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Reasons to be, or not to be, wild about venison [WFJ #62]
Wild venison is commonly considered the most sustainable meat in the country. One Somerset farm however might prove otherwise
I don't know if it’s because it conjures impressions of kings chasing deer through woodland on horseback, or a very real lack of highstreet availability, but venison has an image problem – it either ends up as dog food, or perceived as a meat for the elite.
That may change however, partly because a new pilot, using wild deer culled from woodland in the South West, is in the process of distributing venison into food banks across the country.
Though a simple concept, this could be pivotal. Namely, in supplying a fresh, nutrient-dense source of protein – especially when what’s available to food bank users is usually a disproportionate amount of carbohydrates and processed foods. But it also helps alleviate Britain’s ‘deer problem’ – due to Covid disruption, the country’s deer population is reportedly at a 1,000-year high. While deer can play a key role in certain ecosystems, the overwhelming numbers of native and invasive species (including public enemy number one, the Muntjac, introduced from China in 1838) is proving overly destructive to flora, woodland, and arable crops.
The main root of the issue is actually pretty simple: not enough people are willing to eat venison. Where the lynx, wolf, and bear would – before they were hunted to extinction in the UK – naturally keep deer numbers in check, it’s now up to humanity to at least start to undo the problem it caused and fulfil the role of the (reluctant) apex predator.
That’s why we have professionals like Robert Hawker. Robert, who’s been a deer manager for 18 years and a stalker for much more than that, is contracted to cull deer in farmland, woodland, and estates in the South West. “I shoot roe deer across the Taunton vale,” he tells The WFJ, “red deer from just round by Tiverton, and fallow deer from Haldon, by Exeter.” Robert guts, hangs, skins, cuts, packs, and then sells his kills on his own stall at The Frome Independent, as well as at Axbridge and Nailsea Somerset Farmers Markets. “It's absolutely the best example of field-to-fork you could ever have,” he says.
And he’s not wrong – venison, as a byproduct of countryside management, is probably the most sustainable meat available in the UK. But that doesn't mean all venison sold in the country is created equal. Venison in major retailers is often flown in from New Zealand, from farmed deer intensively reared on soya pellets, in overgrazed pastures, and reliant on routine use of antibiotics.
It seems strange when there’s already an excess of deer in the wild, but some farmers see domesticating deer as a more lucrative option than rearing other livestock. Plus there’s the argument wild deer might not be so perfect after all – as so much of it encroaches on arable farmland, browsing on chemically-treated crops, accrediting wild venison with organic status is close to impossible.
It’s not impossible with certain farmed venison, though. Sharpham Park, just outside Glastonbury, is one of the small handful of deer farms in the UK with organic status. Their red deer spend all year outside, and are almost entirely hay and pasture-fed, foraging on tree leaves, chestnuts, and apples, with a supplemented diet of spelt bran – a byproduct of the farm’s main crop.
With deer reintroduced to the parkland in 2006 after a period of about 300 years, owner Roger Saul and co. looked even further back – as far, even, to the middle ages – to reimagine the farm in a very pre-industrial era. “The idea,” a Sharpham rep tells The WFJ, “was not to return to medieval times, but to draw inspiration from how a farm would have operated without modern chemicals and fertilisers and with local delivery being a key element.”
Sharpham’s spelt often ends up on the shelves of local shops around the county, though their venison is acquired in a more roundabout way via Coombe Farm Organic, where a Sharpham Park venison fillet steak will ask of you £63 per kilo.
For better or worse, Robert’s fillet steaks cost about half that. Which makes you wonder – when a beef steak fillet from Tesco comes in at £35 per kilo, is it inaccurate to think all venison is priced for the ‘upper’ market?
Then there’s its taste, and not exactly an acquired one either. Good venison is actually quite delicate – not as rich as other game meats commonly are – and not dissimilar to beef, if much leaner. You might say you could do a lot worse for a meat commonly consigned to dog food.