Lindy O’Hara is one of the few deer farmers left in Ireland – down from 600 in 1996 — but she is predicting an eco-driven venison revival.
The mad cow crisis of the 1990s turned Sligo farmer Lindy O’Hara away from a future in cattle and towards deer. Twenty-five years on, she is one of about a dozen farmers still producing venison in Ireland.
On a trip to Dublin, Lindy and her husband Brian stopped at Cobert’s Pub just off the N4, and noticed a deer farm across the road operated by a German farmer. With the beef industry in crisis, the couple became fascinated with the idea of farming deer, and after a number of journeys decided to transform their farm at Coopershill into a deer farm.
“It was during the BSE crisis and we thought that we would take a chance with deer instead of cattle,” says Lindy.
“We went to see the German farmer and he sent us away three times before he allowed us to buy some deer.
“At that time there were grants for fencing and infrastructure so we didn’t have to invest too much money to get the business off the ground.
“A good few people took up deer farming at that time because of the grants, but all of that has dried up. I still get people occasionally asking me about deer farming. When I tell them what’s involved, I usually don’t hear from them again.
“It’s very expensive to get started and, at the moment, it’s difficult to make money from it. The Irish still are not eating venison.”
The entire herd at Coopershill is made up of fallow deer. Smaller and generally more wild than red deer, fallow deer require much less managing than cattle, sheep or goats.
“The fences are the biggest issue. They have to be six foot high and even at that, when the deer are distressed, they can still make it over them. So the fence posts need to be 10 feet tall and dug into the ground. That is a lot of infrastructure to be maintained,” says Lindy.
“We also developed a deer shed to house all the animals in the winter, but these days we only bring in the fawns who were born that year. The adults stay out all year; they have shelter that they can use but they are fairly self-sufficient.
“We give them some silage in the winter and a little feed in February, mainly to assist with their pregnancy. We feed the fawns inside over the winter as well.
“They are essentially wild. Red deer can be more amenable — they sometimes come and eat out of your hand — but the fallow are not like that. I’ve never had a deer who would ever come up close to me, no matter how many times they have seen me.”
The biggest obstacle in the way of the Irish farmed deer industry is the lack of a consistent home market. While demand from other countries is high, the Irish have yet to take to eating venison in large numbers.
“We mostly sell online these days. We have some regular customers and we get a rush each Christmas with people trying it out. We used to sell at farmers’ markets as well but it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t cost-effective,” says Lindy.
“People order online, usually a full or half carcass, and I will always wait until I have orders before I have the animals killed.”
Lindy believes that environmental concerns about cattle and the broadening tastes of Irish consumers could see a resurgence in deer farming.
“Deer, as well as sheep, would be considered to have less of an environmental impact than cattle — they release less methane,” she says.
“So you could well see an increase in popularity in the years ahead. We are certainly seeing an increase in interest from restaurants.”
The O’Haras have been farming in Coopershill since 1773. In the 1960s, Lindy’s mother-in-law, Joan O’Hara, opened the house as a B&B and restaurant. This part of the business is now run by Lindy’s son Simon and his wife Christina.
The 250-strong herd of deer play a major role in this part of the business, both in attracting visitors to stay and as food in the restaurant.
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
"The start-up costs for setting up the deer farm were reasonable enough, but at that time there were grants available.
It would be a more difficult business to get off the ground these days with no grant assistance."
Was financing readily available from the banks for this sort of business?
"We didn't have any trouble securing financing but the deer business was started in conjunction with the accommodation, so we were never looking for funding just for the deer portion of the business."
Was planning permission required?
"No. We fitted out a shed in the early days but no planning permission was needed."
Did you need a licence or permission from any other government body?
"We've never needed any sort of licence. Funnily enough, we don't officially have to conform to any rules and regulations from the Department of Agriculture. We are below the radar entirely.
"But that means that if we get TB, for example, there is no compensation. It's always been that way, even when they [the Department] were pushing deer farming back in the 1990s. I don't know why."
Are you required to pay rates or any other charges?
"No. We are not required to pay anything beyond what any farm would pay."
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
"When we got started, the Department would pay something like three-quarters of the cost of fencing for the deer, which is the main expense you face, but that help is gone now."
What supports bodies/state agencies were able to help?
"Teagasc were very helpful. They had a full-time deer specialist but she retired maybe 10 years ago and wasn't replaced."
Was insurance required?
"We had to get public liability insurance in case anybody falls over, bangs into a gate or whatever.
"The deer are energetic but if people were to interact with them they would be trespassing. They would have to come through gates, which are locked.
"If people see a gate without a padlock on it, they walk through it. The farmer always has to carry the cost of that side of it."
How did the new business affect your tax dealings?
"Tax wasn't a big issue. We were already paying tax in the normal way [for the accommodation portion of the business]; the deer just fell in as part of that."
How much time was needed to get the business off the ground?
"We got contractors in to do the fencing but it does need to be maintained and repaired every two years.
"Managing the deer doesn't take that much time really. Unlike other animals, when they are calving, you really need to leave them to get on with it themselves. Otherwise you end up causing more problems.
"With deer you have to bring the whole herd in - you can't isolate an animal that is sick - and inevitably you create more problems for yourself when you do that."
Did you encounter any unexpected pitfalls or challenges?
"The big pitfall was TB. It was discovered in our herd back when we used to sell the animals directly to abattoirs and we lost half our herd, which was a massive hit for us."