tussock grassland. Eventually all readily accessible areas were colonised.

Impact of deer

By about 1910, farmers and foresters were worried about the impact of large herds of deer. Grazing lands were being eaten, and native plants in subalpine areas were being damaged.

Deer were eating out the undergrowth in native forests. These plants slowed rainfall runoff, so as they were lost, erosion and downstream flooding began to occur. Deer also damaged young trees in forests.

Deer culling

In the 1920s the Department of Internal Affairs became responsible for controlling deer populations. Concerned about deer overgrazing native forests, the department organised a Deer Menace Conference in Christchurch in 1930. The Forest Service, conservationists and native-bird protection supporters took part, and the minister of internal affairs announced that deer would no longer be protected from hunting.

In 1930, the department employed Captain George ‘Skipper’ Yerex to set up a team of government cullers to control wild deer. Cullers were paid a basic wage plus a bonus for each skin or tail returned. The number of deer shot by cullers rose from about 8,000 per year in the early 1930s to over 40,000 in 1940. By the 1950s the culling force of 125 men killed about 50,000 deer a year.

The Noxious Animals Act

In 1956 the Noxious Animals Act was passed and responsibility for deer control moved to the New Zealand Forest Service. Poisons such as 1080 were considered, but largely abandoned because of adverse public reaction. The number of deer shot by government cullers dwindled from 62,500 in 1957 to 20,000 in 1966, and to fewer than 7,000 in 1976. By that time the control of wild deer had passed to private venison hunters and commercial helicopter hunting.

    • David Yerex, Deer: the New Zealand story. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2001, p. 26. › Back

From deer stalking to helicopters

Deer stalking

Deer stalking in New Zealand has mostly been done by men, usually from rural areas, who enjoy scrambling among the mountains, hills and rivers where there are abundant wild deer.

In the South Island, river flats and high-altitude tussock grasslands have been the main hunting grounds. In the North Island the steep bush-covered hills were often difficult and dangerous for hunting. In many cases hunters took only the back steaks from shot deer and left the carcasses to rot.

Moving the meat

Ian Hagan established a base in a hut up the Dart River in the South Island in the early 1960s. He used packhorses to carry gutted deer carcasses to a fly-proof container. A packhorse could carry out five or six smaller carcasses. A small plane that could land on and take off from a primitive landing strip beside the river flew the deer to market.

Hunting venison

By the 1960s, wild deer populations were out of control in many areas. Deer meat at the time fetched about 20 cents a kilogram, or $6 for a 30-kilogram carcass. Some adventurous people, many of them former government deer-cullers, decided that they could make a good living from hunting for meat.

Using helicopters

Many hunting areas were extremely remote. The helicopter era began when Tim Wallis hired a helicopter and pilot to recover deer from the Wānaka area. Wallis bought his first helicopter in 1965 and learned to fly it.

A wild ride

Mike Bennett was part of a helicopter crew shooting deer and chamois in South Westland when he experienced the ride of his life. He had made up a load of carcasses when the helicopter took off unexpectedly. Bennett slipped, and a curved chamois horn hooked between the tongue and laces of his boot. He found himself hanging upside down, 750 metres above the Waiatoto River. Luckily the pilot sensed something was wrong, and returned to the loading site.

Helicopters were used to fly men into remote areas and bring deer carcasses out. It was tricky work. Early regulations only allowed carcasses to be carried on stretchers bolted to the skids. When cargo strops were made legal for carrying carcasses, deer recovery by helicopter increased rapidly. People were also employed to shoot deer from the helicopters.

By 1970 more than 60 helicopters were being used for shooting and recovery. Most crews could retrieve more than 100 deer in a day; the top daily tallies were over 200 animals, worth more than $17,000.

In the early 1970s a single helicopter company had the licence to recover deer in Fiordland National Park. When the price of wild venison soared to $1 per pound (more than $2 per kilogram) in July 1973, a ‘venison rush’ began. Soon 20–30 helicopter crews were making illegal, but highly profitable, raids into the park. Reports of helicopters being shot at from the ground, arson, sabotage and fist fights soon made headlines. The government sent in air-force helicopters to settle the 'deer wars' situation down.

