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