What do we mean by ‘temperament’?
Temperament is a term used by most deer farmers to describe the behavioural characteristics of individual deer to indicate their suitability as a farmable animal. For example, farmers may talk about culling deer with 'bad' temperament, or selectively breeding deer with 'good' temperament.

However, the term ‘temperament’ is seldom well defined; an animal’s behaviour is a reflection of its temperament. There are many types of behaviour expressed by deer and these behaviours vary according to the situations each deer faces. Generally, farmers make subjective decisions about what constitutes good or bad behaviour for individual deer during yarding, when the animals are well outside their ‘comfort zone’ in the close proximity of people.

As humans have long been a predator of deer, the close presence of people elicits in deer the classical ‘flight or fight’ response, which is a natural response in a threatening situation. Such behaviours present risks of injury to both handlers and other deer. Farmers would generally prefer deer that remain calm during yarding and ‘flow’ well through the pens.  

What is 'bad' temperament?
‘Bad’ temperament could be defined as any behaviours elicited by individual deer that pose risks to the well-being of people and the other deer. This can range from overt aggression (the “fight” response: biting, kicking, flaying, teeth grinding, charging) to severe panic/flightiness (the “flight” response: jumping, vocalising). However, it may also include behaviours that seriously slow the handling process, such as cowering or sinking to the floor, and refusing to budge.

What is 'good' temperament?
In the context of yarding, ‘good’ temperament could be defined as remaining calm and moving in a predictable manner. For many, it is represented by individuals that move freely and voluntarily through doorways and onto the weigh scales or crush without exhibiting signs of panic.

In the field, it may include flight distance behaviours, that is, the distance from approaching people that deer prefer to maintain. Obviously, a very low flight distance may not be desirable, as such animals can be hard to move down raceways (e.g. bottle reared hinds), or charge you (flight distance is zero!). A certain flight distance is, however, good as it often makes it easier to move animals, for example, down a raceway, but the distance should not be so great that the deer cower against the furtherest fence line anytime someone passes by; or panic in the pen.

Warning about stag temperament
We often see photos of people hand feeding or petting large stags in velvet.  These, however, are tamed individuals whose behaviour in this context is not necessarily an expression of  ‘good’ temperament. The behaviour of stags changes dramatically during the year due to  physiological changes that occur. Tame stags can become very dangerous. All stags can be dangerous during the rut, but tame animals may be even more dangerous due to a very low flight distance created, for example, by having become accustomed to human contact whilst being hand fed.

Assessment of temperament
Having made the decision to select or cull animals based on ‘temperament’, it then becomes necessary to define the temperament characteristics that are meaningful for the farm system. This is not just a case of sending a really nasty kicker on a one-way holiday to the works; rather, it is about setting objective criteria that apply to all individuals in the herd.

In other species, temperament testing has often been carried out using subjective scoring of animal behaviour. Subjective measures can sometimes be useful to discriminate between extremely different temperaments, or when a single observer carries out all measurements. However their subjectivity may be less useful under other circumstances. Therefore it is best to use objective measures of temperament  that are:

  • meaningful
  • practical
  • repeatable
  • reliable between observers

Culling decisions based on temperament
Sometimes it is easier to make judgement calls on culling ‘bad’ animals than it is about selecting ‘good’ animals…especially if you just received a whack to the head from a pair of flailing hooves!  There is no doubt that dangerous animals should be culled immediately. There is no place for them on the farm.

However, this is a different scenario to making longer-term rational decisions about which animals to keep for long-term breeding purposes, which is where record keeping becomes useful.

Can I breed for good temperament?
The answer to this is….probably. An animal’s temperament consists of innate (genetic) and acquired facets that are developed through experience (by training or habituation). We do not yet know how heritable the various behaviour traits are for deer. For some behaviours, the heritability is likely to be low, and thus the rate at which those behaviours will naturally evolve in the herd will be slow. Other behaviours may be more heritable, especially if they are closely linked to the evolutionary survival or reproductive fitness of the animal, in which case selective breeding for those behaviours will give a considerably higher rate of change.

It is important to understand that many of the behaviours we see in farmed deer are easily modified by learning and experiences. Can you determine whether bad behavioural traits expressed by your deer are the result of their genetics or your management? Deer behaviour is very ‘plastic’ in that it can change according to the environment in which the herd is reared. This is one reason why red deer are such a good candidate for domestication: they are able to adapt their behavioural repertoire to cope with being farmed and to the presence of humans.