WE NEED TO UP OUR GAME
Game shooting has never been more popular. More and more people are participating at every level. And that’s a good thing. But that means more and more game has to be collected at the end of the day, processed and sold after the guns have been cleaned and
Anecdotal evidence from chats with local butchers suggests that sales of game meat are growing steadily. The enthusiasm of TV chefs and notable restaurateurs has encouraged many of those unfamiliar with it to try game and to enjoy it. Many of these new consumers, however, prefer to buy their birds processed into breast fillets or even diced for casseroles and would recoil from anything which was recognisably once feathered and flying.
The Countryside Alliance suggests that sales of game are increasing by some seven per cent year-on-year; but game shooting is growing by 10 per cent; and that difference is basically where the surplus of game meat is coming from.
A considerable portion of this has been routinely sold into Continental markets by British game dealers. However, the most enterprising of our commercial shoots now export their birds in the feather to European processors which competes directly with the game dealers who used to service this market, thus paring already thin margins still further. Consumption abroad has been adversely affected by a variety of factors, not the least of which has been the recent terrorist attacks which have deterred some diners from eating out as often as they once did.
Meanwhile, the volumes of birds raised and shot continue to grow. That means a lot more birds are expected in larders during the forthcoming season. And that’s a problem. For if, as a community, game shooters cannot assert with complete confidence that the game in the bag at the end of the day will be eaten and enjoyed then we are all lost.
It is not an insuperable problem by any means. The numbers may seem daunting but as a nation we consume between two and three million chickens every day. If we could snag a tiny fraction of the Sunday lunch market we would be halfway home. So let’s not panic.
Innovative solutions to the issue
What then can we do to make sure that the game we shoot is ethically disposed of? Well, we can always eat more. We can take two brace home instead of one. There has been a deal of debate – not least in these pages – as to whether shoots should offer dressed birds rather than a brace in the feather at the end of the day. Well, for my part I will take dressed birds every time. A professional with a plucking machine can do a better job in a minute than I can in an hour and a smart bird looks better on the table than my slightly squiffy version ever will.
And an oven-ready bird is a welcome gift while feathered birds are a trial. I know a handful of households who will enjoy a brace of dressed birds regularly throughout
“If we could snag a tiny fraction of the Sunday lunch market we would be halfway home.”
the season. So if I can take several brace a day home with me – on Styrofoam trays and in a carrier bag – I will. And so could you. If you thought about it. And you should. And that’s another couple of million or so taken care of.
Someone who has been giving a great deal of thought to the potential of game meat is Tim Woodward. As chief executive of The Country Food Trust he is committed to using game meat as a means of alleviating food poverty across the country by supplying up to 1m meals to those who, for many and varied reasons, are unable routinely to access proper nourishment. He has identified game meat as a ready source of the necessary protein. Donors to the trust can contribute birds together with a donation to cover processing them into the Country Casserole and the soon to be launched Country Curry. He has been vigorously drumming up support these past several months and has recruited a number of high profile patrons and donors as well as a lot of media coverage – mostly positive.
Which is all good; but even a million meals – in due course
– will only consume half that number of birds. What is important about The Country Food Trust’s initiative is that it demonstrates what can be done by taking the utilisation of game meat in an entirely new direction. Not only that but what Tim Woodward has done is to overturn widely held misconceptions about the product; rebut many of the arguments against its use and to overcome the manifold hurdles concerning its preparation by achieving Food Standards Agency levels of quality assurance for all but the most susceptible consumer groups. Enterprise, innovation and energy. Not a bad recipe, I think you’ll agree.
Someone else who has been thinking a good deal recently about this is Wayne Tuffin who manages a wishlist of famous shoots across Shropshire, North Wales and beyond through Wayne Tuffin Game Services.
When he learned, scarcely a month before the start of the shooting season, that Mid Shires Foods Ltd., the dealer which had taken his birds for many seasons past, was closing down, he quickly realised that he was facing a major problem. As would most of the slew of other shoots - large and small - across the West Midlands and North West who had been serviced by Mid Shires Foods.
