It is not just in the UK where sales of venison are booming, with New Zealand producers seeing prices at an ‘all-time high’ in response to growing global demand.
Scottish deer farmer and vet John Fletcher has visited NZ on many occasions and has seen how the industry has changed over the years.
Mr Fletcher said his first trip was in 1979, when red deer hinds were making more than £900/head with 15,000 wild hinds captured that year.
He said: “This enthusiasm for farming deer continued and got a fillip when, in 1984, all agricultural subsidies were removed at a stroke.
“Farmed deer numbers of both sexes grew steadily into the 1990s, reaching about two million, but they then began a gradual decline to about half that level.”
On later visits, he said wild deer capture disappeared.
There was sophisticated marketing redirecting sales from traditional markets into new ones and the sales of velvet antler moving from ‘crude exports’ of frozen antler into products for the Chinese and Korean markets, and now into ‘nutraceuticals’ aimed at Western consumers.
He said: “In 2019, I restricted my travels to South Island. While it was dispiriting to see abandoned deer handling yards and miles of deer fencing containing sheep and cattle, this concealed significant growth of deer into the uplands.
“In fact, although by 2017 hind numbers had dipped below 400,000, this marked the beginnings of a turnaround, with a growth of 5 per cent in 2018 and every sign that this growth is continuing in the face of strong lamb, beef and dairy sectors.”
He added this disguised some even more encouraging signs.
“The average herd size is now more than 400 hinds, so the growth in numbers is a reflection of existing deer farmers’ confidence in building numbers, rather than an influx of new deer farmers.”
There was also an increased air of professionalism, with a recognition that deer farming was a specialised business demanding attention to detail and high standards of stockmanship.
In the last 10 years, weaned calf percentages have grown from 73 per cent to 84 per cent.
He said much of this was probably due to the Passion2Profit campaign, funded jointly by the NZ Government, the five main venison exporters, the New Zealand Deer Farmers’ Association and Deer Industry New Zealand.
Mr Fletcher said: “It has worked to move venison exports from the traditional commodity markets in Europe, with its relatively weak euro, into regions which are new to venison consumption.
“On the production side, it has created local networks benchmarking among the most innovative and dedicated deer farmers to produce finished carcases earlier so as to more closely match demand with a view to growing the chilled sector and reducing frozen commodity sales.”
A key part of the drive to improve efficiency was about genetics.
He said: “Artificial insemination is a long-established part of the venison industry and it can now provide access to scientifically selected high breeding value stags.”
There has been a lot of publicity associated with the amputation and sale of growing antler ‘velvet’ into the traditional Chinese medicine market.
But Mr Fletcher said most deer farmers would say it was venison which was the primary objective of the industry.
He said: “Although at the moment velvet prices are very buoyant, historically they have only represented about 15-20 per cent of industry income.
"Nor is it only velvet that is selling well; venison prices are at an all-time high too, in response to growing global demand. It is not only in the UK that venison sales are booming.”