It sounds exotic, and it is – stalking and shooting deer in Queensland’s Desert Uplands – but in many respects Michael Mackay has just as many management concerns as his cattle grazing neighbours nearby.
Since 1993, when he purchased Hotspur Station north of Jericho, he has bought and released 3000 deer for what is Australia’s longest-running safari operation.
Wild dogs scattered his embryonic herd and he’s had to deal with poachers of both the human and animal variety ever since.
Biosecurity laws, despite flip-flopping on their interpretation of whether deer were agricultural livestock or feral animals in the 24 years Mike’s private game reserve has been in operation, required him to obtain a licence and put up 30 kilometres of 13-strand fencing in 35 days.
But where there’s deer, there will be poachers, he found.
Thanks to a hunting client from the US, over 50 cameras of the latest technology now patrol and manage that element, but wild dogs are another thing.
Mike said that for two years in a row he didn’t raise a faun on the property.
“I spend an hour and a half most days on dog patrol here, because I have traps and baits out.
“I’m onto them all the time but it’s a battle.
“With hunters here, I’ve shot two dogs terrorising a little faun standing underneath its mother.”
With the replacement price of a rusa deer this year coming in at $1800, that’s a valuable investment to be losing to wild dogs.
Hotspur Outback Safaris runs red, sambar, fallow, axis, and rusa deer, and clients can shoot all the feral animals found inside the boundary fence, as well as scrub bulls, and in his Northern Territory arm, buffalo are a big ticket item.
A new breed of sheep is also being developed for their horns.
Mike estimates he can run eight red deer to one beast, and 16 head to one beast for all the other smaller deer varieties.
As is the case in the wider region, the property has been in the grip of drought for over five years, requiring a feeding regime, both to keep the mature stags in good shape during their April rut, and to boost the weights of the young fauns to increase their chance of survival.
Despite the odds, Mike is investigating AI and embryo transplant possibilities with seedstock from New Zealand and domestically, to genetically improve the offering for his well-paying hunting clients from around the world.
“We’re trying to have an industry that generates a hell of a lot of income,” he said.
“These people that come with me, they’re on a combination hunt, here and the NT.
“They’re probably going to spend $20,000 in 14 days.
“They will spend the same touring round because we encourage them to bring their wives and children to Australia.
“In these western communities a dollar goes round seven times.”
This year he offered an exclusive ladies hunt for the first time, which attracted eight bookings, and already has a dozen signed up for March next year.
“I’ve observed over the years that women are pretty independent but their husbands are telling them what to do.
“I wanted to promote a safe environment where they'd be looked after, and it seems to have been well received.”
If Mike had any spare time, markets for venison and antlers are something else he would look into.
He’s made coffee tables with legs of antlers, and chandeliers, some of which adorn rooms in the hunting lodge.
He’s also aware of a compatriot at St Lawrence who receives $20 or $30 a kilogram from the pet food industry for his antlers, which they cut up and give to dogs to chew on.
As for venison, Mike and his fellow operator, Craig Richardson, are proficient in creating 15 different varieties of sausages and salamis, all for serving up to clients in the South African-styled braai, or barbecue area below the lodge.
Mike hopes the possibility, being explored jointly with other operators, of attracting hunters from Asia, will become a reality.
If it does, and the number of trophy animals being shot increases, the resultant increase in the amount of venison available would get closer to being able to supply an export market.
At $50 to $70 a kilogram, it’s worth making use of, and it fits the atmosphere of exceptional dining, accommodation with full guest facilities, including air-conditioning and a swimming pool, and plenty of spectacular photographic opportunities, as well as trophy hunting, created at Hotspur.