Capturing live deer

Deer farming was legalised in 1969 in spite of considerable opposition, although the complicated controls put off many aspiring farmers. Tim Wallis’s company, Alpine Deer Group, was one of the first to trial deer capture and relocation.

The deer hunter

Goodwin McNutt has been credited as the first person to capture a live deer from a helicopter in New Zealand. It was 16 December 1966; McNutt was the pilot and Barry Stern the bulldogger. Deer farming was still illegal, but McNutt had the Forest Service’s permission to keep deer in confinement to study, so he began capturing live animals. By 1969, when deer farming was legalised, he had 75 animals that he had caught or been given.


Capturing live deer in mountain country was a huge challenge. The first method tried was ‘bulldogging’ – fit young men launched themselves from a helicopter onto a running deer and wrestled it to the ground. With luck, they would tie the animal’s legs, tuck it into a purpose-made canvas bag, and airlift it out on cargo strops to waiting trucks, fixed-wing aircraft, jet boats or capture pens.

Other methods

Other technologies were tried – including tranquillisers delivered via syringes fired from a dart gun; darts attached to the helicopter which imparted an electric current, immobilising the deer; and, most successfully, the net gun. Termed the ‘gotcha gun’, this was developed about 1978, and fired a nylon net from a helicopter over the fleeing deer. Alpine Helicopters made a net gun with three barrels which could be rapidly reloaded. Later, the net gun was mounted on the skid of the helicopter and fired by the pilot.

In 1978–79, Alpine caught 7,000 deer. The value of captured deer to prospective farmers rose from $250 each in 1976 to more than $3,000 in 1979.

The beginnings of deer farming

The first farms

The first licence to farm deer was issued to M. P. Giles of Rahana station, near Taupō, in 1969. By 1979 there were 800 deer farms, and the interest was so great that there were 1,540 a year later. At that time there were 120,000 deer being farmed. Most were red deer (85%), 14% were fallow and the rest included wapiti, sika, rusa and white-tailed species.

The New Zealand Deer Farmers Association was formed in 1975 with 25 founding members. Peter Elworthy was the first president, and held the office for six years. The first deer auction was held on Tim Wallis’s property in 1977. Prices for the 383 animals sold ranged from $750 for mature stags to $250 for weaner stags. Six-month-old weaner hinds fetched $550.

However, there were battles with government bureaucracy. The Forest Service required that deer farms had to be set up within the range of feral deer – so, theoretically, a deer farm could not be established on farmland. Applying to farm deer was a complex process involving three government agencies – the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Forest Service and the Ministry of Works.


The domestication of deer in New Zealand has been a remarkable achievement. Some suggest that it has been the first animal for 5,000 years to be fully domesticated. This has been achieved through a unique mix of factors:

  • innovative people who developed systems for deer capture and management
  • no public opposition to the shooting or capture of deer, because the animal was labelled ‘noxious’ by the government and extermination was the official policy
  • a large wild population of deer, providing a ready source of stock
  • a temperate climate allowing year-round grazing of pasture, with some additional feed in winter, which was a management system that deer could adapt to.

An early boost

Early deer farmers had to deal with a good deal of bureaucratic red tape to get established. But the industry got an early boost when Ministry of Agriculture scientist Ken Drew set up a deer research unit at Invermay Agricultural Research Station in 1973. Drew and his team developed methods for handling the flighty animals, and he was an early advocate for crossing red deer with wapiti.

Deer farming worldwide

Numbers of farmed deer worldwide are difficult to obtain. In 1989, estimates were 1.2 million in China, USSR 250,000, Korea 110,000, Australia 40,000, UK 15,000 and North America 6,000 – a total of 1.62 million outside New Zealand. At that time New Zealand had 1.1 million hinds and 500,000 stags – about 50% of the world’s estimated farmed deer. There were also about 2.77 million farmed reindeer, mainly in the USSR.

In 2005 more than 1.7 million deer were being farmed in New Zealand, compared with 5.1 million dairy cows, almost 40 million sheep and 2.8 million beef cattle. Deer farming in New Zealand led the world – both in its technology and its relative contribution to the national economy.

