Things I Am Interested In…British Venison

JaneAs a bit of a foodie (and fresh out of the vegetarian world after many years…) who restricts meat in-take to free range and the likes – so, someone who doesn’t eat meat very often due to the cost, I have been eating more venison lately as local National Trust estates and butchers are selling local deer – which is delicious. If you can get your hands on some venison sausages (if you are anywhere near Bridgnorth try Keith Alderson’s) and a shameless plug for Delia’s venison sausages braised in red wine – they are always a hit, even friends children are getting over their initial “Bambi” alarm to tuck into seconds…

I am not alone in my new found love of venison… according to the consumer panel Kantar Worldpanel – In the UK last year, retail sales of venison increased by 413, from £1.2m to £6.4m. Total UK venison sales (including imports) rose from £32m in 2006 to £43m in 2009. The UK retail market for venison is quoted as growing at between 10 and 25% per annum.. These figure doesn’t take into account meat that was sold directly by butchers, restaurants, hotels and catering trade, farmers markets, ‘farm gate’ and mail order sales, so I am sure it is a pretty safe bet that the figure is even higher.

Why I wonder has there suddenly been this change of view of a meat that was once thought of as a luxury product, rather “Monarch of the Glen’ish”? Lack of trust in the meat industry post the horse meat scandal? Our ever expanding waist lines and quest for a leaner alternative – Venison has been reported to have more protein than any other red meat, which means that it helps sate the appetite, which if you have ever been on low calorie diet is a very welcome thing! For me it touches on a few of these – the farming practices, or the meat is wild, the meat tastes great and is very lean, so I can, without guilt, try out many deliciously rich sauces.. Recipe plug No 2 & 3: James Martin’s stroganoff sauce; or Sara Buenfeld’s blackberry sauce, this surely counts as one of your 5 a day?

In response to demand supermarkets have also increased their ranges – although I was annoyed to see that a highland branded, tartan n’all, venison sold in one large supermarket was actually imported from New Zealand. According to the Deer Management Association, to cope with this ever-increasing demand, UK suppliers are importing venison from New Zealand, Poland, Ireland and Spain. In 2013 the equivalent of 29,000 carcases or around 1300 tonnes were imported to the UK from New Zealand alone. It seems to me that we are missing a trick here and losing out on the market, especially as the Forestry Commission has said that there is a real requirement to cull deer across the UK, which is further discussed in the DEFRA Deer Initiative. Wild deer populations have grown consistently over the last decade to the extent they now endanger habitats and property in some regions due to over grazing. The rising numbers have also led to deer related traffic collisions increasing to some 50,000 per annum.

In an article published by The Scotsman this time last year deer culling on Forestry Commission Scotland land – and the subsequent sale of venison – had earned the Government agency almost £5 million in the last four years. Around 30,000 deer are shot on national forestry estate land each year in order to prevent overpopulation and to protect the 85 million young trees growing. A large proportion are sold on to meat dealers from the culls and the price of venison has increased by 50 per cent in three years. The cull at Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) property in 2013 brought in £1.52 million compared to £991,000 in 2009.

There are six deer species resident in the UK of which two are indigenous; the Red and Roe. The Fallow deer is thought to have been brought to Britain during the Norman Conquest whilst the remaining three are Asiatic species introduced over the last 150 years; the Chinese Water Deer, Reeves Muntjac (referred to simply as Muntjac) and Sika. The populations are spread across the British Isles with larger concentrations typically found within National parks and nature reserves such as Dartmoor and Exmoor. National populations are estimated as follows; Roe (500k), Red (350k+), Muntjac (150k+), Fallow (150k+), Sika (35k) and the Chinese Water Deer (10k). This includes Wild and Farmed deer. Whilst deer farming is a large business across Europe, the UK is relatively new to the idea with just a few farms springing up since 2012, in response to increased demand.

So we have deer, and we have an increasing appetite for venison but there are still barriers to getting the meat into the supply chain. There are not enough game larders; are there enough qualified deer stalkers who can, as humanely as possible, cull the deer?; supermarkets are notoriously reticent to work with small suppliers and prefer the consistency of farmed animal as opposed to wild – now maybe I am being naive –but if we already have many wild deer that need to be culled and that are already being culled, why would we focus purely on farmed venison at this stage – the thought of culled venison meat going to waste appals me.

Why am I wittering on about UK venison – mainly because I would like to try and work out how more of it can get into the supply chain? This also links to another subject I am very interested in – undermanaged woodlands in the UK, maintaining biodiversity the potential of managed wood extraction for biomass heating, I must emphasise here there is a lot of scrubby brash out there, so we are not just talking quality timber which could be put to better use than burning it… have a look at the Combine Project & Grown in Britain Campaign. I will avoid a rant about French Oak being imported as it is cheaper and easier to source than UK Oak….

I appreciate there are many reasons that small woodlands are not managed; the misperception that managing it will damage the ecology and biodiversity – the opposite being the case; maintaining cover for pheasants; the thought of getting involved in felling licences, and cross compliance issues….and until now the financial returns – the low value of wood meant it was not financially feasible to put the infrastructure in place to extract the wood and get it to point of sale. However, this is rapidly changing as the UK biomass market is expanding thanks in part (and a large part…) to the Renewable Heat Incentive. Extracting, selling and drying wood can now potentially be a financially rewarding diversification, in many cases helping with the sustainability of existing farm activities.

As a consultancy we are increasingly working with farmers and landowners, some looking to use Biomass to heat poultry sheds, others looking at how they can diversify from the existing farming practices and generate an additional income. As always we are very happy to discuss ideas and look at the feasibility of projects, whether you want to find out about woodland grants, the potential of the wood market and supply chain, or If you have a some woodland that you are considering managing have deer problems – we work with a great Forester/Woodland Manager – Jon Terry (not to be confused, I may be wrong, but I don’t think he is very good at football).

I am also very interested to hear of any ideas on increasing UK venison into the supply chain, and of course any tried and tested recipes….

Blog post by Jane Yardley

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