In 2012 I wrote here about the irony that despite large parts of the country being over-run by wild deer, we were importing 1000 tonnes of farmed venison from New Zealand every year. The situation has continued to deteriorate since then, with the wild deer population in the UK now estimated to be over 2 million, the highest it has been for 1000 years.
Why is this a problem? Top of the list is the impact on trees. With more emphasis than ever on the need to plant trees to help control climate change it is imperative that our efforts are not hampered by deer. Deer numbers also need to be kept in check for the health of the herd. When their numbers outstrip the amount of food that is available to them in the wild, they turn to farmers fields, gardens, and allotments. It is estimated there are up to 74,000 deer-related traffic accidents each year in Britain, and Highways England believes 400 motorists are injured in deer-related accidents every year. Unless you have been directly impacted by one of these problems it can be easy to underestimate just how many wild deer are hiding in our woods. Even though I see a few during my walks with my dogs, on an occasion when I flew over the same woods in a hot air balloon, I was astounded by just how many we disturbed.
However, wild deer should not be seen merely as a pest but as a valuable source of delicious and healthy lean meat. A market for wild deer meat is vital for hunters and, with the aim of strengthening this, The Wild Venison Working Group was recently set up. The group is chaired by The Forestry Commission and involves stakeholders from woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping and venison suppliers. I have been trying to understand the issues they face in finding a market for wild deer meat and the Food Culture in the UK is one.
Although the number of wild deer is increasing across most of Europe, the rate of increase is kept in check by up to half being harvested by stalkers each year. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe hunting is very much a part of their food culture and people retain the traditional knowledge of the appropriate cooking methods required by different varieties, ages, and cuts of wild deer. In the UK, 50% of venison is purchased from a supermarket, and they will not sell wild deer because of their inconsistencies particularly regarding carcase conformity. The majority of the farmed deer sold in supermarkets will come from the Red Deer species, which will have been reared in a confined environment, with rotational grazing supplemented by pellet feed, sileage or other crops, especially in the winter. They may be housed in the winter and the calves are usually weaned. It takes about 15 months for them to reach the desired carcase weight of 60 kg, although with more intensive feeding this can be achieved sooner. As with the rearing of other animals, practices vary in their degree of intensity – the UK has 7 deer farms certified organic, however, the lives of all farmed deer differ considerably from one that has existed entirely in the wild.
To meet the supermarket demand for farmed venison, The Scottish Venison Association has for years been trying to encourage farmers south of the border to take up deer farming with them supplying the starting stock. Ironically, there are no native deer in New Zealand, so most of their breeding stock came from Scotland but the number of farms soon overtook those in Scotland. The Scottish government recently paid for detailed market research to assist the Scottish Venison Association. The research covered the whole of the UK and showed that the home market for venison increased by almost 11% in 2019. The retail market is dominated by two brands accounting for 59% of sales – Highland Game and Waitrose. Almost 50% of venison is bought in supermarkets, of which a third is sold by Waitrose and is mainly imported from New Zealand. However, Sainsbury’s (13%), Morrisons (10.7%), and most recently Tesco, all sell venison farmed in the UK “when available”. Most of this is supplied by Highland Game.
A somewhat halfway house between farmed and wild are Parkland Deer. Keeping a herd of Fallow Deer on your estate became de rigour for large properties, you will find them still on many estates managed by the National Trust as well as larger private houses. Red Deer are also kept in some larger public parks, Richmond being the most famous example. Parkland Deer are classified by DEFRA as wild and so can only be culled during their official hunting season. The herd will be enclosed but the parkland should provide them with a similar habitat to that which they would choose in the wild, i.e. a mix of pasture and woodland. However, unlike wild deer, which will have to rely entirely on what they can forage, the diet of parkland deer is usually supplemented during the winter and they may even be provided with some shelter. The supplemental feed may just be sileage and fodder crops grown on the estate, but it could also be in pellets form. The sight of a parkland deer keeper tipping out a bag of feed is such a long way from what I consider to be wild game that I would quibble with the DEFRA designation, even though it is intended to afford the protection of regulated culling seasons. “Wild” venison from parklands is however particularly popular with the restaurant trade as it provides them with a consistent product. I recognise that it is better they buy this than imported farmed venison, but it doesn’t do much to help the control of truly wild deer.