By 2021, the number of farmed deer had halved to 814,000. Sheep numbers had fallen to 25.7 million and beef cattle to 2.5 million – but there were now 6.2 million dairy cows.  

Deer herd improvement

Once deer farming was established, farmers began breeding the animals for better quality. Red deer were selected for meat production, and for their superior antlers, used to produce antler velvet. In recent times some imported European strains, bigger than red deer, have produced productive crossbred offspring.

Père David experiment

The breeding season for red deer is governed by day length – but Père David deer can breed eight weeks earlier in spring. They were introduced in 1984, with the hope that hybridisation would allow earlier breeding and improve carcass size and shape. But pure Père David deer were susceptible to malignant catarrhal fever – so the experiment was unsuccessful.

Crossbreeding with wapiti

Some farmers crossbred red deer with wapiti (North American elk). The progeny grow faster than red deer and have bigger antlers. Wapiti were captured in Fiordland and put on deer farms throughout the country. Their numbers were boosted by imports from Canada, although health issues have now closed that source of animals. Farmers of red deer often buy in a wapiti–red crossbred bull, which they breed with red deer hinds, selling the progeny for venison.

Fallow deer

Fallow deer appeared an attractive species to farm for meat, as they are smaller than red deer and can be farmed at a higher stocking rate. However, in recent times their popularity has fallen, partly because they do not produce commercial antler velvet and partly because their small size means slaughter costs are high for the amount of meat produced.

Deer management

Deer are often run as a secondary enterprise alongside other livestock, but there are 2,300 farms where they provide over 50% of revenue. These specialist farms carry 63% of all deer. The farms increased in number by 50% between 1997 and 2007. In the early 2000s, deer were farmed in all parts of New Zealand, but were most plentiful in Canterbury, Southland and Otago.

Most of New Zealand's farmed deer herd (about 85%) is red deer. The balance is mainly wapiti (elk). Interbreeding between the two species is common, especially for commercial venison production. Further genetic improvements have been made with bloodlines imported from Eastern Europe, the UK and North America. Small numbers of fallow deer are also farmed.

Roaring and rutting

Like other industries, deer farming has its own terms. A female red deer is a hind, and a male red deer is a stag, but a male wapiti is a wapiti bull. A spiker is a one-year-old stag, and a weaner is a young deer of four to six months. The mating season is called the rut, and the bellowing noise that stags make during the rut is called the roar.

Yard design

Deer are naturally skittish, and farmers had to find ways of yarding and handling them to minimise stress. Deer yard design is now well established. Deer like to run in circles and the best access from paddocks to the yards is through a curved raceway leading to the entrance. The animals feel more comfortable if they can avoid eye contact with humans when they enter yards. There have been accidents when fast-moving deer reach a yard from a straight entrance and realise they are trapped. They panic, and run straight back at those trying to herd them.

The raceway should lead into a large yard with high, solid walls, which leads to yards that hold 15–20 deer, with a smaller yard nearby for up to 10 red deer. The yards where deer are handled are normally covered, as this makes the animals more settled and easier to work. Many farms have a central circular yard with gates pivoted in the centre, giving a full 360-degree swing.

Yarding and handling principles are the same for a large deer farm as a small one. A few large yards can lead to progressively smaller ones as deer move towards central holding pens. This will avoid deer piling up in the corner of large pens. In paddocks, fences need to be made of netting at least 2 metres high.

The hydraulic crush

Modern yards contain a hydraulic ‘crush’ where the sides of the pen move in and out and the floor moves up and down. These can become pens about 1.2 metres wide, enabling people to work closely with a small number of deer. For wapiti, which are bigger and more fractious and unpredictable, the crush can hold a single animal. Farmers can then handle the animal while standing outside the pen.

Avoiding stress

A quiet, assertive manner works best with deer. A herd will always have some animals with bad temperaments, and these should be ear-tagged and culled from the herd. It is best to avoid handling deer during the hot part of the day in summer to limit stress.

Deer fencing

Deer could not have been farmed in New Zealand without the development of purpose-built fences. These animals can easily leap traditional fences or push between tightly strained wires. A New Zealand company, Cyclone, made the world’s first deer netting in 1967. By law, deer fences must be 1.9 metres high. They are normally made of tanalised pine posts and deer netting.

