Veni­son is healthy, sea­sonal and tasty, so why not try it?

Veni­son is healthy, free range, plen­ti­ful and easy to cook, so why don’t we eat more of it? Linda Duf­fin gets up early to meet the Laven­ham butch­ers on a mis­sion to get it on our plates. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Sarah Lucy Brown

EADT Suffolk - - Contents -

“Veni­son is very healthy meat, full of omega 3, low in fat, low in choles­terol and about as free range as you’re go­ing to get”

SUN­RISE is just a thin red line on the hori­zon when I clam­ber out of Greg Strolen­berg’s pick-up truck on farm­land just out­side Laven­ham.

Greg and his busi­ness part­ner, Gareth Do­herty, of Laven­ham Butch­ers, have in­vited me and Suf­folk Mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­pher Sarah Lucy Brown to come deer stalk­ing with them. They’ve split us up in the for­lorn hope that we won’t frighten off the game. Sarah is with Gareth and I’m with Greg.

It is 4 am and I’m still sleep-walk­ing, but I bor­row a bal­a­clava to cover my blonde hair and set off be­hind Greg, try­ing not to step on too many twigs, painfully aware in the pre-dawn si­lence of just how much my boots creak.

“Did you hear that?” says Greg. It’s a munt­jac in the woods we’re skirt­ing, but it sounds to me like some­one’s pet dog bark­ing. This ig­no­rance and my ut­ter lack of ob­ser­va­tional skills be­come some­thing of a theme.

“Did you see that roe­buck?” Greg whis­pers. “Nope.” Half an hour later: “Did you spot that munt­jac near the trees?” “Er, no, sorry.” I’m forced to con­clude that if I had to live off the land I’d be re­duced to gnaw­ing off my own arm.

We see plenty of ev­i­dence of deer – drop­pings, path­ways through the grass, a bean field that’s been stripped by grazing – but no antlered herds sweep­ing ma­jes­ti­cally across the hori­zon. Dawn comes up quickly and I am mes­merised by the beauty of the rolling Suf­folk coun­try­side, walk­ing through wildflower mead­ows, along wooded tracks and knee-deep in grassy fal­low land. My ro­man­ti­cism is swiftly nipped in the bud by Greg, who tells me to check my­self for ticks when I get home.

As a child I wept when Bambi’s mum was shot, but as an adult I am aware that deer num­bers need to be man­aged. I hadn’t re­alised the scale of the devastation they can wreak, though. In ad­di­tion to the dam­age to farm­ers’ crops, an outof-con­trol deer pop­u­la­tion can lit­er­ally eat it­self out of house and home, lead­ing to a dis­eased herd and the de­struc­tion of its en­vi­ron­ment.

“The wood­lands are an­cient, they have lots of re­ally rare species of flow­ers and in­sects, whose habi­tats are very frag­ile,” says Greg. “The munt­jac and other deer will browse and de­stroy all the habi­tats. You’ll have in­ver­te­brate loss, then the ro­dents start to dis­ap­pear be­cause they haven’t got the in­sects and bram­bles and berries that they need to sur­vive, so the knock-on ef­fect goes right up the chain to things like owls that rely on good hunt­ing grounds.

“Nightin­gales are ground-nest­ing birds and rely on thick cover. If the munt­jac eat them out there’s nowhere for them to nest. If the in­sects are gone there’s not many bats about any more. I’ve been in woods where it’s ster­ile, there’s noth­ing but deer liv­ing in there. Every­thing else has just left.” Munt­jac, an im­ported species, are a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. There is no closed sea­son on shoot­ing them as they breed all year round.

“The pop­u­la­tion has re­ally ex­ploded be­cause they’re al­ways preg­nant,” Greg tells me. “Ev­ery seven months a munt­jac has an­other baby. That baby will reach ma­tu­rity in seven months, it’s cov­ered by a buck, it’s mother is cov­ered again, seven months later they both give birth, so

you can see how quickly a pop­u­la­tion can get out of con­trol. There was one place where I used to shoot, they had an acre field full of rare or­chids, and once the munt­jac moved in they lost the whole field – they never saw an­other orchid. And that was typ­i­cal of an alien species mov­ing in. They’d had roe deer there and never had a prob­lem, but the munt­jac wiped the whole field out.

“In Africa you’d have wilde­beest be­ing taken by lions, there are plenty of preda­tors to keep num­bers healthy. But we don’t have that here. So our best method, at the mo­ment, is to cull the deer.”

We meet up with Gareth and Sarah to dis­cover they have spot­ted more deer than we have, but only at a dis­tance. We have been out for around four hours and are re­turn­ing to Laven­ham empty-handed. I have enjoyed the walk and the les­son in con­ser­vancy, but for Gareth and Greg this is part of their busi­ness. Greg shrugs. “This prob­a­bly hap­pens one time in four,” he says philo­soph­i­cally.

