New Zealand Light Leathers

November 2008
New Zealand Light Leathers (NZLL) was established in 1973 by a group of meat processors to tan and produce wet blue leathers using pickled lamb skin as the raw material for export to the European markets.

The business is currently owned by Argent Group Europe Ltd. Argent is UK based owned by Cinven, a Welsh Pension Fund. The business employs 70 fulltime staff and 20-30 casual staff as the season allows.

NZ Light Leathers started out with a focus on a lamb skins.

With the steady growth within the deer industry throughout the 1970s and 1980s they started looking at processing a range of deer leathers, secondary to their main operation. That kicked off in 1988.

In 2004 the business underwent a major restructure, moving away from tanning lamb pelts to specialising in red deer skins.

Lamb had become uneconomic due to cheaper labour in China. The meat processing companies sold their lamb pelts in unprocessed form to Chinese tanners who could produce finished tanned nappa leather more cheaply than NZLL could.

NZLL didnt and doesnt want this to happen to deer.

The NZ Advantage.

NZ has approximately 2 million farmed red deer, processing 500,000 per year primarily for the meat, marketed as Cervena or venison.

By way of comparison the next largest population of farmed red deer is Australia with approximately 40,000.

The USA has a feral white tail deer population. Approximately 2 million deer are killed each year and the skins are exported to China, principally for the manufacture of gloves.

The white tail deer is small in size and does not compete at the same high quality end of the international markets as NZ red deer.


NZLL is the worlds leading tanner and seller of farmed red deer finished leather with the bulk of the world supply at its back door.

NZLL supplies some very famous fashion labels with deer leather. Chairman Gary Monk says that a Hermes womens hand bag can sell on the Champs Elysees in Paris for Euro 5,000 and the content of the NZ deer skin can be as little as NZ$200.

Gary says that traditionally the value of the deerskin is not broken down when the farmer receives payment from the processor. To them theres no value. The processors sell the deer skins in various forms to NZLL or tanneries in China or Europe.

NZLL wants to try and put a stop to the skins going offshore and the value added part of the chain disappearing into another country.

The Process

The red deer hides arrive from the fellmonger as pickled skins. One of the challenges of the processing is to detect faults in the hides throughout the process and removing them before too much processing (and therefore value) is added. Detecting faults in pickled hides is extremely difficult.

Flesh or other proteins attached to hide need to be removed because they cant be tanned. Soaps, alkalis and fungicides are added to retard bacteria growth and begin breaking down the natural fats in the hides. Once this is achieved and the skins are cleared of hair the tanning process can begin.

Chrome based chemicals are the most usual component in tanning but NZLL have also developed a 100% organic tanning process that results in a finished deer nappa that is 100% organic Zambesi are very interested in this as also are Hermes.

After the tanning, the hides are graded again and put in batches for dying. The dyed leather is dried and sorted again usually thinned or cut depending on what its end use is. It is then shipped to the manufacturers all over the world.

NZLL are keen to alert NZ deer farmers to the fact that the skins are not a by-product but rather they have an intrinsic value with the potential to be marketed as a luxury natural product.

NZLL want the value captured in New Zealand. They want farmers to push the processors to ensure all the deer skins remain in New Zealand where the value can be added, rather than being exported in an unprocessed form.

By working closely with NZLL, LASRA (Leather & Shoe Research Association), FRST, farmers and the meat processors, animal husbandry techniques can be improved to ensure a higher quality skin comes off the farm, thus returning even higher values to the farmer.

NZLL believes they along with others involved in the research and development of leather - can assist in the long term sustainability of the deer industry. They say that the value of the skin can play a significant role in riding the highs and lows of the meat commodity prices paid.