Code of welfare

New Zealand deer farmers must follow an approved Ministry of Agriculture code of welfare. The code covers the minimum body condition score (which rates the condition of each animal on a scale from 0 to 5), daily feed and water requirements, standards for yarding and holding facilities, seasonal management and farmer responsibilities. This code outlines recommended best practices and is a comprehensive guide to modern deer farming techniques.


Most New Zealand deer graze on ryegrass and clover pasture, but some specialist pastures such as chicory are also used. Supplementary feeds in winter may include silage, hay, grain or forage crops. No hormones or growth stimulants are used in farming New Zealand deer.


Unlike most traditional livestock, deer have an extremely seasonal feed intake – high in spring and summer, less in winter. This is a reaction to day length. Deer from temperate or cold environments have developed this characteristic for survival reasons over thousands of years. Feeding standards which recognise the seasonal aspects of feed intake have been developed, and these are different for the each sex.

Feed availability

Matching deer’s nutritional requirements with the normal seasonal pattern of pasture production can be difficult. In late spring, pasture growth is well beyond the needs of deer, but in winter and summer there is often a feed deficit. In New Zealand deer have their calves in late spring or early summer, and their feed requirements during lactation are very high in summer – a time when many areas have hot, dry weather, not conducive to good pasture growth. Calving in early October (spring) would better match pasture growth to hind requirements, but day length strongly affects the reproductive cycle, so this is difficult to alter. In areas with dry summers, poor lactation (and depressed calf growth) are common unless the deer are fed supplements such as grain.


Stags are seasonal in their natural feed intake cycle. At the approach of the rut (breeding season) in autumn, they reduce their feed intake and concentrate on breeding. Even in the absence of hinds, feed intake is less in autumn. Stags can lose 30 kilograms and most of their body fat at this time. They enter the winter with little fat and are very vulnerable to cold weather. Stags need high-quality feed in winter – and in spring, when their antlers are growing. More mature, lower-quality pasture is adequate in summer.

Young deer

Calves are born from mid-November until Christmas, and growth depends mainly on the hind’s milk production. The first half of lactation is at a time when pasture quality is high, and calf growth rates reflect this. Through January and February feed conditions vary between seasons and districts.

Young deer potentially grow more in spring and summer, and less in winter. They can be weaned before the rut, at three to four months of age, or in early winter after the rut. Pre-rut weaning is more traditional, as the weather is warmer and better feed is available. Deer in the wild are not usually weaned until after the rut, and their growth rate from March to August is higher than in farmed deer weaned before the rut. Young deer grow only slowly in winter regardless of feed, so there is little benefit in feeding high-quality rations. From mid-August, weaner appetite increases rapidly over six weeks. In this late winter period, particularly in the South Island, there is a good case for feeding high-quality supplements like grain.



Deer mate in autumn. If calves are weaned before mating, at three to four months old, there are only a few weeks for hinds to recover some of the body weight lost during lactation before they mate again. This may affect their conception rate – hinds with a body condition score (BCS) of less than 3 will conceive about five days later than hinds with a BCS over 4. The earlier hinds mate the better, so they should be fed well before mating. After mating, pregnant hinds can be fed to just maintain body weight – and then given supplementary feed just before giving birth.

Effect of day length

As with food intake, the reproductive cycle in deer is extremely seasonal and governed by day length. Shorter days after Christmas are the cue to stags and hinds that the breeding season is approaching. Hinds start ovulation each year towards the end of March and most conception occurs in the first half of April. Groups of 40–60 hinds are grazed together and mated with a single stag. For proven mature red stags, the ratio may be 100 hinds to one stag. Stags should be removed by 10 May to avoid the birth of late fawns (calves). Pregnancy can now be diagnosed by ultrasound scanning.

Fawn losses

Fawn losses from birth to weaning can be high for intensively farmed deer. Often 6–10% of calves born to adult hinds and 12% born to yearling hinds are lost. The most common causes are starvation, misadventure and dystocia (large calves causing a difficult birth).

To minimise calf loss, farmers should have calf-proof fences to keep the newborn animals in the paddocks where they were born. They should also provide space and shelter for the calving hinds, keeping them away from any possible disturbance.


Imported European red deer are much larger than New Zealand red deer. If the two are crossbred it results in faster growing progeny, and larger crossbred breeding hinds. It is common to use a wapiti/red deer bull to mate with the farmed red hinds. The crossbred progeny are ready for slaughter earlier, so the meat often commands a high price in the northern-hemisphere autumn market. On the other hand, crossbreds are more costly to rear – they need almost three times as much pasture as red deer to maximise weight gain.

Venison production

European traditions

Traditionally in Europe, venison was reserved for feasts and important events. King Charles ll, the patron of the Royal Society of England, did not often attend meetings but sent gifts of venison for its dinners. Samuel Pepys was the seventh president of the society: his famous diary contains 76 references to venison and only 40 to beef.

Nutritional value

Venison is recognised as an extremely healthy meat – it is very low in fat (especially saturated fat), calories and cholesterol, and high in protein, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12 and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. New Zealand farm-raised venison is nutritionally similar to tenderloin of beef, and has less cholesterol than grilled salmon or skinless poultry.

Wild game

Hunted (wild) venison from New Zealand was first exported commercially in the early 1960s. The trial shipment was cut up on a kitchen table and sent to Germany for sale. This was successful, and a highly competitive trade in wild venison began. Commercial deer-hunting took place throughout the back country, and game-recovery depots were set up where hunters took the carcasses. Processing plants, inspected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, were set up.

The success of these ventures sparked the development of deer farming.

Venison in Germany

In Germany, venison is strongly linked to the autumn hunting season. Game restaurants, which sell venison and other foods, are part of the German culinary tradition – although their popularity is waning as younger diners move away from heavy traditional dishes.

Farmed venison

As deer farming developed in the 1970s, farmed venison was exported to Germany. At first no distinction was made between farmed and wild meat, in order to take advantage of both the low European import tariff on game meat, and the appeal of game products.

The New Zealand Deer Farmers Association, founded in 1975, fought to ensure that farmed deer could not be slaughtered in facilities that processed sheep and cattle, to help preserve the image of deer as game animals, different from livestock. Registered deer-slaughter premises were set up where only farmed animals could be processed.

Top-quality venison comes from one- to two-year-old deer. The lean meat content from these young deer is almost 75% of the total carcass, while in lamb and bull beef the figure is around 60%. Farmers are paid out on a hot-carcass weight basis (the weight before chilling), with premium prices paid for 50–70-kilogram carcasses. Wapiti and hybrid carcasses are bigger and generally leaner than red deer. The Elk and Wapiti Society of New Zealand is establishing NZ Elk Ltd to process and market these carcasses as a niche product.

Venison exports

Venison was first exported as frozen basic cuts, such as the saddle (bone-in back steaks), bone-in haunches, shoulder, and the boneless remainder. In the early 1980s a meat distributor in Denver, Colorado developed a cut where the back legs were boned out and packed as ‘denver leg’.

Some hind leg cuts are very tender and when cooked carefully are similar to the choice ‘medallions’ cut from back steaks. Venison cuts are increasingly marketed chilled rather than frozen, but the front leg, neck and belly are still sold frozen.

Strictly Cervena

Venison trademarked as Cervena must be naturally produced, and processed in accredited plants. The animals must be three years old or less, raised free-range without hormones or steroids, and fed grass supplemented by natural foods like hay. There are also transport requirements.

Cervena branding

As export volumes grew, the Game Industry Board started an initiative to differentiate farmed venison from wild game meat. The Cervena brand was launched in the US and New Zealand in 1993. The protected label was limited to processing and exporting companies that met the board’s standards.

A ‘farm to plate’ quality-assurance programme specified farm systems and processes. Guarantees were given on animal age, processing and storage. Trained and accredited transport operators used specially made crates.

The Cervena programme was funded by processors and the deer farming industry through levies. The aim was to promote farmed venison in the food and hospitality business. Marketing included promotions and cooking demonstrations, giving Cervena a high profile in the quality restaurant industry.

A ‘Zeal’ quality mark was also launched to separate New Zealand farmed venison from traditional game products in European markets.

