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Facts and history of deer breeding

We tend to think that game management, as well as breeding of deer and other wild animals in farms, is a very recent phenomenon, but if fact it is not. The success and growth of humans led in prehistoric times to the scarcity of hunting and even extinction of some wild species. The response to this was, on one hand, the start of agriculture and cattle farming. On the other, because kings, pharaohs, and nobles liked hunting, this also led to the most primitive game management: forbid hunting to all except the owners of land, and hunt the excess of game, but not hunt so much as to finish all deer, wild boar, etc. in land, or ducks and other game birds in water.
Farming of wild deer is not much more recent. There is a picture dated 5,000-6,000 years ago, found in Alta, Finnmark, in Norway, which shows something like a fence where deer were captured (some killed, and probably some were tamed as it is known that Laps tamed deer in this land centuries ago).


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Royal hunting reserves from the past are today’s national parks in many countries. However, animals wander free out of these, and often they fed, and destroyed crops painstakingly cultivated by the people. This led in some cases, as did Frederik the III in 1669 in Denmark, to fence a forest (named Boveskov) to create one of the first fenced deer parks: Jaegersborg.

Photo Frederik III and jaeresborg
Even before this, it is thought that in the middle age in England there were more than 2,000 deer farms, whereas now there are in UK 300 deer farms and parks. Deer farming or keeping in parks had to be so common also in central Europe, that Charles IV (1346-1378) from Sacred Holy Roman German Empire (exactly the same that build in 1357 the famous Charles bridge in Prague) created a law that obliged those keeping deer in fences to feed them during winter. Deer probably did not seem so wild to our ancestors, because more than one thousand years earlier, the Roman armies tamed and were accompanied by herds of fallow deer (thus their name in Latin: Dama dama, which comes from domus, house and rut of the word domestic). If you think that red deer may not be so tame as fallow deer, this is because you do not know the history of white tailed deer: between kings and emperors of Europe, giving gold or diamonds was not a very good gift. However, many were mad about hunting, and thus, in 1712, Russian Tsar and creator of Saint Petersburg (one of the most beautiful cities in Russia), Peter the great, gave 6 white coloured red deer (beware, because they are not albino deer), to Emperor of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia and Hungary, Charles VI for its coronation. Obviously, these deer did not travel 1,500 km by plane or truck anesthetized! (standard travel speed was about 5 km/h for most of human history). Nowadays it is possible to see such “royal gift” descendants in few farms like in Saulstari in Sigulda, Latvia (www.safariparks.lv).


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(White coloured deer in Saulstari deer farm).
However, the faster growth, easier management of breeds of domestic cattle, pigs, and sheep (which did not have males in dangerous rut as happens to deer), led to nearly forget the importance of deer in middle ages, and this led us to the creation of farms, and fenced game estates in the 70s. Large game estates, which were very common in Spain, for example, started to be fenced in the 70s to prevent damage to crops, and also reduce poaching.
Farming of deer started in UK, but was even more common in New Zealand, and its story is interesting. Apparently in the XIX century somebody thought to be a good idea (as happened with rabbits and other animals in Australia) to bring some deer to New Zealand to have a bit of enjoyment hunting on weekends. However, as also happened in Australia with many species, European deer were much better competitors for food than local animals, and they grew by thousands. By the 60 and early 70s the problem had grown so much that the government took strong action and started to kill all deer. A clever person saw the business opportunity and offered to take the dead animals out of the wild for free, as long as they were freshly killed. This reduced the cost of disposing the corpses, and permission to take them out was granted. It followed a huge business of selling venison to Europe (mainly Germany) so successful that it produced two consequences: 1st) The creation of a market that expected a continuous supply of venison; 2nd) the near extinction of deer in the wild, and near end of such business. Because the market continued existing, New Zealand farmers turned to farm deer for the last 30 years. In fact, with 1.5 million deer (12% of the deer of the world), the have a share of 55% of the market, much more successful than their European counterparts.
Deer farming offers not only a business to supply deer meat, but also a meat of higher quality than that of deer shot in the wild. The stress of a hunting leads to poorer quality of the meat, often valid only for goulash or boiled dishes, or salami like products. However, deer killed in a farm have a softer meat, and bleeding short after death also increases its qualities. Finally, whereas the hunting season supplies large amounts of meat in short period, leading to low prices, farming deer allows to sacrifice the animals when it is more profitable for the farmer, so that the 2.4 €/kg that can be often sold deer shot in the wild, turns into 30 €/kg from farmed deer (even 45 €/kg for tenderloin in Germany).
In a recent survey from the European farmers (www.fedfa.org) Europe has 280,000 deer, mainly fallow deer, in 10,000 farms (27 deer/farm). In contrast, the 2,000 game estates just in Spain keep 650,000 deer, and 130,000 deer are killed in the hunting season every year, which produces 6,500 tons of venison for the European market. Thus, breeding deer in farms or in game estates or parks seem to be two sides of the same coin.
Meat is one of the reasons, perhaps the main one for small breeders, but the value of the trophy can be also very important. A deer with a bad trophy is only worth the value of its meat (in a game estate, this can be even as low as 100 €), but a 292 CIC trophy can reach 35,000 €. This is a very exceptional animal, but deer of trophies with 230 points and over reach easily 4000-5000 €. In Europe, Argentina, USA and many countries, antlers main value is the trophy, but in China, Korea and Asiatic countries, they see it as a medicine. Cropped during growth, when it has a velvet like aspect, velvet antlers are mainly produced for these Asiatic markets by New Zealand and Asiatic part of Russia (beyond the Urals), and can reach 100 €/kg. Tendons, genitalia and other products are used both for Asiatic medicine, and to produce catgut, a product for surgical stitches that degrade with time (therefore can be used internally in the body).

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[Deer trophy of 292 CIC points]
Farming of deer has produced many organizations (specially in New Zealand, but there are also strong organizations like British Deer Farms and Parks in the UK, or NADeFA (North American Deer Farmers) in USA. In Europe, FEDFA is the federation of most of these associations. However, there was no truly international organization for all sorts of deer breeding, and for all companies making business around deer (like fencing, deer feeds, companies exporting antlers, etc). This was the reason why IDUBA was created in Spain in 2013, in the first meeting designed for deer breeders and where both scientists and deer breeders where the main speakers. It is also the only deer fair in the world. The meeting, EMAD in 2013, was continued as Deer Genetics and Management in 2014.
The greatest future market: Russia. IDUBA paid special attention to the Russian market because after 30 years of history in western countries, deer farming and fenced game estates are just starting in Russia. In Spain, more 4% of its surface is occupied by fenced states of around 1000 ha with for deer breeding. If just 1% of Russia was used for this purpose in 300 h game estates (the size in the humid part of Europe), this would be a business with a turnover of 6,000 million €/year. This is not just a number, but a reality: in the Christmas of 2014-15 sale of venison was allowed for first time in Russia and 2000 tons of venison were sold in just two weeks.


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Deer and history: the tale of the white coloured deer hind and Roman general Quintus Sertorius.

