CHARLES NODDER IN­VES­TI­GATES THE GAME-MEAT MAR­KET,

What’s hap­pen­ing to the game we shoot? How have the cam­paigns to en­cour­age con­sump­tion fared? Are game deal­ers fac­ing ruin? The Field in­ves­ti­gates

The Field - - CONTENTS - WRIT­TEN BY charles Nodder

A tenet of game-shooting is that every­thing killed gets eaten. the Code of Good Shooting Prac­tice tells us, “All shot game is food and must be treated as such.” the mantra runs that if we trash the bag we trash shooting’s fu­ture, so it was wor­ry­ing, to say the least, that ugly ru­mours were cir­cu­lat­ing last win­ter about shoots strug­gling to get their birds away to the food chain.

The Field de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate and con­tacted the na­tional Game Deal­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, sev­eral game sup­pli­ers and re­tail­ers, the or­gan­i­sa­tions that cam­paign to pro­mote game sales, Min­tel (which main­tains statis­tics on the food trade) and also Com­pa­nies House. It didn’t take long to find that one large UK game dealer went bust ear­lier this year and two oth­ers are in deep, per­haps ter­mi­nal, fi­nan­cial trou­ble. Only about a dozen re­main. One game­keeper asked us whether we knew of any­one who could take 40,000 good-qual­ity pheas­ants this win­ter be­cause he couldn’t find a game dealer who would. It’s def­i­nitely bad out there.

Strangely, how­ever, the Min­tel statis­tics clearly show that game meat sales in the UK have risen by 38% since 2011. BASC’S taste of Game cam­paign and Game to eat (its Coun­try­side Al­liance equiv­a­lent), have both done great work per­suad­ing our su­per­mar­kets to stock game, tv chefs to cook it and the me­dia to pub­li­cise it. Both cam­paigns are adamant that the con­sumer re­search is right and more peo­ple are eat­ing game in Bri­tain now than ever be­fore. So what ex­actly is the prob­lem?

Con­ti­nen­tal drift

Fun­da­men­tally, it’s not just a UK is­sue. Al­though there are no re­li­able statis­tics, we were told again and again dur­ing our re­search that more than a half of every­thing shot in the UK is sold to other parts of the eu. Many Bri­tish game deal­ers have been de­pen­dent on sell­ing shot game to the rest of europe, ei­ther in feather or pro­cessed form. But whereas our UK sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions have in­vested heav­ily and suc­cess­fully in pro­mot­ing game meat sales here, next to noth­ing has been done on the Con­ti­nent, where game con­sump­tion ap­pears to be in de­cline.

The rea­sons for this are un­cer­tain. Some be­lieve that for­eign palates are sim­ply chang­ing, cit­ing fewer restau­rants with game on their menus – in Brus­sels, for ex­am­ple. Oth­ers say that over­seas eat­ing habits are shifting, with even the French din­ing out less of­ten. We were also told that home cook­ing abroad is now start­ing to fol­low the lazy Bri­tish and Amer­i­can trends to­wards con­ve­nience foods. What­ever the cause, the harsh re­al­ity is that the Euro­pean de­mand for our game is at best stag­nant.

Sup­ply, on the other hand, is in­creas­ing rapidly. The num­ber of game­birds re­leased and shot in the UK has grown year on year ever since the 1970s, when the Game and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust’s unique Na­tional Game Bag Cen­sus first be­gan. We now re­lease about 35 mil­lion birds and shoot 15 mil­lion, dou­ble the quan­tity bagged in 1990. In re­cent years the an­nual Smiths Gore Shoot Bench­mark­ing Sur­vey has added fur­ther de­tail to this pic­ture, show­ing how the rise has been driven by strong de­mand for shooting. And that trend con­tin­ues; no shoot we spoke to was plan­ning to re­lease fewer pheas­ants in 2017 and many were ex­pect­ing to re­lease more. Re­leas­ing of red­leg par­tridges, like­wise, con­tin­ues to grow. These birds are pop­u­lar not just with guns but also with shoot man­agers look­ing to ex­tend their in­come-gen­er­at­ing sea­son.

Heavy cost

Game­keep­ers re­port that de­mand for shooting this year is “red hot” and one large game­bird vet­eri­nary prac­tice reck­ons there could be a mil­lion more game­birds reared in the UK than in 2016. If true, that’s a 3% in­crease, which, as­sum­ing a nor­mal bag re­turn, will mean another 300,000 to 400,000 shot game­birds this win­ter to be sold. That’s a big chal­lenge for an in­dus­try that looks likely to lose a fifth of its gamedeal­ing ca­pac­ity at the same time.

