Farm­ers who re­mained loyal to deer farm­ing are now en­joy­ing the surge in in­ter­est in UK game meat

The Field - - Contents - words and pho­to­graphs BY gra­ham down­ing

Gra­ham Down­ing on deer farm­ing

Veni­son is on the move. UK retail sales have soared as, prompted by a gag­gle of celebrity chefs, con­sumers dis­cover the de­lights of this lean, low-fat al­ter­na­tive to other red meats. In 2013, Waitrose re­ported a 92% in­crease in sales; in 2015, Sains­bury an­nounced that its De­cem­ber veni­son sales were up by 115% over the pre­vi­ous year; and in sum­mer 2014, con­sumer be­hav­iour an­a­lysts Kan­tar World­panel re­ported a year-on-year in­crease in UK veni­son sales of more than 400%. Red deer hind at Houghton Hall, Nor­folk; Ju­lian Stoyal, for­merly at Woburn, is the deer man­ager

That mar­ket growth rep­re­sents good news for Bri­tain’s deer farm­ers, who now have a golden op­por­tu­nity to re­place im­ported veni­son with the home-grown ver­sion. “We’re cur­rently im­port­ing about 1,200 tonnes of veni­son and the mar­ket growth at present is be­ing fed from New Zealand,” says John Fletcher, past chair­man of the Bri­tish Deer Farms & Parks As­so­ci­a­tion and a di­rec­tor of Veni­son Ad­vi­sory Ser­vices Ltd (VAS). “Over the past 20 years most deer farm­ers have sold di­rect through farm shops but that has de­clined in rel­a­tive terms, and much more is now be­ing sold through su­per­mar­kets, such as Waitrose, which has a pol­icy of buy­ing farmed veni­son from the UK.”

Fletcher was a pi­o­neer deer farmer. “In the 1960s, Sir Ken­neth Blax­ter no­ticed that the value of sheep on the Scot­tish hill was less than the sub­sidy used to pro­duce them. Mean­while, the price of veni­son was high so he got some re­search fund­ing to start an ex­per­i­men­tal farm. He per­suaded a num­ber of Scot­tish es­tates to catch and rear wild calves and it proved very suc­cess­ful. Then the High­lands and Is­lands En­ter­prise [the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment agency] saw what was go­ing on and thought that deer would be good for hill farm­ers.”

Deer farm­ing took off – in ev­ery re­spect. In the mid 1980s, cat­tle trucks were queue­ing up at Heathrow to load Uk-pro­duced

breed­ing stock onto jumbo jets bound for New Zealand but, in­evitably, the gold rush didn’t last. The price of hinds col­lapsed, re­sult­ing in an ex­o­dus of farm­ers from the in­dus­try. How­ever, a few stayed loyal to deer farm­ing and slowly the mar­ket picked up once more, prompted on the one hand by veni­son’s rep­u­ta­tion as a healthy, low-fat meat and on the other by huge in­ter­est from a new gen­er­a­tion of celebrity chefs.

Recog­nis­ing that deer farm­ing is a worth­while farm di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment put money into a series of ed­u­ca­tional open days. “We had five in 2014 and an­other five in 2015,” says Fletcher. “They were very pop­u­lar and we got some new, de­cent-sized deer farms as a re­sult. One is run­ning a thou­sand hinds and two or three are run­ning from 200 to 500. I sup­pose we’ve started a dozen deer farms as a re­sult. Now VAS is looking to cre­ate a series of mon­i­tor deer farms.”

There are sig­nif­i­cant economies of scale in deer farm­ing but that doesn’t mean a new farm has to be es­pe­cially large. For­mer dairy farmer Richard Elmhirst started with just 30 hinds on seven acres. Now he has 60 acres fenced for deer and runs 90 hinds to­gether with three to four stags. As lit­tle as 20 acres can bring in a worth­while in­come.

“I had poured a lot of money into a dairy en­ter­prise just in time for milk quo­tas to come along and pre­vent me from ex­pand­ing,” says Elmhirst. “Orig­i­nally, I just bought a few deer to add in­ter­est to the farm but lit­tle did I know that they would even­tu­ally be­come all-con­sum­ing. We re­alised that we would go un­der if we car­ried on dairy­ing so we sold the cows, sold the quota and in­vested in deer.