Readers of IDUBA newsletter that like history probably liked to read our section “Facts and history of deer breeding”. One of the curious things there relate to the fact that some red deer are born white (they are not albino, as eyes are not red, and this variety affects only the colour of the fur). The story there shows that, among emperors and tsars, it was a much better gift of 6 precious rare white colour red deer than jewels or gold. However, there is a much better story dated 1800 years earlier than the gift of Tsar Peter the Great to Charles VI, it is the history of one of the brightest (and forgotten) generals of the Roman Empire, Quintus Sertorius, a white coloured hind, and a rebellion against the elites of Rome that took place in Hispania, the province that today is Portugal and Spain.
The life of Quintus Sertorius deserves a film even if you do not include this story of the white coloured hind. At the age of 16, he forged a letter and lied about his age in order to be accepted in the Roman army. He fought in the toughest battles of his time. The Roman army had created a series of awards/crowns for the best soldiers and generals. Among these, the most difficult to achieve as the grass crown (corona graminea). This was awarded to a person who saved a whole army, and only 10 officers or soldiers obtained it in the history of Rome. Julius Caesar, Escipion and other great generals could not get it despite their quality in the battle field, but Quintus Sertorius got one for saving an army fighting against an Iberian king (Spanish pre-Roman inhabitants) in the city of Castulo (today Linares, Jaen, in Andalusia) in 93 b.C. The story was apparently like this: he volunteered to enter the enemy’s territory and get information about the strategy of the Iberian armies. When he was near the tent of the enemy high command, he realized he had a big problem: he could not get close enough to understand what they said because none spoke Latin! Immediatedly, he designed a crazy plan that was almost impossible to succeed. When one of the enemy generals came out to the “toilet” in the wild, he stroke him in the head and ran with him on his back as fast as he could chased by enemy archers. Against all odds, he reached the Roman army with his hostage intact. However, he was not so lucky: he had been running with two arrows in his legs.
His partnership with a white coloured hind started around the year 90 b.C. A civil war, which would turn the Roman republic into its well known Empire, had started in the capital. The uncle of Sertorius, Gaius Marius, was one of the greatest generals of Rome and defended the people’s party. Another general, Sulla, defended the rich elites of the city. Not surprisingly, Quintus Sertorius took party for his uncle to defend the popular classes. He was sent to Hispania to prevent the party of Sulla taking power of this strategic region (which produced rivers of silver, food, and olive oil for Rome). The beginning of the battles of Sertorius could hardly be worse: Rome sent an army 20,000 of his famous legionaries to cross the Pyrenees, and they succeeded halving Sertorius’ army. With only 3,000 men, Sertorius’ end seemed close. He left to the sea and north of Africa.
The “miracle” of the white deer hind. In the year 80 b.C. Sertorius landed near Cadiz (Southermost point in Hispania), and started to win battles. At some stage, he was told that a shepherd in his territories had a hind who had given birth to a white hind. Sertorius knew that the Hispanians and Lusitanians (living mostly in what today is Portugal) believed that deer symbolized fertility and good luck. He tamed the white hind and told his armies that this was a signal that Gods were on their side, and that, as long as they fought alongside the white hind, they would never be defeated.
And his promise worked! 4,000 Lusitanians soldiers and 700 horsemen joined him. Rome sent an army 10 times bigger, but Sertorius not only had fairy tales among his abilities. He won battle after battle despite his smaller army because he was intelligent and very good strategist. When he had conquered nearly all Iberian peninsula, he showed that his charisma and kindness added to his military brain: he got the favour of one after another tribe by reducing taxes, treating with dignity the local tribes, he created a university in the north, and even a senate similar to that of Rome. A new Rome was being born in Spain. At some stage, even Roman armies started to turn to his side and 20,000 soliders and 1500 horsemen joined him at the same time. By year 76 b.C., he had an army of “romanized” Iberians and Romans formed by 60,000 men and 8,000 horsemen. The white coloured hind seemed to have made a miracle. Furious in Rome, Sulla sent an army of 50,000 men and 1,500 horsemen. Sulla had heard the story of the white deer hind, but when, Sertorius and his white coloured deer won a battle during the day near today’s city of Valencia, killing 2 legions (10,000 men), and another one at night that day, killing further 10,000 legionaries of the Roman army (in fact, 12% of the Roman army), Sulla understood that somewhere in Spain, a white coloured deer had become Rome’s most important problem. On one hand, Rome sent more and more soldiers, whereas Sertorius was losing men without being able to compensate with new soldiers. On the other hand, at that time all the Roman army knew that the white hind was nearly as precious as the head of Sertorius himself. Good history tales often end sadly, and the beginning of Sertorius’ decline again had to do with the white coloured deer (although this may be more a tale than true history). The white hind disappeared before one decisive battle and Sertorius nearly had a heart attack when he found what happened. His army was very pessimistic towards the battle. The Roman army claimed to have killed the hind to decrease further their morale, but they certainly did not show the skin of the hind as a trophy. The Roman historian Suetonio wrote that, at some stage, both armies forgot totally the fight and used all their forces to find the white hind, crossing with each other, with no interest in other business than being the first to grasp alive (or, for the Romans, to kill) the magical hind. At some stage, the white hind appeared in the battle field on the side of Sertorius, and all the Iberio-Roman army raged against the army sent by Rome: the victory seemed at hand. Apparently at that moment, the army and the white hind crossed a river. For the surprise of all, the hind who entered the river white, came out in brown fur (showing that it was not the real one), and the battle (and several ones after this) were won by the armies sent by Rome.
Although this is not the only appearance of white coloured deer in the history of mankind, the story of Sertorius and the white hind is by far the most important (and the least known), as Sertorius nearly succeeded in creating a new Rome after 5 years if the poor hind had not been killed. Nowadays, you can see this curious variety of red deer in farms like that of IDUBA vice-president, Dainis Paeglitis, in Saulstari (50 km from Riga, Latvia: www.safariparks.lv).

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Left: White coloured red deer in Saulstari deer farm, Sigulda, Latvia.
Right: Roman general Quintus Sertorius.