Substantiating what happens to all the game shot is nigh on impossible, as the records are so fragmented, but my personal experience suggests that this particular objective has been met, and according to a survey by Mintel in 2008, UK game sales have increased by 64% since 2001.
So where does game fit, as regards both sustainability and good eating? To answer this I think we first have to consider the variables that exist under the heading of Game.
Firstly there is truly wild game, some of which is a pest for farmers, such as rabbits and pigeon. In Argentina, where a much greater gap between rich and poor exists than in the UK, organised shooting holidays help keep these pests under control and at the same time provide a daily meal for as many as 1500 underprivileged children. Don’t let this mislead you into thinking that there is anything substandard about the game as food – it is also served to the paying shooters who eat to a wonderfully high standard throughout their holiday.
Within the wild game/pest category in the UK is venison and although many food writers will tell you that farmed venison is better, I’m certainly not one of those. But then I’m used to the full flavour of game, and perhaps wild venison is not the best place to introduce someone to game – for that I would probably choose the mild tasting partridge. Another possible reason for preferring farmed venison could be that they have eaten wild that has been inexpertly shot, hung or butchered. Those who have not reared meat for the table, whose livelihoods may not depend on repeat orders, may not have the facilities, nor pay the care and attention that these matters require. This is also a potential problem in reared game, for it is reared not with the consumer in mind but the shooter. Since the beginning of 2006 rules to meet an EU directive on food safety have required that any game supplied to a game dealer approved by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) must comply with certain rules for meat handling. Whilst stemming from a concern for food safety, game is in fact one of the safest meats you could eat as according to the FSA there has never been a case of food poisoning either directly or indirectly attributed to any form of game. Nonetheless, whilst food safety is not the concern, if you don’t know and trust the abilities of those supplying your game, buying from a registered game dealer provides some assurance of quality, but note – only some. My experience has been that many game dealers, and not just the large ones, actively prefer to purchase game that has been hung for only a minimal period, believing that this will extend its shelf life. A very unwelcome development, from a taste perspective, was the inclusion within the shooting fraternity’s Code of Good Shooting Practice of the suggestion that shoots should provide their “guns” (shooters) with an oven ready brace at the end of a day’s shooting. I understand that this was all part of the measures taken to ensure that all game shot was eaten – thus transferring the onus for preparing game from the shooter to the shoots, but I will always ask for my game in the feather. Some quarter of a century ago, when I first learnt to cook game, I was shown how to tell the age and condition of a bird in the feather, decided how long I preferred them to hang, and finally plucked and dressed them with care. When people of a similar age tell me that game doesn’t taste like it used to, I don’t think it is just in their imagination or faded taste buds. Sadly the traditional skills of preparing game are now practised by only a few.
So how do you go about acquiring game that “tastes like it used to”? Direct from the shoot is often the best way because then you can select a shoot on the basis of its management practices. The best breed their own birds rather than transporting young poults, and concentrate on creating a naturally attractive environment rather than being heavy-handed with the feed to keep their birds. This answers the part of my original question that asked about the sustainability of game. As with other farming, there are sustainable shoots and those whose methods I would not describe as such. A sustainable shoot would work either in partnership with other food production on the land or, as is often the case, make viable land that would not be suitable for farming. Some of the best shooting is to be had over deep wooded valleys or on moorland that would revert to scrub were it not managed for shooting. I have explained many times to those not familiar with shooting why its main representative body is called the British Association of Shooting and Conservation and how these two aspects are, or should be, entirely complementary.
Having found a shoot that meets these criteria, those that are prepared to do the hanging, plucking and dressing themselves might even not have to pay for the game. Typically it will cost a shoot around £4 to present each shooter with an oven ready brace, whilst foreign buyers will pay them £1.50 to take the birds in the feather. The cost of rearing game is paid for by the shooter making it the best value meat you can buy. Shooters will pay far more to shoot game than most people would to eat such free range meat, so that where a farmer can incorporate a shoot within his other farming activities it can make the whole operation viable. If you want the hanging, plucking and dressing done for you, you will need to look to the larger shoots that can afford to have their own cold storage and preparation facilities. Don’t forget though to check that their hanging times and preparation methods are also up to the mark.
Having so far discussed both reared and wild game, a few more words are required for a sort of hybrid category. Some wild game is actively managed to provide shooting. Grouse is one example, and in this instance it is usually a shining example of how shooting helps conservation. Duck are another matter. These are not in the “pest” category, could be encouraged to the benefit of wild life, but sadly are often fed to an extent that they are semi tame. Ducks are greedy birds, and there is a world of difference between eating one whose diet has been obtained through natural forage (and the exercise involved in this) and one that never moves from the same pond being fed corn regularly.
So, as with all other food, the consumer has a lot to investigate when buying game. But the best is fantastic value, extremely healthy, wonderfully tasty and, I believe, has a role to play in feeding our nation. Once you have such a source, what the shooting campaigners really need to do to win converts is spend time and care on preparing it for eating. In their efforts to make it attractive to the masses, I think this point is often missed. For example, sausages may be reassuringly familiar in their presentation but game, with its low fat content, does not make the best sausages, nor sausages make the best of game. I think it is hard to beat a bird roasted on the bone with all the traditional trimmings to really appreciate their flavour and for my tips on achieving this see this month’s seasonal recipes.
(This Article was first published in November 2010, updated November 2019)