From a noxious pest that should be exterminated to livestock providing high value products to the world, the deer industry in New Zealand has come a long way in 50 years – and the research that made it possible is now being celebrated.

An event next week at AgResearch’s Invermay campus near Dunedin will mark 50 years of deer farming science at the site by AgResearch and its predecessor organisations, always in close partnership with the deer industry and farmers. The half century of research has included major advances in understanding of deer nutrition, health, behaviour and genetics, and in development of products such as venison, velvet and milk that are exported around the world.

“Fifty years ago, researcher Ken Drew and veterinarian Les Porter thought it might be a good idea to put some science in behind the newly emerging deer farming industry,” says AgResearch’s programme leader for Deer Science for Success, Jamie Ward.

Jamie Ward

“With incredible backing by early industry participants, innovation, positivity, and fantastic researchers, Invermay became synonymous with the evolution of the New Zealand deer farming industry and earned an international reputation for its science and research output.”

Ken Drew described the huge challenge that faced he and colleagues in the early days, taking what was a dangerous wild pest and turning it into an animal that could be safely and successfully farmed: “In the early 1970s, deer was a noxious animal, and that’s legally described as an animal that should be exterminated. The concept of farming a noxious animal has obviously got political consequences, as well as biological ones”.

Tony Pearse, who spent 19 years as a researcher at Invermay, recalls travelling overseas often to share New Zealand’s leading expertise in deer farming with the world: “It became an international community of a new industry. It was a real privilege, really exciting”.

Deer Industry New Zealand chief executive Innes Moffat says from the outset, the deer industry did things nobody else did, so it is only natural that new ideas helped develop the budding industry.

“The research at Invermay has always been done with industry collaboration and focused on industry outcomes. As such, the impact of that science has been huge, and it has been key in developing the modern, sophisticated deer farming industry in New Zealand we see today.”

“While the early scientists developed methods for farming deer and progressed our fundamental understanding of them, the ongoing work in the programme is building on this to make us even better at what we do. This ranges from feeding the animals right and having the tools to select the right genetics, to developing new products derived from deer that meet the expectation of our global customers.”

“The scientists have helped us overcome many challenges in the last 50 years. We haven’t run out of challenges and look forward to continuing the collaborations between the passionate farmers in the industry and the equally passionate scientists to support them.”

Key challenges ahead include addressing environmental impacts such as climate change and water quality, which Jamie Ward says will require solutions that are specific to the needs and challenges of the deer industry.

The celebration of the 50 years of deer farming science on Monday 26 September will include an open day at Invermay, including displays and presentations highlighting the science, and a gala dinner to follow.

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