Elmhirst runs rut­ting groups of about 30 hinds to a stag. “We used to look for Scot­tish hinds, which are hardy and are good con­vert­ers. We use English park stags for size and car­cass weight. Most of our stags go for veni­son at 15 to 20 months and cur­rently 90% of our hinds go for breed­ing stock and the re­main­der as herd re­place­ments.”

He stresses the im­por­tance of en­sur­ing that the fenc­ing and han­dling sys­tem is de­signed cor­rectly from the out­set. At around £8 to £10 per me­tre, deer fenc­ing is not cheap and a min­i­mum of three pad­docks is re­quired, all con­nect­ing through to a cen­tral han­dling sys­tem that should prefer­ably be cov­ered from the el­e­ments and in­cor­po­rate a weigh­ing crate, load­ing fa­cil­i­ties and

As lit­tle as 20 acres given over to deer can bring in a worth­while in­come

a crush for de-antler­ing stags. A work­able han­dling sys­tem might be ex­pected to cost around £8,000. “You’ve got to bear in mind that you’re not go­ing to get your fenc­ing costs back in the first few years,” says Elmhirst.

Red deer are prin­ci­pally grass feed­ers, so land that is good for dairy­ing will also be good for farm­ing deer. Pas­ture man­age­ment is es­sen­tial, as is suf­fi­cient acreage to pro­duce silage for win­ter feed. Calves are born mostly in May and early June, and con­cen­trates are usu­ally fed in the late sum­mer and au­tumn as the calves are weaned be­fore the breed­ing herd goes into the rut and the hinds are di­vided into rut­ting groups. Weaned calves may be fed on silage in­doors over win­ter or strip grazed on fod­der crops. They will go out in the spring and be ready for slaugh­ter the fol­low­ing au­tumn. Mean­while, stags may be fed on con­cen­trates dur­ing the win­ter to build up and main­tain their con­di­tion after the rut.

A fin­ished car­cass of be­tween 45kg and 55kg might be ex­pected to fetch around £200 to £300. A few deer farm­ers spe­cialise in fin­ish­ing bought-in calves, es­pe­cially if they have good graz­ing or plen­ti­ful veg­etable by-prod­ucts to supplement win­ter feed, but most farm­ers breed and fin­ish their own an­i­mals.

While many lo­cal abat­toirs are li­censed to kill deer, vir­tu­ally none do so in prac­tice and, more­over, Euro­pean an­i­mal wel­fare leg­is­la­tion pro­hibits the trans­porta­tion of live stags in velvet. Thus it is ei­ther a mat­ter of wait­ing un­til stags are clean and then trans­port­ing an­i­mals a con­sid­er­able dis­tance to Fife or York­shire where there are spe­cial­ist abat­toirs or, al­ter­na­tively, shoot­ing in the field with a ri­fle and then de­liv­er­ing car­casses im­me­di­ately to a lo­cal abat­toir for pro­cess­ing.

breed­ing stock

The breed­ing stock mar­ket is also an in­ter­est­ing one. With the cur­rent resur­gence of in­ter­est in deer farm­ing, good-qual­ity breed­ing hinds may be worth be­tween £400 and £450. One farm that has fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on the pro­duc­tion of breed­ing stock is at Woburn, an es­tate that has been al­most syn­ony­mous with deer for more than a hun­dred years.

“There has been a deer park here at least since the 1730s and around 1900 the 11th Duke of Bed­ford brought to­gether a col­lec­tion of 45 deer species,” says Woburn’s deer man­ager, Dan De Baerde­maecker. “The deer farm here was set up in 1993, orig­i­nally as a quar­an­tine ex­port area to al­low us to ex­port to New Zealand. Now our to­tal out­put is live sales and we sell to the UK as well as ex­port­ing across Europe, Rus­sia and Ukraine.”

A renowned cen­tre of ex­cel­lence for the deer in­dus­try, Woburn has a rep­u­ta­tion for sup­ply­ing big-antlered stags, both to other deer farms that want to im­prove antler qual­ity or body­weight, and to hunt­ing es­tates in Europe want­ing to im­prove their blood lines. Stags are priced in­di­vid­u­ally on the ba­sis of qual­ity, with clients of­ten com­ing to se­lect par­tic­u­lar an­i­mals be­cause of their weight of antler or mass of points.

