Going Wild for Venison

A recent article by Wendell Berry observed what happens when farming responds to market forces rather than working with nature to produce what the land wants.  Here’s another example: despite the fact that large parts of the UK are over-run with wild deer, which are causing great damage to woods and farmland such that their numbers need actively to be managed, in 2010 the UK imported 1000 tonnes of farmed venison, mainly from New Zealand.

The website of the Scottish Venison Partnership is trying to persuade more British farmers to rear deer to make up this shortfall, commenting that “Nowadays there are enough farmed deer to provide breeding stock for UK farms without recruiting from wild stock, and Scotland’s deer farmers, instead of trying to be store calf producers, breeding stock producers and finishers all at once have now become specialised, with store calf producers in the uplands, and finishers on the low ground on the better pastures, just like other livestock industries”.

Far better of course, that we rear all we need in this country rather than importing, but why isn’t the nuisance wild venison making up this shortfall?

The ability to supply in quantity is of course always an issue with supermarkets, and it requires organisation on a fairly large scale to achieve this.  A consistent product is another supermarket requirement, and one that doesn’t sit easily with wild food.  The following quote from the Scottish Venison Partnership gives these benefits for farmed deer:

“Prime farmed venison comes from deer of less than 27 months, this cut-off age being because the meat (especially from males) becomes progressively tougher after that. Older cull deer are used for manufacturing to ensure the consistent quality of farmed venison. Farmed deer are slaughtered and processed under the more stringent regulations for red meat. The main difference between farmed deer and other livestock is that it is permissible to shoot deer as they graze in the field, rather than transport them to an abattoir, though a small proportion of Scottish farmed deer do go through a specially designated abattoir. Most farmed venison sold in Scotland has been field-shot.”

So it is heartening to see that this year Marks and Spencer has launched a range of game, including wild venison, supplied by processors Yorkshire Game who in turn obtain their supplies from shooting estates on either side of the Scottish border.  A quote from a spokesperson for M&S explains their reasons for making the effort to stock wild game:

“As it is sourced from the wild, game develops stronger muscles than farmed meat and poultry giving the meat a firmer texture and a distinctive taste, derived from the land they live on.  They have a lean, virtually fat free meat, making game a healthier alternative to other meats such as beef.  The new range will be hung for two days to ensure that the flavour, whilst distinctive, remains mild enough for customers to enjoy.”

Whilst wild venison is likely to be more flavoursome, having had a more varied diet and active lifestyle than most farmed, this will also make it more variable. Understanding these variations and how to handle the carcase once shot, will make the difference between whether wild venison lives up to its full potential or delivers an experience that puts consumers off for life.

Much of what I have written previously about game in general relates equally to wild venison, but in the expectation that readers of this website will not want to buy from supermarkets but instead make the effort to understand how to source wild venison from independent suppliers, this article develops the subject.

Species of Wild Deer

There are now six species of deer living wild in the UK: Red, Roe, Fallow, Sika, Muntjac and the Chinese Water Deer. Of these the first two are native to Great Britain and are the most common, followed by Fallow deer, which are favoured in Parkland. Red and Fallow deer are the only ones that are farmed. There is some dispute as to when exactly Fallow deer were first introduced into the UK, the Normans definitely brought them here in the 10th century, but some believe that there had been an earlier introduction, with the Romans.  Whichever is the case, they have been here a lot longer than the other three species, which are all comparatively new escapees from deer introduced into captivity in the late 19th century/early 20th century.

As to which species predominates, and is controlled as a pest, it rather depends on where in the UK you live.

Sika deer, introduced to the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire and Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1896, have spread as far as Scotland where they are now cross-breeding with our native Red Deer.  It is possible that there are already no pure-bred native Red Deer in Scotland.  Meanwhile Muntjac, which escaped from Woburn Park in the late 19th/20th century, has become the most widely distributed of all the deer species living in the UK.  They are quite unfazed by humans and so can be found in urban areas or beside busy motorways as well as quieter rural habitats.  They are particularly destructive in forests, deliberately trampling young saplings and delighting in eating our native bluebells, primroses and orchids.

The last of the escapee group is the Chinese Water Deer, the smallest and least widely spread of the six varieties found in the UK.  Like Muntjac, these also were initially introduced to the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn and from there some were given to Whipsnade Zoo.  They are still found relatively local to these two sites but have also spread east through the fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire to Norfolk.  These wetlands are closest to their native habitat.

Taste Characteristics

The first of the variables that those eating wild deer will need to understand are the characteristics of the different species.  There is actually precious little written on the subject, even for the three species that have existed in the UK for a long time, but of the three more recent incomers even less.

The species I eat most of is Roe, it is the most prolific where live and luckily also considered by many to be the finest flavoured of the lot.  On French menus it is always referred to specifically as Chevreuil rather than the generic Venaison and I hope that the practice of naming the species, whichever it is, will catch on here so that people can begin to appreciate their different characteristics.  Chef Mike Robinson, owner of the Pot Kiln in Berkshire, is himself a keen shooter and specialises in game.  He recently founded Harwood Game to sell direct to the public on-line.  The website makes the following observations about the different species of venison:

Muntjac Eating qualities are amazing, they are a bit like lamb, with firm meat that is very fine in grain. CWDDelicious eating, with a thick layer of fat over their backs. More like lamb than venison. Roe – Eating qualities are really excellent, with the Roe Deer being considered the Rolls Royce of venison. Soft, mild, tender meat that is very easy to cook. The Fallow is the deer I stalk and cook most often. From a chef’s point of view, the meat is brilliant – grainy, not too strong and yields very well. If I had to choose one species only to shoot and cook, this would be it. Sika meat is nothing short of amazing. I think it is probably the best, but that is my personal view. The meat is firm, dark and delicious. Red DeerThe meat is very dark and can be delicious, so long as it is not hung for too long. This is the most prolific source of venison in the UK, and the meat you are most likely to find in the supermarket. It is also the species that is most often farmed.

