In his 2002 Fauna Britannica, Duff Hart-Davis provides a fascinating overview to the history of deer parks and farming in the United Kingdom and the reader is directed there for further details on the topic.
There is some debate as to when and where the farming of deer first took hold. Deer farming has been variously cited as having its origins in China or New Zealand and while the Food and Agricultural Organization suggest that deer farms have been established for “a century or more”, some authors report deer farms in New Zealand for more than five thousand years. Wherever it first began, New Zealand is currently the largest deer farming country in the world, with an estimated 1.7 million animals. In the UK, the idea of keeping deer in parks probably dates to the Romans, who brought Fallow deer with them on their voyages.
The idea is implicitly simple; deer are generally contained within a fenced or walled boundary. I say generally, because deer were known to escape over or through the fences, leaving the park to mate with wild deer. Large steps, called “deerleaps”, were incorporated into the fence line of many parks that allowed deer (returning and wild animals) to easily jump into the park, but not jump out again. Where deer were held close to grand estates, structures called “ha-has” were erected to stop deer getting into manicured flower gardens and lawns – these structures were basically long ditches separating the deer park and grounds that had a brick wall on one side and couldn’t be seen from the main house (so as not to spoil the view).
Deer parks seemed to gain popularity since the Roman period and, by the time the Domesday Book of 1085 to 1086 was written, there were at least 31 parks in Britain. During the Middle Ages, Britain boasted some 2,000 deer parks that were predominantly used as a source of animals for hunting. Unfortunately, the Crown seemed to lose interest in deer hunting and this led to forests being cut down, sold off or divided up by a series of Inclosure Acts. A reprieve came in the late 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth restored some of the interest in forestry as a source of timber.
By the mid-17th Century the number of parks stood at around 700 and some fell into private ownership. Indeed, Richmond Park in London was designated a royal deer park in 1625 when Charles I moved Parliament to Richmond in order to escape the plague. In 1637, Charles made the unpopular move of fencing off the park and hunts on horseback were conducted within it until about 1750, well after Charles was beheaded.
The number of deer parks in Britain suffered further declines at the hands of the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) who, under the orders of Oliver Cromwell, destroyed many between 1653 and 1658. According to Hart-Davis, Joseph Whitaker (writing in 1892) only listed around 400 deer parks in Britain. During the 20th century, the number of deer parks fluctuated in accordance with the need for timber and farmland during the World Wars. Up until the 1970s, deer parks had been used predominantly as a source of meat for the monarchs’ tables (Christmas hampers, wedding feasts, etc.) or, in the case of Woburn, to hold the growing collection of animals owned by the 11th Duke of Bedfordshire. Today, many of the remaining deer parks are open to the public. During the 1970s, parks in which deer were bred exclusively to slaughter for meat, and had no public access, were formed – these were the true deer farms.
According to the British Deer Farmers Association (the nationally recognized body representing the deer farming community since 1979) in Derbyshire, there are presently about 300 deer farms in the UK rearing some 36,000 deer. This may seem like a reasonably high number, but it actually represents about 0.6% of the livestock currently farmed in the UK. Of the deer species farmed, the majority (just under 80%) are Red, with the remaining 20% being Fallow – Roe deer aren’t generally considered a gregarious species and hence aren’t widely farmed. Stags are typically culled at between 15 and 17 months old, while hinds are dispatched slightly later, at about 27 months. The manner in which deer are kept, handled and culled is partly governed by the Farmed Game and Fresh Meat Regulation (1995); in the UK, the protocols of this and other applicable animal welfare directives are policed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Some deer parts invariably make their way into the various potions and medicines on the market in the Far East, but the majority of the meat ends up in supermarkets as venison. Today, if asked what venison is, most people would probably say it was deer meat. Archaically, however, the term venison, from the Latin venari, meaning “to hunt”, actually covered the meat from any game animal. In his book, Hart-Davis provides some comparative nutritional details of deer and other meats. Going by these figures, which are similar to those provided by nutritionaldata.com for a 54g lean steak deer loin, a deer steak contains about 1.6g of fat per 100g of meat; so it is about 1.6% fat. The comparative value for pork is 15.2%, for lamb it’s 12.3%, for beef it’s 12.9%, while for (whole) chicken it’s 13.8% – of course, these values will vary according to the cut of meat as well as the conditions in which the animal was kept. The British Deer Society point out that venison is lower in fat than a skinned chicken breast, while also being high in iron and low in cholesterol.
