Words and images by Annie Studholme
Firmly established as the largest red deer stud in the world, set amongst impressive park-like surroundings dominated by expansive avenues of English oaks, elms, beech and lime trees, Peel Forest Estate is not only testament to owner Yorkshireman Graham Carr’s long term commitment to the deer industry, but his passion for enhancing the environment and planting deciduous trees.
Graham Carr arrived in Canterbury around 30 years ago, knowing little about the deer industry. He first learned about deer farming in 1982. Intrigued, he headed down under to New Zealand to learn more where he was befriended by deer industry pioneers Mark Acland, Sir Peter Elworthy and helicopter pilot Sir Tim Wallis, who at that time was at the forefront of the live deer capture movement.
Keen to leave a background in joinery and get into farming, Graham was convinced that venison, with all its health properties, was the meat of the future.
And despite the volatility of the industry, from the glamour days in the 1990s to the tough times of recent years, to their own challenges with Johne’s disease, little has changed to diminish his enthusiasm. Over the years, he has invested heavily into genetics, utilising the most up-to-date technology available.
“It’s been a great ride,” says Graham. “It’s great to see the industry on such a good footing right now and we are hitting our straps at the same time. Going forward, the industry looks solid, with the opening of the American market really helping diversification. There is still a shortage of supply and an increase in demand. We are seeing an increase come through now with people investing more on genetics.”
Deer numbers are still well down on where they were six years ago, says Graham. “With the price collapse and a big swing into dairy farming, deer farms tended to disappear. What’s happening now is that deer farms have gone back to the back country, where they always used to be, and now they are expanding. But we are not seeing a lot of new entrants coming in.”
Along with being the largest red deer stud in the world, Peel Forest Estate is arguably the world’s largest velvet producer, selling more than 20 tonnes annually. It has more than 10,000 fully DNA recorded, electronically ear-tagged deer run on 1,500ha of river flats and a 1,300ha steep hill country block. To compliment the deer, they also run 250 Angus breeding cows to aid in pasture management.
In addition to the main farm at Peel Forest, they run Lincoln Hills as a dedicated hind block where they’ve recently started a new venture milking deer for cheese production in conjunction with Talbot Forest cheese.
While Graham still oversees the entire operation, Peel Forest Estate employs eight full-time staff including a stud manager, stock manager and agricultural manager, who take care of the day-to-day running of the property.
Aside from velvet, annually they sell around 800 deer for venison, in-calf hinds, and more than 250 breeding sires and trophy stags privately or across their two sales.
Looking back, even Graham struggles to believe how far they’ve come and what they’ve achieved. “It has exceeded any expectations in every way. I certainly never expected to get into the industry in such depth,” he says.
When Graham first visited New Zealand, he could see the industry’s potential, but dissatisfied with the feral deer available here, he looked to the United Kingdom and Europe to improve the gene pool. Selectively bred in game parks for centuries overseas, he was convinced the bigger frames and large antlers of the European deer could benefit the industry.
In 1987 he purchased Peel Forest Estate. Originally taken up by Francis Jollie in 1853, the Peel Forest Run once covered 25,000 acres. Jollie built the original main part of the homestead in 1860 using local white pine with matai and totara flooring.
At the same time as the house was built, primroses, bluebells and a holly hedge were planted along with a number of deciduous trees. Douglas fir seedlings were also imported in their own soil in glass Wardian cases to protect them from the salt air on the voyage over, which are now recognised worldwide as the single best example of Douglas fir outside of the west coast of the USA, explains Graham.
After Jollie’s death in 1871 the property passed through a number of hands before it was purchased by George Denistoun in 1903. Over the years the homestead evolved with a two-storied assembly of alterations and additions. It is one of the few Historic Places Trust Category 1 listed homesteads in South Canterbury.
Peel Forest Estate remained in the Denistoun family’s hands until Graham purchased it as a 700 ha sheep and beef farm. “It was very English looking; I pretty much fell in love with it straight away,” he recalls.
His timing couldn’t have been worse. The deer industry was on a high, while sheep and beef were struggling with prices at all time low. He got just $8 per lamb for his first draft, whereas a single hind cost him $4,500.00. “It took a lot of lambs to buy one hind,” he quips.
Determined to transform Peel Forest Estate into a world class deer stud, at huge expense Graham embarked on importing live deer and later genetics from Europe and the UK, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. The first 16 hinds he transported to New Zealand gave birth in the middle of winter, leaving Graham to hand raise his first fawns as the hinds were unable to feed them.
The stud herd was originally established with captured deer from former President of Yugoslavia Marshal Tito’s famous hunting reserve in Croatia and the Schulte-Wrede herd in Germany – which included Romanian, Hungarian and Czech bloodlines.
Those initial bloodlines had an immediate impact on the industry and have all played an important role in the stud, says Graham.
He didn’t walk away from the English strains entirely though. In the early 1990s he stumbled upon an English herd called ‘Furzeland’ deer in Devon, founded by Dr John Henshaw, which had a reputation for being the most multi-pointed deer in the world, with 45-plus spikes.
Through years of ruthless culling, Dr Henshaw succeeded in giving the burgeoning red deer trophy industry the most dynamic and unrivalled pool of world class highly heritable trophy genetics by bringing together selected hinds from various parks in England, creating a breed that had prolific points, well structured symmetrical antlers, great temperament and were hardy.
Graham purchased the whole herd and through embryo, live shipments and semen collection brought the bloodline to New Zealand.
