Deer in Australia
Our fascination with deer goes back a long way. Earlier than our relationships with dogs and horses in fact.
The Bradshaw cave paintings in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia have been dated at up to 65,000 years old. They clearly show what have since been determined to be sambar deer. By comparison, Dingos are only thought to have been brought to Australia as little as 3,500 years ago.
In biblical times, Solomon farmed deer, and Venison is classified as the most Kosher of all food.
In India, Buddha first taught the Dharma at the deer park at Sarnath. That Deer Park was a forest gifted to the deer by the king, where the deer might wander unmolested. It is still there today.
In all continents where deer are native, they hold a special place in the social psyche. It’s as if an appreciation of deer was hard wired into human DNA.
If you doubt that, ask yourself why purveyors of fine scotch, and some beers, choose the image of the Monarch of the Glenn to market their product to men. Why has Bambi taken over $267 million at the box office?
Chital deer have the distinction of being the first deer species brought to Australia.
Dr John Harris, surgeon to the NSW Corps, had chital enclosed at his 34 acre “hobby farm” at Blackwattle Swamp in Sydney as early as 1803. To put this in context, that rural hobby farm is now known as Darling Harbour.
To appreciate the significance of this achievement, we must also remember that in 1803
- Queensland, Victoria and New Zealand were all still parts of NSW.
- The first fleet had only arrived 15 years earlier in 1788. The journey took just 252 days.
- Flinders had just returned from circumnavigating Australia for the first time ever.
- It would be 10 years before Blaxland would discover a pathway across the Blue Mountains.
- The colony was in serious trouble, with starvation a very real threat for many as European crops failed due to drought, and supplies dwindled. And yet there is no record of these deer being poached.
- The Rum rebellion was still 5 years away.
A typical ships manifest of that period was made up of rum, sugar, salt, canvas, anchors & hardware, linen, and an occasional box of cheap jewellery.
Rum of course was one of 3 main currencies in use in the colony. When Australia’s first church was built in 1793, the Reverend Richard Johnson paid the workers’ wages in rum. Macquarie latter paid for the building of a road between Sydney and Liverpool with 400 gallons of rum.
Imagine the wealth that a ship’s captain on his way to the new world could amass if he could squeeze on, officially or unofficially, just one or two more barrels of rum, or a box of axe heads, or guns. Instead, they bought deer.
Later, the P&O line had a standing policy of providing free passage to any deer being imported for liberation, such was the regard deer were held in. And such was the trouble our forebears went to in order to bring them here. Remember, live animals, plus enough food for them for 252 days, instead of the equivalent weight of liquid gold, transported for free.
The 19th century was very much an era when Acclimatisation Societies would flourish all over Australia. This was a world-wide movement to ‘share the world’s most beautiful and useful things’. The Acclimatisation Society was the first important conservation group that Australia ever had, and was responsible for importing and releasing deer into Australia.
The Sydney group, led by Dr George Bennett at the Australian Museum and Charles Moore the director of Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, became active in 1852.
In 1861 the Society reported that Victoria had wild herds of Red, Fallow and Axis deer. In 1862 the Society reported it had herds of Fallow, Ceylon Elk (Sambar), Ceylon Hog, Ceylon Moose Deer (Mouse deer or Chevrotain), and Axis all in their pens (what we now know as zoo’s). In 1865 the Society released Fallow, Axis and Sambar at Wilson’s Promontory. Also released were Axis in the Wimmera, Sambar and Axis at Mt Sugarloaf, Fallow at Bunyip.
In 1873 after Queensland was eventually separated from NSW, Queen Victoria gifted the newly created colony a herd of red deer from her royal hunting ground. The Queenslanders were obviously impressed since they eventually included a red deer on their states coat of arms, where it remains today.
In 1879 the Society released the following deer into the wild in New South Wales; Red, Fallow and Sambar, the Sambar was later found to be Rusa. In 1885 Fallow deer were released in to the Royal National Park. Red deer in 1886 were released into the Park. In 1886 Fallow deer were released in to the Queanbeyan area. Red deer escaped from their pens in 1918 in the Quidong area. In 1924 Fallow deer were released in to the New England range.
The first deer to be imported to Tasmania were Chital on the 30th October 1829, by Mr John Bisdee. This stock came from the Bisdee English properties in Somerset (Banwell 2002). The Acclimatisation Society of Tasmania formed. On the 9th December 1862 Fallow deer were brought in to Tasmania. In 1865 further releases of Fallow deer were reported. In 1928 the Animal and Bird Protection Act in Tasmania limited the bag of deer.
John Bisdee gave fallow deer to the Society in 1865 from Tasmania. In 1873 the first Red deer were brought in to Queensland. The next recorded liberation was in 1874. The 1878 report by the Society stated that the Reds were in no doubt increasing in numbers.
In 1899, Red and Fallow deer were released in Western Australia. 1903 and 1906 more deer were released but their species aren’t recorded. Indian Blackbuck were also released late last century.
In 1861 Fallow deer were well established in South Australia. Red and Fallow were also released in 1914. Another release of Fallow occurred in 1917. In 1936 deer purchased from the Society were released near Clare.
Today there are six free-roaming members of the deer family within Australia. It’s been estimated that 85% of Australia’s wild deer today are descendants of herds originally liberated by acclimatisation societies. 100% legal at the time, with active government support and encouragement.
Further reading is essential for better understanding and greater enjoyment of an exciting and complex subject. Don’t overlook the importance of reading all you can about your chosen subject.
Many books on deer and deer hunting are becoming difficult to buy. The following titles are readily available to purchase online from the Australian Deer research Foundation:
An introduction to the Deer of Australia
The Hog Deer
Walking Them U
Living With Deer
Papers Presented At Deer Management Conference, November 1974
Deer Of The World
Australian Deer ADA