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A life with deer

Abstract

John Fletcher has played a crucial role in the development of deer farming in the UK and Europe, and is a leading specialist in the diagnosis, treatment and control of diseases in deer. Here, he describes how this interest began

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I WAS lucky from the start; an undistinguished student, joining a very happy year: about 50 of us (90 per cent male), at Glasgow, graduating in 1970. We were the last to receive lectures in the old Buccleuch Street buildings. I spent a lot of my time climbing with the Glasgow university mountaineering club, and frequent sightings of red deer – dead and alive – aroused my curiosity. Here were large numbers of our largest land mammal, eking out an existence in one of the most hostile and degraded yet beautiful environments in Europe. Nobody other than the stalkers whose lives revolved around the deer knew much about them then.

I ‘saw practice’ with some wonderful large animal vets in Yorkshire and Devon, and small animal vets in London. I couldn't believe that the exciting ‘fire brigade’ farm animal work could be economical for much longer, and small animal work was not what I wanted to do. So, the rest of my seeing practice was spent working in a laboratory at the University of California, Davis, and visiting vets in Mexico and New York in a long hitchhiking summer. I read Rachel Carson's ‘Silent Spring’ and ‘Limits to Growth’ and Fraser Darling's Reith lectures, and became interested in wildlife and ecology. I couldn't see the justification for feeding cereals to meat-producing animals. Also, I felt it should be possible to make milk without cows! How immature and naive.

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Writing letters to everyone I could think of led me to Roger Short at Cambridge, and perhaps the luckiest break in my career. He let me study red deer on the Isle of Rum. Those years were inspirational. Roger was the perfect PhD supervisor. Then, we could conduct experiments on free-living deer with Home Office approval and produce results that were published in Nature. Research into whole animals was still feasible and ‘blue sky’ research at low expense was possible. We tested Immobilon before it was commercially marketed and learned what a wonderful drug it is.

Getting started

As the end of the four years of my PhD loomed I doubted my ability as a scientist in the long term, and felt that I needed to do something more down to earth. I had collaborated from Rum with a new government deer farming project investigating the feasibility of deer farming in Scotland. Sheep were heavily subsidised and lamb prices were low, while venison was fetching high prices due to the strength of the West German Deutschmark. Politicians were already saying that agricultural subsidies were a thing of the past, and deer farming seemed a good idea. Here was a way of producing a much healthier red meat, with less fat than chicken, from grass and without the use of cereals.

I was again lucky when my brother agreed to buy half the land on a 50-acre hill farm in Fife. By now I was – luckiest break of all – married to Nichola, a jeweller fresh from art college. We started our farm in 1973 with my experimental hinds from Rum and attracted disproportionate publicity. Soon we were catching wild hinds for farms all over the world. I was employed by a New Zealand stock agency to locate deer throughout Europe for its rapidly growing industry. In 1990, we won the Queen's Award for Export for deer farms set up in Japan, Europe and the USA. I was in demand as a consultant and lecturer. Today the deer farm keeps going with increasing online venison sales, and throughout it all I have the continuing opportunity of working with the most fascinating species in the most exquisite deer parks in the world.

Challenges

This idyll has not been without problems. We had a half share in a deer herd in Sussex that contracted bovine tuberculosis through a bought-in German stag. No regulations were in place and we had a bad time for three years until, on the back of Edwina Currie's remarks about salmonella in eggs, the Government caved in and legislation to permit compulsory slaughter was introduced, albeit at half the market value. By then, we had voluntarily slaughtered our Scottish herd without compensation, only to find no tuberculosis.

Even more painful has been the Scottish Government's refusal to provide deer farmers with single farm payments (SFPs) despite assurances on many occasions from Brussels that there is no legal impediment. We are in a situation where cattle and sheep farmers can diversify into deer and retain their annual SFP in direct competition with us foolish ‘pioneers’, who remain unsubsidised. English deer farmers receive their SFPs.

We are puzzled why an enterprise so suitable for Scotland should be treated in this way. From my perspective, there seems to be a deep-seated reluctance from the Scottish Government to encourage any innovation in agriculture: sadly, the lesson must be that, in Scotland, keep your head down and don't innovate because the culture is risk-averse. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, deer farming has prospered because all agricultural subsidies have been removed. Most of the venison in UK supermarkets is imported from New Zealand.

Reflections

We have been lucky to be able to do what we wanted; how much harder it is for students and young vets today. Not only do they have to wrestle with debts from the outset, but in most of their lives I believe they will see catastrophic climate change with consequences beyond our imagination.

In taking stock of my career to date, my overriding motivation seems to have been to debunk risk-averse bureaucrats, and if I am allowed a word of advice to those younger than me, it would be: ‘Don't do what I have done if you want security, but never regret a veterinary degree. It is the best possible launch pad, even for something as daft as deer farming.’ The profession has always been generous to me.

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