Qual­ity plays a cru­cial role, too. “The money in game deal­ing is all in the whole, oven-ready bird,” says Stephen Crouch of Hamp­shire Game, who also chairs the Na­tional Game Deal­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (NGDA). He ex­plains that the oven-ready bird sells en­tirely on its ap­pear­ance. “Any vis­i­ble shot dam­age, blood, torn skin, missed feath­ers or unsightly yel­low fat is as much of a turn-off to a su­per­mar­ket meat buyer as it is to the av­er­age cus­tomer in a butcher’s shop. Only the top fifth of a typ­i­cal bag will be saleable in oven-ready form and while that is where the best mark-up lies, it is also the sec­tor most af­fected by the over­seas mar­ket be­ing in the dol­drums.”

Any birds that fail to make the oven-ready stan­dard have to be fil­leted into diced game meat, a la­bo­ri­ous task that can only be done at a cost of around £4.50 a kilo. The greater the dam­age to the car­case, the more will have to go to cater­ing waste and the less is use­able as diced meat. If there is any hint of de­cay, then in to­day’s highly reg­u­lated meat mar­ket the whole bird must be re­jected. The law re­quires safe dis­posal of cater­ing waste and this costs £150 a tonne, so the mar­gin for the dealer in game fil­leted by hand is tiny. He is also likely to have been strug­gling lately with in­creased costs for the manda­tory Food Stan­dards Agency in­spec­tions, on top of the big rise in the min­i­mum wage and higher fuel bills for col­lec­tion and de­liv­ery. (Com­ply­ing with the FSA rules alone is es­ti­mated by the NGDA to cost an av­er­age game dealer more than £25,000 a year.)

Some shoots aren’t helping, ei­ther. Dur­ing our re­search, The Field heard too many tales of game be­ing poorly han­dled by shoots both large and small. While many take ex­cel­lent care of their shot birds, with chilled larders and staff trained in food hy­giene, the sight of shot birds piled into the backs of pick-up trucks re­mains un­ac­cept­ably com­mon. Per­haps the low prices be­ing paid for the prod­uct breed con­tempt. The deer world, with its higher veni­son prices, cer­tainly has a greater fo­cus on the proper han­dling of car­cases. True, the de­mand and prices for farmed veni­son – un­af­fected by awk­ward sea­son­al­ity, hunt­ing dam­age or vari­a­tion in age and size – are higher but surely this sim­ply con­firms the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a con­sis­tent, good-qual­ity game prod­uct and its saleabil­ity.

Size mat­ters, too. The trend to­wards re­leas­ing smaller, Amer­i­can-type pheas­ants

What­ever the cause, the harsh re­al­ity is that the Euro­pean de­mand for our game is at best stag­nant

The Field heard too many tales of game be­ing poorly han­dled by shoots

be­cause they are be­lieved to fly higher (or per­haps just look far­ther away – see past is­sues of The Field) re­sults in half the use­able meat per bird yet al­most the same pro­cess­ing cost for each. All those ex­tra par­tridges fall foul of this re­al­ity, too. They are an awk­ward size for a roast­ing or restau­rant bird; of­ten too much for one per­son to eat but in­suf­fi­cient for two. The eco­nomic ef­fect of dam­age on a smaller bird is greater and the fil­let­ing cost al­most pro­hib­i­tive. It is un­sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that par­tridge of­ten fea­tured in the ru­mours of bags that could not be sold last year.

Faced with the per­fect storm of a declining EU mar­ket and an over-abun­dance of of­ten low-qual­ity UK prod­uct, at least one game dealer last year tried a com­pletely new busi­ness model. He started charg­ing shoots 50p a bird to col­lect their shot game. Some es­tates paid up, if only to en­sure that their larders were empty in time for their next shoot. Pay­ing for game to be col­lected is, so far as The Field is aware, new to shooting and it crosses a line. For the shoots that pay, the bag has fi­nally be­come a true by-prod­uct of a sep­a­rate sup­ply chain: the sale of sport­ing shooting at £35 or £40 a bird.

A by-prod­uct is one thing – many in­dus­tries have them and in­deed pay for them to be taken away – but a waste prod­uct is quite another. Were it ever to be re­vealed ei­ther that shoots were rou­tinely de­stroy­ing ed­i­ble game or that the game deal­ers charg­ing to col­lect their birds were rou­tinely send­ing them on for ren­der­ing or in­cin­er­a­tion, then surely no po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able ar­gu­ment for game-shooting could be sus­tained?