Venison ‘boom and bust’ cycles

The venison business has always been a ‘boom and bust’ affair, with big variations in price. This is largely due to the small market, fluctuating supply levels, and the industry’s inability to match supply with demand.

In 2007, revenue for farmers rose after extremely low returns in previous years.

Changes in supply and price

From 2002 to 2006 the amount of venison exported rose from 16,000 to 27,000 tonnes, or by almost 70% – but low prices meant the value of these exports overall increased by less than 20%, from $210 million to $250 million. From 2002 to 2004, despite a 50% increase in the amount of meat exported, total export earnings actually fell, to $200 million.

Between 2002 and 2006, farmers slaughtered increasing numbers of hinds, in response to the low meat prices. This over-supply of meat led to a further decline in returns. The number of slaughtered deer overall increased by 58% over these four years, making it difficult to successfully market venison.

Venison marketing and supply is further complicated by very volatile returns from velvet antler (antler tissue from stags, used as a health product). When the price for velvet drops (usually from over-supply), as in 2004–5, farmers send stags onto the venison market, causing an over-supply of meat.

Export countries

The best market for exported venison has traditionally been in Europe before Christmas. The highest prices have usually been paid to New Zealand deer farmers from September to mid-November.

Between 2002 and 2006, the proportion of New Zealand venison exported to Germany remained at about 40%, although total volume increased. Belgium and the Netherlands are important entry points for venison into the European Union, and Scandinavia and North America are taking more meat.

Total value of exports

The total export value of venison in the year to 31 March 2007 was $260 million. In comparison, export earnings from dairy products were $8.41 billion, lamb meat $2.25 billion, beef $1.81 billion, and wool $686 million.

Velvet antler production

Male deer grow antlers each year. Deer antler growth in temperate regions is seasonal, with the hard antlers naturally cast off in late winter. A mature stag grows a head of antler through the stages of brow (first), bez (second) and trez (third) tynes to a royal top. The antler takes about 90 days to grow and harden.

Antlers are removed both as a farm management practice, to minimise danger if stags become aggressive around mating time, and to harvest the deer velvet (growing antler tissue).

Velvet antler

Early antler growth (velvet antler) is soft, cartilaginous tissue, well supplied with blood vessels and nerves, which can grow more than 2 centimetres a day. After about 60 days, the antler begins to calcify from the base upwards. The velvet is harvested between the 45th and 60th days, under anaesthetic by a veterinarian or a trained and registered person who has passed tests established and overseen by Deer Industry New Zealand. Their technique and welfare and care of animals are assessed annually.

Poor feeding of stags in early life or during the antler-growing period can decrease velvet production by 10–20%, but extra feeding during the winter does not increase it. In red deer and wapiti, velvet antler increases from two years of age to a peak at eight or nine years, and then diminishes.

Medicinal uses

In Asia, velvet antler has been used medicinally for a very long time. While it is often thought of as an aphrodisiac, it is mainly used as a health and wellness tonic. Processed velvet is given to young children to prevent childhood illnesses and improve growth – much as the western world uses multi-vitamins. Most New Zealand velvet is exported to South Korea, where it is used ground up or in thin slices.

Markets and prices

New Zealand began exporting velvet in the late 1970s, but the quality varied. There was little local knowledge about who used deer velvet and why, or the size of the market. By 2000 about 80% of New Zealand velvet was consumed in South Korea, some of it coming via Hong Kong.

The market for velvet is even more volatile than that for venison. From the highest prices of around $250 per kilogram, the price to the farmer fell to $45 in 2004–5 and rebounded to $160 in 2006–7. The market appears to be very sensitive to volume – if New Zealand tries to sell much more than 500 tonnes of frozen velvet, the price falls dramatically.


Velvet antler is frozen after harvesting, then dried by controlling temperature and humidity over an extended period. In the 1980s many firms with Korean connections were set up in Christchurch to dry velvet antler before shipping it to Hong Kong and South Korea. By the early 2000s, many of these companies had closed, and the crop was exported frozen.

Velvet on silk

The first documented evidence of velvet antler used as a health tonic was found on a silk scroll in a Han tomb in the Chinese province of Hunan. The scroll is believed to be around 2,000 years old, and suggests treatments and prescriptions for 52 different diseases.