Deer have been on Man’s menu for as long as the two have lived together. In his The History of British Mammals, Derek Yalden points out that there are remains of Red deer that appear to have been taken by human hunters during the Wolstonian and Ipswichian Glaciations; the former ended about 130,000 years ago. Recent archaeological data presented as part of the Natural History Museum’s Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, suggest that there were several ‘waves’ of attempted human colonisation in Britain, starting about 700,000 years ago. It appears, however, that most attempts were unsuccessful (owing largely to freezing conditions) and that humans didn’t really get a decent foothold until about 12,000 years ago. Indeed, in his opus, Yalden also notes that, based on remains from Star Carr in Yorkshire (which date to 9,488 B.P.), both Red and Roe deer were the prey of these Mesolithic hunters. It seems that the hunters weren’t only after the meat – remains from the Yorkshire site suggests that antlers were used as the raw materials for various tools and clothing accessories.
It seems curious that, even despite the long history of deer hunting in the UK, deer aren’t currently officially classified as game species, which means that they’re not included in the Game Act of 1831. Nonetheless, hunting as a sport seems to have maintained its popularity throughout the centuries, although the hunting of deer has also typically been the preserve of the rich and royal. Indeed, while the Romans and Anglo-Saxons apparently lived by the rule of res nullius—Latin meaning “nobody’s thing”, so an animal killed by a hunter belonged to that hunter, regardless of whose land it was killed on—this was not something that the Normans appreciated.
Many of the forests we have today started life as royal hunting estates. One of the most famous of all such estates is the 571 square kilometres (141,000 acres) of Hampshire that forms the New Forest, or Nova Foresta as the Domesday Book of 1086 lists it. The Forest was declared a royal hunting preserve by William the Conqueror in 1079. William and his party were the only ones allowed to hunt in the Forest and there were stiff penalties, described as “savage forest laws” by Edward Rutherfurd in his riveting novel The Forest, for any interlopers hunting deer there.
Deer hunting, largely on horse-back and later horses accompanied by hounds, persevered in the New Forest until about 1997, when the last New Forest pack of stag hounds was disbanded. The subsequent implementation of the Hunting Act in 2004 has changed the way hunting takes place in the UK. Today, the majority of deer hunting in the Forest is conducted by keepers employed by the Forestry Commission, and is aimed more at control of deer populations than the form of trophy hunting seen in the USA. Across most of Britain, deer control is undertaken by private stalkers and gamekeepers.
Deer have little respect for human boundaries and, as such, move over various areas of private land, which makes coordinating effective population management challenging. In the UK, the Deer Initiative is involved in consulting with landowners and councils on the management and welfare of deer populations. In Scotland, the Deer Act of 1997 gives the Deer Commission of Scotland powers to regulate deer management in the country, while deer management falls under the jurisdiction of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Republic of Ireland.
Currently, there are no limits set on the number of deer that can be shot by stalkers and landowners, but the Deer Acts do stipulate the way hunting must be conducted, including open and closed seasons and the calibre of weaponry used. More recently, however, owing to a substantial increase in the deer population, it has been proposed that the closed season should be removed in Scotland; this would allow Red deer to be shot all year round. While this may seem like a sensible idea if we are to reduce deer numbers, some biologists have raised concerns. In the July 2009 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, for example, Deer Commission for Scotland biologist Colin McClean wrote of his fear that removing the closed season will lead to both the overexploitation of stags and the under-exploitation of hinds. This, McClean explained, means that “Scotland’s deer population will end up less economically valuable, but still growing”.