The first shipment included an exceptional multi-pointed spiker called Jamieson. Jamieson, regarded as the most prepotent master sire in New Zealand and North America, became one of the foundation Furzeland sires at Peel Forest Estate, and was key to the successful development of the purebred Furzeland herd in New Zealand.
Furzeland genetics’ greatest strength is their ability to pass on their superior antler genetics as can be seen from the generations of extraordinary multi-pointed stags bred from the herd. Antler genetics are very heritable with 70 per cent inheritable factor, compared to growth rates of 30 per cent and in dairy cows milking ability of 5 per cent, explains Graham.
In the early days there was a lot of hype in the industry, and some huge prices were paid for good genetics, but it’s different now.
The 2001 discovery of Johne’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease found worldwide that causes wasting and death in cattle, deer, goats and sheep, was a huge blow to the stud, forcing them to stop selling stags. Having imported several purebred bloodlines too important to the industry to be lost, Graham called on the expertise of Professor Frank Griffin, Head of the Microbiology Department at the University of Otago, to help them fight the disease.
With access to the estate’s comprehensive files on pedigrees of its herd and the fate of the animals over 10 years, together with extensive annual blood testing, Griffin was able to determine the susceptibility/resilience to Johne’s between the estate’s breeds and bloodlines. Further trials carried out by Dr Colin Mackintosh of AgResearch established that susceptibility or resilience to Johne’s was heritable.
Stock at Peel Forest Estate have been and are continually being challenged by Johne’s, which has resulted in radical test-cull, natural and genetic selection for Johne’s resilience. The heritability of the Johne’s resilient trait ensures their ability to fight the disease on client’s properties.
“We have spent a lot of time and money getting to the bottom of the problem, which has finally enabled us to turn a big disadvantage into an advantage for not only our clients, but the industry as a whole. It [finding a group of genetic markers for Johne’s resilience] was quite a breakthrough for us as a farm, and as a stud. It’s a great advantage to be able to sell stock with Johne’s resilience,” says Graham.
Today, Peel Forest Estate’s breeding programme focuses on four distinct lines being the Terminal B11, Forrester Maternal Sires and trophy stags, and powerful velvet genetics through bloodlines from famous English parks, Warnham and Woburn Abbey, with the purchase of the Windermere Stud back in 2012.
They follow a “simple system” using dedicated Maternal Sires (Forresters) to produce hardy, fertile replacement breeding hinds and dedicated Terminal Sires (B11s) to produce fast growing progeny and maximise productivity.
Graham says these sires not only increase productivity through their superior genetics for growth rate and hardiness, but also have Johne’s resilient genetics that further enhance profitability by considerable reducing stock and production losses.
The development of the Terminal B11 composite (11 years in the making) came in direct response from a need for Peel Forest Estate to improve the weaner’s growth rates in the 1990s.
“We were using wapiti sires, but couldn't find any growth genetics as there was no recording being done then. We decided to have a go at breeding our own terminal sire and became the first farm in New Zealand to record growth rates and deer EBVs. Our bottom-line goal was to breed more heavier and earlier,” says Graham.
They employed Dr Peter Fennessy of Abacus Bio Ltd, a science genetic evaluation company in Dunedin, who analysed the desirable genetic traits and developed a breeding strategy for Peel Forest Estate to create the Superior B11 Terminal Sire.
“We were after powerful genetics that were highly productive, totally reliable, easy to maintain and eventually had measured genetic merits. We selected the correct conformation and growth rate superior elk bloodlines together with early calving high libido eastern deer identified with superior breeding values. Bloodlines for hardiness and disease resilience were also a very important inclusion.”
Commitment to technology continues to be at the forefront. Although devastating at the time, a fire which destroyed the estate’s deer shed in 2011 was seen as a huge opportunity to take it to the next level, maximising the latest technology available.
Part of the new deer shed was specifically designed around weighing and drafting equipment, with the weighing equipment previously used replaced by Gallagher systems. It also has a state of the art custom built crush, large freezers to store our velvet harvest, weigh scales and auto-drafting, a surgery for its embryo transfer programme, as well as a place for staff to congregate.
Every deer at Peel Forest Estate has an electronic ear tag. They record every facet of the work that happens, whether it’s animal health, weights, grouping, pedigree analysis, trait and activity recording as well as electronic drafting with the Gallagher HR5. It gives the estate a very accurate data collection system which then can be analysed on either the Gallagher APS office software, AgHub or HerdMASTER.
While property size and sustainability don’t always go hand in hand, Graham has worked tirelessly over the years to protect and enhance the environment from the challenges intensive deer farming can present. The farm has previously been awarded both a Ballance Farm Environment and a Firstlight Award for total commitment to sustainability.
He’s spent thousands of dollars re-fencing and planting the whole property. Reducing deer access to streams was important. With consent, some of the properties creeks were realigned, fenced and settling ponds created. Graham’s proud that restriction in stock access and planting around waterways had meant that despite intensive farming, water quality has been enhanced.
But undoubtedly his crowning glory is the many amenity plantings around the farm he’s planted, which provide necessary shelter and shade for the deer to thrive as they would in their natural environment.
Blessed with a good rainfall, impressive avenues of deciduous trees, specifically English oaks, beeches, elms and limes now grace the property; providing a landscape more in line with an English country estate than the open sheep and beef farm he took over in the 1980s.
“I am just passionate about planting deciduous trees. I am slowly working away at getting all the laneways planted. There are kilometres and kilometres of trees now. Trees and deer, that’s what I love,” says Graham.