But be­ware of ill-founded ru­mour sur­round­ing this topic. Some shot game is gen­uinely un­fit for food by virtue of be­ing dis­eased or very badly dam­aged, through hard im­pact on land­ing, for ex­am­ple, or per­haps a mishap dur­ing the process of be­ing re­trieved. Such car­cases are, quite rightly, kept back from hu­man con­sump­tion and must be dis­posed of cor­rectly. This is a nec­es­sary part of qual­ity con­trol and should never be con­fused with wan­ton de­struc­tion, al­though the an­tis of­ten and prob­a­bly know­ingly con­flate the two.

How, then, can we en­sure that healthy game al­ways has an ap­pro­pri­ate end use?

More and bet­ter mar­ket­ing is a clear re­quire­ment. Much has been done in the UK al­ready and laud­able ini­tia­tives such as Game to Eat and Taste of Game de­serve our sup­port. It would be good to see them now do­ing more to pro­mote game sales in Europe and, per­haps, build­ing on Brexit, even in other parts of the world. They have ex­pe­ri­ence here of suc­cess us­ing su­per­mar­kets, celebrity chefs and the me­dia to gen­er­ate public in­ter­est in game sales; those are surely trans­ferrable skills. The virtues of game as a low-fat, high-flavour prod­uct are universal. With the right com­mer­cial back­ing, bet­ter sales abroad as well as in the UK can surely be achieved.

game strate­gies

Other use­ful ini­tia­tives are up and run­ning al­ready. Taste of Game is work­ing with the Food Teach­ers Cen­tre to show school­child­ren how to cook game. They aim to reach 60,000 young­sters by 2020. Taste of Game also works with Game to Eat on the Lon­don-based Great Bri­tish Game Food

Brace your­self

In­di­vid­ual shoot­ers must do their bit, too. In

The Field’s view it is un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour for a gun to leave a shoot with­out tak­ing a brace of birds, yet at vir­tu­ally ev­ery shoot around half the guns de­cline. Frankly, and es­pe­cially where the ex­cel­lent oven-ready op­tion is pro­vided, if we can­not en­joy even those birds our­selves, or en­ter­tain us­ing them, or think of some­one else who would ap­pre­ci­ate them as a gift, then we are just not try­ing hard enough. We shot them in the first place, af­ter all.

Nor should we dis­miss this con­cept as be­ing merely totemic. The in­de­pen­dent 2013 Value of Shooting sur­vey iden­ti­fied 3.6 mil­lion live quarry gun days an­nu­ally in the UK. Some of those will have been pi­geon-shooting and wild­fowl­ing trips but most will have been game days. These fig­ures sug­gest that if ev­ery gun ac­cepted a brace at ev­ery shoot, an ad­di­tional mil­lion birds would be taken away, amount­ing to a very use­ful 7% of the to­tal UK pro­duc­tion. Think about it: if four guns on a 160-bird day take noth­ing away, that’s eight birds or 5% of the bag.

So, to sum­marise our anal­y­sis, the game mar­ket is in a wor­ry­ing state, cer­tainly, but bet­ter ways for­ward seem rel­a­tively easy to find. More good-qual­ity mar­ket­ing here and abroad, at­ten­tion to proper game han­dling and, not least, cor­rect ac­tion by in­di­vid­ual guns are all es­sen­tial to head­ing off a clear and present dan­ger to our sport. Such so­lu­tions lie – quite lit­er­ally, in the lat­ter case - in our own hands and as sports­men we ig­nore them at our peril. Fes­ti­val, do­ing much to spread the word among re­tail­ers, restau­rants and pubs. The Coun­try Food Trust, mean­while, is pro­vid­ing high-qual­ity coun­try casseroles to food banks, hos­tels and wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tions in many parts of the UK. Inevitably, there is a cheap Marie-an­toinette “Let them eat game” jibe, which of­ten gets made in re­la­tion to this ini­tia­tive, but the Trust lives it down and does re­ally good work keep­ing hun­gry peo­ple fed.

Some shoots have taken mat­ters into their own hands, too, sup­ply­ing farm shops or food mar­kets or even com­bin­ing forces to hire chilled lor­ries in which they can ex­port their shot game in bulk di­rect to Europe. It may not help UK game deal­ers much – rather the re­verse, in fact – but at least it is get­ting good-qual­ity game to the table. And, of course, a fur­ther ben­e­fit of all these ini­tia­tives is that the per­son who en­joys eat­ing game, man, woman or child, is less likely to be op­posed in fu­ture to those who pur­sue it.

Above: game­keep­ers re­port that de­mand for shooting this year is “red hot”

Above: the money in game-deal­ing is in oven-ready birds. Be­low: car­cases must be han­dled cor­rectly

Guns must do their bit, too. If ev­ery gun ac­cepted a brace, one mil­lion ex­tra birds would be taken away

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