Being another dynamic entrepreneur Wayne quickly put together a business plan and recruited most of the other shoots as stakeholders in a new co-operative venture which will keep the doors open and which will continue to process and to sell their game. The business model has changed, however. Shoots will contribute to the cost of processing their birds in order to ensure that the prepared product will be competitive in the retail market. There may or may not be future dividends for investors but the immediate and important benefit is that the participating shoots – and not a few individual shooters who have rallied round as well – can state with confidence that their birds are being properly and professionally processed and commercially distributed. And that is worth a great deal more than a handful of pounds.
I would not be surprised to see this revised business model emerge elsewhere. Shoots – and guns – will, I suspect, be strongly resistant to the idea of paying to have their birds collected and processed, despite
“Game shooting is now a £2bn a year industry and every penny of that starts off in the guns’ wallets. We buy the right to shoot.”
the fact that the sums they have been getting for their birds have been derisory for years.
The question, it seems to me, is whether we choose to characterise this additional outlay as a necessary processing cost – dull, boring, more expense even though it is, at perhaps £1 a bird, no great shakes when you consider what you are already paying to shoot – or whether we prefer to treat it as a contribution to a wider campaign to promote the consumption of game generally so that we can all continue to undertake the sport we enjoy without compromising its integrity as an ethical food source. Which brings us, perhaps, to the role that should be undertaken by the organisations supporting our sport, these being BASC and the Countryside Alliance. I am leaving out the GWCT at this point because they are a research group, though if they want to rally round, so much the better.
Both BASC and the Countryside Alliance have game promotional programmes being Taste of Game and Game to Eat, and both work tirelessly to promote game as a free range, high-protein, low-fat, delicious, natural and national resource; and the fact that game consumption is growing at the rate it is testifies to their success. Credit where credit’s due.
Both organisations would welcome the establishment of some form of game marketing body but neither, I think it is fair to say, sees it as sitting easily within their remit.
Liam Stokes, the Countryside Alliance’s head of shooting suggests that to raise the necessary funding for such a function would just be another levy imposed on shooters from an external organisation, with all the associated issues of collection and distribution.
The impetus, therefore, to resolve the issue of unsold game needs to come from within the game shooting community. It is a game shooting issue and game shooting can – and should – resolve it.
But game shooters will argue about this responsibility.
Little shoots take all their game home and blame the bigger shoots. The bigger shoots blame the bigger still shoots for undermining the game dealers’ markets by dealing directly with processors, and the biggest shoots blame the smaller estates for not being better organised and more commercially minded.
Well, here’s the kicker, girls and boys, it’s everybody’s problem: top to bottom and side to side. We stand or fall on this one together. Whoever drops the first crisp packet in a pristine wilderness ruins it for everyone, for ever.
So here’s the deal. The first thing we, as guns, can do is some marketing ourselves. What the game business needs is a couple of new, heavyweight customers with fresh ideas for a gourmet product to take 1m brace to develop a new market and that does the trick. The game shooting community is stuffed with creative, dynamic, enterprising and commercially minded individuals. Someone knows someone somewhere who needs a low-fat, high-protein, free-range ingredient for their new line of high end ready meals. Surely? In the meantime we need to find some money.
Game shooting is now a £2bn a year industry and every penny of that starts off in the guns’ wallets. We buy the right to shoot and we do the shooting. So, when you cut to the chase, it is the guns who actually create the problem of surplus game. One solitary, single per cent of that total outlay is £20m and that buys a bucketload of marketing. How this cash is collected is an industry issue: 50p per bird released, £1 per bird bagged, £20 per gun day enjoyed, one per cent of a day let. It matters not a jot how we do it, it matters only that it must be done. And it starts and ends with us, the guns.
We must interrogate our hosts and our agents as to what will happen to the game we shoot. We must insist that every estate we visit is demonstrably undertaking and promoting the ethical disposal of game. We must offer up another one – crucial – per cent of our annual sporting allowance to protect the future of our sport. The Treasury takes out 20 times that as VAT, remember. If we establish a game marketing body along the lines of the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Boards which support the lamb and beef producers, and cereal growers, for example, or the British Poultry Council, perhaps, then we might even claw some of that back via DEFRA grants for the promotion of exports. Or something. But it has to start now. This season. Immediately.
Shooting must continue to be so much more than just pulling the trigger.
Shoots that offer a brace of oven-ready birds might find these are more welcome than a brace in the feather.