I conducted my own tasting of 4 of the 6 UK varieties (Sika and Roe excluded).  They were tasted by 7 people and these were our thoughts:

Chinese Water Deer: The smallest and thus the fillets were awkwardly shaped small triangles, two were tied together to roughly equate to each of the other fillets.  It had the least flavour.

Muntjac: This had the strongest flavour, reminiscent of beef or mutton.

Fallow: This was everyone’s favourite (7 tasters), very tender (verging on pappy – could be cut with a fork) delicately flavoured, remained very pink.

Red Deer: The second favourite.  Well flavoured – not strong like the Muntjac but good recognisable venison flavour.  Tender and cooked quite rare.

Interestingly our findings do not accord with the taste guide given on the website of Wild Venison, who supplied the venison for my tasting, especially with regard to Muntjac.    They classify Muntjac as the least strongly flavoured of the four varieties, which they placed in the following order, starting with the strongest: Red Deer, Fallow, Roe and Muntjac.  In The Game Cookbook Clarissa Dickson-Wright highlights the diverse views on Muntjac noting “There are some who swear that it is their favourite of the deer tribe and some, myself included, who feel it is much ado about nothing”.  Whilst not necessarily agreeing with their findings, I do applaud Wild Venison’s attempt to categorise the species by taste and so recommend you read their findings in addition to those above.

Practical Considerations

In addition to understanding the taste characteristics of the different varieties there are practical differences to consider.

Season

The first is what is in season.  Apart from Muntjac, which has no closed season, the rest depend on sex, species and location – Scotland’s season are different from the rest of the UK.  These varying closed seasons do mean that one or other species should be available somewhere in the UK at any time, although you will probably want to buy venison when it is available near you.  The British Association of Shooting and Conservation has a table of the shooting seasons on their website.

The female of each species is usually more tender than the male, especially noticeable as the animal gets older, and the condition of the deer will be better in the autumn, after a good summer’s grazing, than in the spring after a hard winter.

Size

The next practical consideration is the size.  Roe deer kill out at around 25lb, making it feasible to buy whole and providing joints of a good useable size for most households.  Red deer by comparison can weigh up to 200lb, whilst in the smaller species, Chinese Water Deer and Muntjac, cuts such as the popular strip loin can be too small to cook evenly.

Hanging

Of course tastes vary, but the tendency seems to be to hang venison for the shortest possible time in order to avoid the flavour being too strong.  The hanging time should be proportionate with the size of the beast, although the largest, Red Deer, is one that some people find too strong in flavour if hung for long.  For my own taste, I like my Roe Deer to be hung for a week for perfect tenderness and optimum flavour.  This does however need to be at a cool temperature.  Deer shot by a recreational stalker who does not have a game larder in which to hang them are the cause of a large proportion of the bad experiences people have had of game.  In the cold conditions a garage will suffice as a game larder, but if the weather is warm and/or humid it takes only a couple of days for the meat to spoil.

Where to buy

The subject of hanging brings me to the important decision of where to buy your game.  As mentioned above, lack of appropriate storage conditions is the single most frequent reason why I decline to buy from some recreational stalkers.  That said, I do still buy most of my venison direct from such individuals, you just need to be confident that they know what they are doing.  The shooting community has taken steps to ensure that those who shoot deer do so in a safe and professional manner.  There are many places that provide training with the most widely supported certification being the Deer Management Qualification.  Currently 17,896 people have completed Level 1 of this qualification, which covers species identification and deer ecology, shooting skills and Large Game Meat Hygiene.  The Level 2 qualification can be obtained by submitting evidence of this in practice and has been completed by 3913 people.

Cooking

The cooking method will depend on the cut, with the saddle being the prime cut, suitable for roasting, frying and grilling.  The haunch (rear leg) makes an excellent roast whilst the shoulder (front legs) and neck are best casseroled.

There is very little fat on venison (apart from Chinese Water Deer, which have a thick layer of back fat) so additional fat is often needed to prevent the meat drying out.

For more cooking information see Recipes.

Related articles: http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/11/good-game

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One Response to Going Wild for Venison

  1. Rob says:

    Hi,

    I bought a farm a couple of years back as a step towards self-sufficiency. It is a hill farm in Shropshire and has been managed as hill pasture. The grassland is classified as “MG5 – unimproved natural pasture” and has been grazed by sheep in the winter and cut for hay in the summer for a long time now.

    I would like to introduce a few deer for farming for my own food production (at first) and see how that goes. What species of deer would be most suitable to hill pasture with some tree cover and natural water sources? Where would I be able to buy stock?

    My plan would be to let them roam free over 55 acres of land as the perimeter fencing is stock-proof.

    What would you recommend?

    Regards,

    Rob

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