Of all the domesticated commercially farmed species, deer are the most recently domesticated and as such can be the most problematic when mustering, although this is not always the case. The ease of mustering deer is very dependent on the individual skill of the handler, the temperament of the deer, and the layout or set up of the farm. Proficient handling of deer requires good stock sense, involving plenty of patience, an understanding of deer behaviour and psychology, and great powers of observation.
Individual animals show different behaviours and temperaments. The key to good overall herd temperament is to actively select for it when making your replacement/culling decisions. Calm animals that respond favourably to their handler are best, especially when working in close quarters with them in the shed and yards. Individual animals that show signs of extreme stress when handled or mustered are undesirable, as it becomes a safety issue for the handler, as well as causing undue stress to the rest of the herd.
Good temperament shows early in animals and can be identified in weaner deer. A good method to accustom weaner deer to shed facilities is to move the fawns in and out of the sheds and yards on a daily basis for five consecutive days. Or held in an adjacent paddock during the day, and yarded up each night for up to 10 days. This educates or trains the young deer to the facilities, but also allows the opportunity to identify individual animals that show poor temperament and may need to be culled.
See age issues for tips on moving young deer.
Deer adapt well to routine when they are familiar with their surroundings. So it is important that animals, that are new to a property or are young, are confident and accustomed in the layout of the farm, e.g. the route used to move to the yard or shed facilities. The first couple of times with new or young stock may be difficult. These initial musterings should be done with considerable patience, and under no time pressure. Once the routine and route to the shed is familiar, deer should move readily as a mob (as long as they have no fear of the consequences of moving into the yards).
Feeding out supplements appears to be a good method of training deer to become accustomed to a handler or vehicles. Deer can even be trained to come when called, especially if there is an incentive like silage on offer! This method can also be used to move deer from one paddock to another.
Mustering large mobs
Generally larger mobs can be more difficult to handle, especially when mustering them within a large paddock. In mobs which are particularly flightly and uncooperative, it can be beneficial to let the mob do a couple of laps around the paddock to let off some "steam". It is important to keep the mob moving as one, and not let individual animals break away, because the "breakers" will invariably try it again and become increasingly difficult to control. If mustering large mobs becomes too problematic on your farm then it is advisable to split the mobs into smaller ones, or permanently reduce paddock size by subdivision, thereby reducing the need to carry large mobs.
Helicopter mustering is a big part of high country deer farming management. There are a few dos and don'ts to make this job more efficient:
- Choose a pilot that has good stock sense. This is essential because the helicopter will be able to fly much faster than a deer can run, especially in rough terrain. A pilot inexperienced with stock may push the deer too hard, and the risk of injury to the animals is much higher. A pilot experienced in deer recovery is best.
- Always plan your helicopter mustering operation with favourable weather conditions. Good visibility is essential. Deer also run into the wind better, so plan your heli-muster well.
- Combine several animal husbandry jobs into one muster (because heli-mustering is an expensive operation), e.g. drenching, pregnancy testing, etc.
- Don't expect 100% muster, 100% of the time. This is especially true if mustering high country that has any amount of bush cover. The deer will invariably hide in the cover, and a straggle muster is almost always required.
Confidence and Firmness
Mustering deer with a good degree of confidence and firmness is key to mustering efficiency, and keeping animals' stress levels and the handler's blood pressure low is the number one priority!
Animals should be moved as one mob; if individual animals are allowed to break away from the mob, the same ones will invariably continue to do so and become increasingly difficult to handle.
Gentle pressure from people on foot or in vehicles can encourage deer movement. However it is important to observe the mob closely in case any animals baulk at the gateway and panic. Even quiet mobs of deer, when pushed too closely, may start to panic and injuries can occur.
Dogs, or no dogs?
Some deer farmers advocate the use of dogs when mustering, and others fiercely reject dog use. However using dogs for deer mustering can be done very successfully, and usually depends on the temperament of the animals, and the skill of the handler and dogs. Dogs must be very well trained and under strict control at all times. It is usual that only a few select dogs are used every time on a property when mustering deer, as the deer respond better to dogs that they are familiar with.
The main recommendations for a great deer muster, are:
Be Patient! Be Confident! Be Firm! Be Observant! And remember to walk away and come back the next day if it all turns to custard!