Truly Wild Deer
The term venison was originally applied to any furred game, including hare, although now it is used only for the meat of deer, which still encompasses many different beasts worldwide. The characteristics and flavour profile vary considerably depending on breed and diet.
Red Deer and Roe Deer are both native to the UK and Fallow have been with us since at least Norman times if not since the Romans. The rest (Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer) are escapees from zoos or wildlife parks and are more of a problem in some parts of the country than others. Chinese Water Deer, for example, are found predominantly in the east of the country, the wetlands of the fens being the closest to their natural habitat.
Wild Red Deer are most closely associated with the highlands of Scotland where their diet will consist largely of heather and berries, but Red Deer are also farmed in the lowlands, where they are more likely to be fed on barley. So, diet as well as breed will have a significant impact on flavour.
The taste most often disliked in wild venison is usually described as gamey or livery. Yet some species are more often likened to lamb (or mutton) and beef. This is particularly so for Muntjac, but opinion is definitely split over whether this is preferable to the more gamey taste of Roe or Red deer.
The texture of wild deer is also much firmer than in farmed or parkland, their muscles developed because they travel over a much wider area to obtain food. Roe, which is never farmed or managed, has a close-grained texture; whilst fallow deer, usually from parklands, is very soft, some might even describe it as “pappy”. Its flavour is mild making it an ideal beginners venison.
Red deer have the strongest flavour; they have interbred with Sika deer to such an extent that there may no longer be pure native Red Deer in Scotland, but in any event the flavour of Sika is usually on the strong side.
Chinese Water Deer, unlike most deer which are very lean, have a thick layer of fat across their backs, which prevents them drying when cooked but could also be a factor in them often being likened to lamb. They are small animals so their cooking needs to be adjusted for this too.
It is really high time that we stopped referring to venison generically when their characteristics can be so different. Roe deer, highly rated in France, are always specified as Chevreuil. In Sweden Roe, Reindeer and Elk are always specifically named although a generic Hjort is used to cover “other” deer. It amazes me that sellers, particularly online, tell you that they manage herds of both red and fallow deer but then fail to tell you which you are buying! Each seller is, naturally, convinced that their venison is best but if a consumer has had a bad experience with venison once they will often write the whole thing off when all they need to learn is their own taste preference.
From field to table
Talking of bad experiences, these can often be the fault of an amateur stalker who doesn’t have the right facilities to process the carcase. Whilst the problem of poaching still exists, most legitimate stalkers are actually very well versed in all aspects of deer handling, thanks to qualification through the British Deer Society.
The size of a deer carcase brings its own challenges. A red deer stag could weigh up to 190 kilos, although the hinds (females are usually smaller and lighter than males) come in at between 60 and 120 kilos. A fallow deer will be about half the size and a roe about half again. The stalker will need a refrigerator large enough to hang the carcase otherwise the meat may spoil; and the skill, space, and equipment to butcher the beast into manageable joints. They will usually want the customer to take the entire carcase although if they have a sales outlet (such as a farm shop or stall at a farmers’ market) they will be able to sell individual cuts. As with many other foods nowadays, the onus is often on the seller to do much of the preparation and cooking too. To overcome a lack of cooking ability it is considered necessary to present game in an easily recognisable, non-challenging format, like sausages and burgers, or sell ready cooked pies and meals that just need heating. These actions help sell venison, but don’t address the long term lack of knowledge about the meat and how to cook it.
Market Research for Scottish Venison Association:
Waitrose Deer Policy:
A presentation by John Gregson of Waitrose to the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust was primarily intended to explain their ban on lead shot game. The lead shot issue is not really in dispute, the various shooting associations having all committed to phasing this out over the next five years and work on alternatives is coming on apace. The presentation does, however, share a lot of Waitrose’s thinking on satisfying the Millennial market, on which they are clearly focussed.
Deer Management Training:
The British Deer Society organises courses for those managing and stalking wild deer. You will also find information, including open seasons, for the species found in the UK on this website.
Deer Farming in the UK
Insight provided by a vet.
Species Tasting Guides:
What information exists mainly comes from the shooting community and you will see from the results of the tasting I conducted for my previous article that opinions vary. The more this is discussed the better!
Bluebell Woods Wild Venison (Norfolk) https://wildvenison.co.uk/species_taste_guide.php
My cookery tips: