Challenging assumptions – what is natural?

Herds of deer in virtually treeless fields is a common sight in New Zealand, but to many Europeans, who are used to seeing deer in their natural habitat – the forest – it appears incongruous, and even cruel, to keep these forest animals in open fields, particularly on a hot summer’s day. However, as an introduced species to New Zealand, deer and forests do not have the symbiotic relationship they have in the forested environments from which deer originate. Deer originally released in New Zealand’s forests from the 1860s (for hunting rather than farming)  cause serious damage to our forests through overgrazing, and have for around one century been regarded as a pest.

Deer-farming in New Zealand has a relatively short history. The first deer farm was at Rahana Station, near Taupo, which began in 1969. By 1979 there were 800 deer farms, and the interest was so great that the number had nearly doubled a year later. Today, about 1.7 million deer were being farmed in New Zealand. Although deer-farming may seem perfectly natural to New Zealanders who have grown up with it, worldwide it is relatively rare – and although recent figures are not known, in 1989, New Zealand had half the world’s farmed deer – more than any other country in the world.

Amongst many other things, environmental history is about challenging our beliefs and assumptions about what is natural to the environment we live in, and, indeed, questioning what is “natural”.

[Photo: Deer in a field at Lewis Pass, northern Canterbury. (Photo: Rainer Kant)]

[Source/further reading: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand]

See also: What is natural? The case of Christchurch Port Hills.

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