“We can show them a pedi­gree and we can demon­strate what the an­i­mal’s sire and grand­sire achieved. It’s very personal. Peo­ple come and pick the stag they like – a veni­son farm might pick a big-bod­ied stag with poor antlers for around £1,800. For top-level stags we might look for £4,000 to £5,000,” says De Baerde­maecker.

The farm runs 70 hinds and uses around four sire stags a year but the farm­ing op­er­a­tion is closely al­lied with Woburn’s fa­mous deer park, which runs to some 3,000 acres in to­tal and holds some 2,000 head rang­ing across nine species. “We look at stags in

the park, as­sess them and if we want to move them into the farm, then we dart them. It’s the only way to catch park stags for breed­ing pur­poses in the farm.” The park pro­duces an an­nual cull of some 400 an­i­mals, with all car­casses be­ing sold to lo­cal butch­ers, restau­rants, su­per­mar­ket sup­pli­ers and some in the skin to game deal­ers.

“The farm lay­out op­er­ates from a cen­tral race­way with pad­docks lead­ing into it. The han­dling sys­tem works from a cen­tral cir­cle with hold­ing pens around the out­side. To one end are scales and a hy­draulic crush,” says De Baerde­maecker. “Ev­ery­thing in the farm is EID [elec­tronic identification] tagged and the scan­ner is linked to a com­puter. This means that if I’ve got an an­i­mal on the scales I can pull up its his­tory, weight gain, blood­lines and vet­eri­nary record.” All of which might be com­mon prac­tice in cat­tle or sheep farm­ing but not in the deer world. Woburn was the first of only two deer farms in the UK to use such tech­nol­ogy.

Un­like cat­tle and sheep, which have been mod­i­fied by gen­er­a­tions of selec­tive breed­ing, farmed deer are es­sen­tially iden­ti­cal to their wild cousins. They are thus re­mark­ably hardy and ro­bust, and vet­eri­nary costs are low though it is im­por­tant to keep on top of lung­worm. Birthing is also much eas­ier than in cat­tle or sheep and the an­i­mals them­selves are sim­ple to han­dle pro­vided the sys­tem has been well de­signed. “If you’re used to stock man­age­ment, then you’ll find deer in­cred­i­bly easy. One man can look after 600 deer on his own,” says De Baerde­maecker. “You get ad­dicted to them. I grew up on a mixed farm work­ing with sheep and cows but when I came to Woburn I found that they are lovely an­i­mals, all with their own in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters.”

So the door is open to ex­pan­sion for the UK veni­son in­dus­try. Not sur­pris­ingly, the first choice for many chefs is wild veni­son but the re­al­ity is that farmed meat, when well pro­duced, is ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the flavour and qual­ity of wild game but with a con­sis­tency and time­li­ness that sup­pli­ers of wild-shot car­casses will find hard to match.

“Farmed or park deer are as close to a nat­u­ral wild an­i­mal as it is pos­si­ble to get,” says José Souto, se­nior lec­turer in the butch­ery de­part­ment at West­min­ster Kingsway Col­lege. “My personal pref­er­ence is for wild veni­son but farmed veni­son is fan­tas­tic as long as it’s farmed prop­erly, and UK deer farm­ers are do­ing a re­ally good job in tak­ing up the slack dur­ing the close sea­son. If we just had veni­son avail­able once a year, then peo­ple would soon for­get about it but hav­ing that year-round va­ri­ety on the su­per­mar­ket shelves means that peo­ple eat it more of­ten. One day they’ll choose pork or beef, and the next they can eat veni­son.”

Above: the deer park at Houghton. Right, from top: a calf is bot­tle fed; Glyn In­gram of the Bri­tish Deer So­ci­ety demon­strates a typ­i­cal han­dling sys­tem; a calf; deer fenc­ing

Houghton has 500 acres of deer park. De­mand for veni­son (top left) is spear­head­ing the surge in the game-meat mar­ket

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