words& images: Leanne Gichard
From the moment you meet Peter Swann you know that this humble man is quite extraordinary. Not only does he love deer farming, he also loves his animals. Everything he does centres around what is best for the deer, and the deer repay him handsomely. This is the story of his and wife Jema’s, journey.
Peter was born in Queenstown, but his family moved to Fairlie in 1963 when he was four years old. “Our family had a run under Mt Dobson Skifield in the Two Thumb Range, where we farmed sheep and beef. Dad was a keen hunter and it was a natural progression to look at deer farming, as there were already deer living in their natural habitat on the farm. In 1973 we determined that we would diversify into deer and started digging post holes in June and July that year. We got 1.2m of snow in August, so that was challenging!” Peter laughs. “On 3 January 1974 we started to catch our first deer. Initially the deer were tranquilised, as net guns were only just being developed. We progressed from darts to beeper darts, so that we could track the deer and find them easier, then on to net guns.”
“We were just breeding deer initially and building up our stock, as there was nowhere to process the venison at that time and there hadn’t been a market for velvet. Dad knew Tim Wallis (pioneered live deer capture from helicopters) very well. Tim suggested that we may be able to start velveting stags. 1975 was the first year we cut velvet. I have kept records of the lineage of the deer and velvet since 1976, which has proved invaluable.”
After lambing ewes in snow at 1800 feet above sea level, Peter’s family thought there were probably better places to be and decided to make the move to Mossburn in 1990. “We were aware that deer were being successfully farmed at Balfour in Southland and thought that Mossburn would be an ideal location,” Peter explains. This turned out to be very fortuitous, as Jema, a laboratory technologist, just happened to move from Auckland to Mossburn and met Peter at the local pub, and as they say, the rest is history!
In 2009 Peter and Jema moved to their current farm at Elgin and Peter set about improving the quality of the velvet further. “In the early days of velveting we noticed that the velvet of some animals was soft and porous while other velvet appeared to have more calcification, particularly the velvet from the English and German deer that we had imported. That became entrenched in my mind, so I tried to work out a system that would produce the best quality velvet, which is the porous type, with a lower ash level. The New Zealand stags seemed to produce this better quality velvet and their natural diet was mostly grass and anything else they could forage, such as berries and certain tree leaves etc., so I began to experiment with what we fed the herd and breeding concentrated on a New Zealand line. I don’t apply any nitrogen to the paddocks here, nor do I feed any palm kernel. The deer here are grass fed and get some deer nuts and grain as supplementary feed. The deer nuts are made up for me to my specifications. In winter, when feed is short, we supplement with baleage, according to the deer’s appetite,” Peter says.
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