November 23, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Deer Part 1


Farmed deer: Terminology: Senses: Social behaviour: Feeding

By Dr Clive Dalton

Deer in New Zealand
Man has hunted the various species of deer since early times. Deer were introduced into New Zealand and released by the early settlers for sport and are now classed as noxious pests in some areas because of damage they do to bush and exotic forest. Shooting and poisoning are the main control methods.
So now in New Zealand we have feral deer and farmed deer and they provide:
  • Meat - farmed venison and game venison.
  • Skins for clothing and housing.
  • Hard antler for tools.
  • Velvet antler for medicines.
  • Other body parts for special markets - e.g. penises (pizzles), sinews, tails, teeth.
  • Hunting - for meat and trophies (tourism)
Commercial deer farming

Commercially farmed Red deer

  • Commercial farming of feral deer developed in 1960s and 1970s when hunters turned to capturing deer alive and trapping them for sale to deer pioneers who believed they could farm deer like cattle and sheep.
  • NZ now has a thriving export market for venison, velvet and deer by-products.
  • Previously the market was for "game" meat, but now the export market demands slaughter in licensed premises under strict animal health and welfare conditions.
  • The velvet market is a secondary market, and prices fluctuate greatly. Strict veterinary and animal welfare standards (Codes of Welfare) are now in place for the harvesting of velvet from stags.
  • Harvesting velvet is seen as inhumane in many parts of the world, and an affront to the dignity of the stag.
  • The deer species farmed in New Zealand are mainly Red deer, Fallow deer and Wapiti (Elk), but there are also Sika, Rusa, Sambar, White tail and the rare Pere David.
Sika deer in a zoo - not farmed commercially
This varies with the species:
  • Red Deer - stags, hinds, calves, they "roar"
  • Fallow - bucks, does, fawns, they "roar or grunt"
  • Wapiti - bull, cow/hind, calf, they "bugle"
The innate behaviour of deer
  • Are NZ deer domesticated? At this stage it would be best to say no. They are still wild as judged by their fight/flight distance and over time with selection, they should become less fearful of humans and hence fully domesticated.
  • There is some selection for temperament going on by some breeders, but it's not very intense at this time.
  • Deer have evolved in the forest fringes where they graze the open pastures and then take cover in the trees which they browse. They can do great damage to trees by eating out the top leader.
  • Deer will seek out shade for both comfort and security and this is seen as a major welfare problem as on many deer farms shade is not available.
  • Deer use speed to escape threats and predators, so they are very fleet of foot and nervous.
  • Deer also like to wallow, especially stags during the rut.
  • So it would be easy to conclude that farming deer is depriving them of the 5th freedom to show normal behaviour and are stressed. Experienced deer farmers will disagree with this.

  • Deer have very acute vision.
  • They recognise their usual handlers but strangers cannot fool them even when wearing their regular handler's clothes. They are clearly very alert to shapes and pattern of movement.
  • They have wide monocular vision with much narrower binocular sight.
  • They are very alert to movement on their periphery when grazing, and immediately raise their heads to check the threat with their binocular sight.
  • They notice very small changes in their environment e.g. when traps are set for them.
  • Their long neck aids their ability to see threats from a distance - predators moving in the grass.
  • They have a blind spot at the rear like cattle, but they use their very mobile neck to check behind them all the time.
  • Deer have an acute sense of smell.
  • They can be easily panicked by smells that they associate with death or danger, especially of being trapped.
Social behaviour
  • Wild deer have a clearly defined grazing area or home range. They graze these home ranges in defined social groups of mainly females. Different groups may overlap and share the same home range.
  • At mating in autumn the stag forms and leads a harem of females. In the wild the areas where the stag gathers his harem are well established (and used each year) within these home ranges. The are called "stands".
  • Farmed deer running in mobs have a social order of sorts. It is clearer among mobs of males than females, as fights among males are more obvious.
  • But there is a clear matriarchal dominance in females and this may be of significance at mating for the attention of the male.
  • The social order is sorted out by head butting and threat displays using a lot of body language.
  • In confrontations, deer tilt their head and neck, partly rise on their hind legs, then rise fully and thrash with their front hooves.
  • They grind their teeth as a sign of stress and threat. After teeth grinding, look out for the rearing and feet flying.
  • They will also bite with head tilted, upper lips raised, tongue protruded showing the whites of their eyes and hissing.
  • Deer are a classical lying-out species and hinds with young fawns hide them in long grass or scrub. The fawn communicates by a high-pitched squeaking sound when stressed.
  • The males use their antlers to thrash bushes and gouge the bark of trees to mark their presence and territory and feral stags can cause devastation to forests in this behaviour.
  • All deer species/breeds use flight to escape predators except Wapiti (Elk) who are not as fleet of foot and have evolved by spending a lot of time standing in water. Elk tend to back in to a safe corner and confront the threat head on with their large size.
  • Deer are ruminants and enjoy a wide range of diets from lush clover to woody browse. They are grazers and browsers too and appreciate variety in their diet.
  • Farmed deer have similar feed preferences to cattle and sheep and this has allowed their rapid adaptation to farming.
  • They enjoy grain and concentrate feed and this is ideal to tame them. They soon learn to follow a food truck and individuals will learn to eat out of your hand or bucket.
  • In the wild in cold climates, they learn to survive on mosses and strip bark off trees in winter.

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