As li­censed deer stalk­ers they work in tan­dem with landown­ers to keep the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of munt­jac, roe and fal­low deer un­der con­trol. Even though they are both ex­pe­ri­enced shots and trained butch­ers, they had to pass strin­gent ex­am­i­na­tions to en­sure they would hunt re­spon­si­bly, and that the deer they cull are fit for hu­man con­sump­tion. They use .243 cal­i­bre ri­fles for lighter game, plus the big­ger cal­i­bre .308 on oc­ca­sion, and Greg will of­ten tai­lor his bul­lets by hand to en­sure greater ac­cu­racy.

Al­though they sell all the usual farmed meats in their shop Greg and Gareth spe­cialise in game, and of­fer classes where cus­tomers can learn how to skin and joint an an­i­mal. Greg also trained as a chef and en­thuses about the qual­ity of wild food.

“Veni­son is very healthy meat, full of omega 3, low in fat, low in choles­terol and about as free range as you’re go­ing to get,” he says. “Peo­ple worry that they don’t know how to cook it, but if you can fry a beef steak or cook a leg of lamb you can cook veni­son. A leg of munt­jac costs be­tween 10 and 15 quid and there’s enough to feed five or six peo­ple, it’s a lovely joint.”

They have both worked in the butch­ery busi­ness since they had Saturday jobs as schoolboys, but it’s only two years since they got to­gether to open their Laven­ham shop.

“Greg used to run a whole­salers and I man­aged Smith’s butch­ers in Need­ham Mar­ket,” says Gareth. “We used to buy from him and we got on, then one day he ‘phoned me up out of the blue and said ‘do you fancy hav­ing a go at our own shop?’ and I said ‘yeah, def­i­nitely’. Be­cause there were things we wanted to do slightly dif­fer­ently – the butch­ery cour­ses, a lot more game. So we thought we’d have a go our­selves and here we are to­day.”

They were fi­nal­ists in the Best New­comer cat­e­gory in this year’s EADT Food and Drink Awards, but the prize they scooped, un­sur­pris­ingly given the na­ture of their busi­ness, was Field to Fork.

“We were just hon­oured to get through to the fi­nals so to ac­tu­ally win a cat­e­gory was amaz­ing,” Gareth says. “It was un­real. We sat there at the awards cer­e­mony with these peo­ple who’ve done amaz­ing stuff, es­tab­lished busi­nesses, and we’re fairly new. But it’s per­fect for us, Field to Fork has been our ethos from the get-go.”

In ad­di­tion to the game they sup­ply them­selves, they are scrupu­lous about buy­ing high­er­wel­fare, lo­cally-sourced meat. Gareth says: “We go round the farms, we get to know the farm­ers, we in­spect the cat­tle, the sheep. Peo­ple want to know now where their food’s from, and we can say ‘well, if you go down the road a mile you’ll see them on the side of the road’. We don’t buy mass-pro­duced beef, it’s all the tra­di­tional breeds like the Suf­folk Red Poll, Gal­loways, Bri­tish Whites, more the her­itage breeds than the main­stream. Noth­ing im­ported. We find per­son­ally that looked af­ter well, given the right hang­ing time, the eat­ing qual­ity and flavour is sec­ond to none.”

At a time when many lo­cal butch­ers’ shops are clos­ing, they have just taken on their sec­ond premises, in Elm­swell, where they hope to du­pli­cate the suc­cess they have seen in Laven­ham. None of it would be pos­si­ble, they say, with­out the sup­port of their wives and the team they have built up.

“There’s a short­age of butch­ers,” says Gareth over a cup of cof­fee and a hot sausage roll. “We’ve got an ap­pren­tice here in Laven­ham be­cause it’s good to bring young­sters into the busi­ness. We’re look­ing to take an ap­pren­tice on at the new shop as well. We’re try­ing to bring peo­ple into the busi­ness and keep it all go­ing be­cause at the mo­ment there’s a real short­fall of skilled labour.”

And with that, they clean up, put on their butch­ers’ over­alls and get be­hind the counter to be­gin a full day’s work in the shop. I went home for a nap.

High Street, Laven­ham, CO10 9PX T: 01787 247226 www.laven­ham­butch­ers.com/

"In ad­di­tion to the dam­age to farm­ers' crops, an out-of-con­trol deer pop­u­la­tion can lit­er­ally eat it­self out of house and home, lead­ing to a dis­eased herd and the de­struc­tion of its en­vi­ron­ment'

Gareth Do­herty and Greg Strolen­berg in the field and, be­low, out­side their Laven­ham shop

Gareth and Greg shoot deer, pre­pare it for cus­tomers and run cour­ses in butcher­ing veni­son

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