Marketing velvet

In 2006 Deer Industry New Zealand worked with producer organisation Velconz and PGG Wrightson Ltd (the largest seller of New Zealand velvet antler) to improve velvet marketing, maximise returns and provide more stability in the market.

Research and development

New Zealand researchers have investigated the effects of velvet antler extracts on human and animal health, including wound healing, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis in dogs. The Seoul Millennium Hilton Hotel in Korea has used velvet antler in French-style cuisine with New Zealand venison.

To develop the international market for New Zealand velvet antler, products will have to be sold into markets other than South Korea.

Trophy hunting, deerskin and other products

Trophy hunting

New Zealand’s high-quality game animals and spectacular scenery make it popular for trophy hunting, where hunters keep the animal’s head and antlers as a trophy. The industry has developed rapidly, with marketing strategies aimed at overseas clients. In the early 2000s New Zealand’s safari industry earned more than $20 million a year, and it was estimated that trophy hunters spent a further $5 million. In 2007 New Zealand ranked second only to South Africa in the safari business. A trophy head can command around $8,000, with a few reaching more than $30,000.

A right balls-up

Controversy erupted over the testicles of a champion red stag in late 2007. The stag, Brusnik, was shot by a Qatari sheikh on a trophy-hunting trip to New Zealand. The animal’s semen – estimated to be worth over $100,000 – was to be removed and frozen, remaining the property of Brusnik’s original owner. But he claimed that the procedure had been bungled, and the semen was worth only a fraction of its expected value. Court action against the safari company looked likely.

The New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Association and the New Zealand chapter of Safari Club International have set out an ethical code of practice. Some leading safari-park operators have formed the Association of Game Estates and developed ethical hunting and operating procedures, for example for fencing, containment and health. They aim to maintain high standards, and to have poor operators removed from the industry.

Deerskin products

Deerskin makes excellent leather. Unlike sheep or cattle hide, deerskin can be machined as thin as 0.5 millimetres and still retain its strength. This very thin leather can be used for making fashion garments.

New Zealand’s deerskin industry developed as deer farming expanded. The most important markets for deerskin products are the US and Japan, although much of the raw product is shipped to Italy for manufacturing.

Deerskins from early hunting operations were often of very poor quality, with scratches, cuts, gun shots and putrefaction. Skins from farmed deer also have faults, including damage from antlers and hooves. The farmers, truck operators and slaughter-plant staff who handle deer are unwilling to accept responsibility, all claiming that the other parties cause the damage. Codes of conduct have improved the trail from the farm, so skin quality is improving.

Export earnings from deerskin have risen from $16 million in 2002 to $23 million in 2006.

Medicinal co-products

In Asia, over 30 parts of the deer are believed to have medicinal properties. In Chinese medicine the deer is a symbol of luck, health and longevity, and is the most widely used animal. Tails, pizzles, testicles, sinews and blood are all used, and contribute about $20 million a year to New Zealand export earnings. All these co-products come from slaughterhouses, so they are covered by strict codes of hygiene.

The 2000s onwards

Wild population increasing again

By the early 2000s it was uneconomic to use helicopters to harvest wild deer commercially. Feral deer numbers were again on the rise in some areas, in spite of pressure from recreational deer hunters. However, some of the big river valleys running east from the South Island main divide, which once carried large wild deer herds, have not shown major increases in numbers.

The need for control

In 2007 it appeared that a government agency, such as the Department of Conservation, would soon have to hire helicopter companies to control deer in mountain areas where the animals are damaging the fragile environment. There is likely to be much debate about this.

Future challenges

The deer farming industry in the early 2000s was well established and supported by Deer Industry New Zealand. It was expected to grow, although more slowly than in recent decades.

The industry needs to better balance the supply of venison and velvet antler with market requirements, to avoid its previous pattern of boom and bust. New markets have been found for venison and established markets grown. Recent reductions in the size of the national breeding herd, due to high slaughter rates, suggest that there is a ready demand for the product.

The main market for velvet antler is still South Korea. To expand into other markets, new products from velvet antler will need to be developed and shown to be effective on human health. This will be difficult and expensive.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ken Drew, 'Deer and deer farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ken Drew, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008