What the Dick­ens?

Things that go bump in the night, and more.

The Field - - Contents - WRIT­TEN BY CHARLES NOD­DER ♦ PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH FARNSWORTH

Apress­ing con­cern for shoot own­ers and game­keep­ers these days is find­ing a good home for shot game. Where once a shoot or­gan­iser’s fo­cus was on ev­ery­thing lead­ing up to a great day’s sport, to­day a sig­nif­i­cant worry for many is whether the game dealer will col­lect at all and, if so, at what cost. Back­logs of shot game are a night­mare: to bury or burn them de­stroys a key ra­tio­nale for sport­ing shoot­ing and im­per­ils its fu­ture.

The Field has ex­plored the ori­gins of this prob­lem — which essen­tially boil down to an im­bal­ance of sup­ply and de­mand. Shoot­ing is ever more pop­u­lar and big­ger days make eco­nomic sense for most providers, re­sult­ing in a na­tional bag twice what it was in the 1980s. In the same pe­riod, eat­ing habits have changed, with ready meals re­plac­ing the cook­ing of raw in­gre­di­ents in many house­holds. Now, the very con­sump­tion of meat is be­ing ques­tioned and linked to global warm­ing. Re­sult: more game­birds than ever but fewer peo­ple pre­pared to pre­pare them.

Steven Wade no­ticed the warn­ing signs as early as the 1990s. As a shoot owner in Fife he had bought a pluck­ing ma­chine in 1992 to help turn his bag — and sub­se­quently those of his neigh­bours — into oven-ready pheas­ants. “For six years or so it went like a dream and then we just hit a wall,” he re­calls. “No one seemed to want a whole roast­ing bird any more.”

Game deal­ers were find­ing much the same. Where once their trade had been sim­ply to col­lect dead birds from shoots and sell them on to butch­ers and restau­rants, of­ten

in feather, they in­creas­ingly found a need to pluck and dress to se­cure sales and to­day even that can be in­suf­fi­cient. The Euro­pean mar­ket took birds in feather for rather longer but de­mand there is now dry­ing up, too.

The shoot­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions re­alised the dan­gers a decade ago and sen­si­bly set up Game to Eat (Coun­try­side Al­liance) and Taste of Game (BASC), both de­signed to per­suade more peo­ple to try game. Both made a dif­fer­ence, cer­tainly, but their fo­cus was still on what could be done in the kitchen with raw game meat and over time that ap­proach has proved in­suf­fi­cient for shoot­ing’s need.

The log­i­cal next step is to add value to the raw in­gre­di­ent by turn­ing it into some­thing more akin to the other ready-meal prod­ucts fly­ing off su­per­mar­ket shelves. This is the route that Wade was forced to take in Fife. He be­gan by mak­ing game sausages and burg­ers and now his son, Guy, has de­vel­oped that into a mo­bile cater­ing busi­ness, Scream­ing Pea­cock, which serves a Scratcher pheas­ant burger and other game-based temp­ta­tions, mostly at out­door events.

The Wades are a great ex­am­ple of a rel­a­tively small, self-help op­er­a­tion car­ried out at re­gional level, but the vol­ume of game over­sup­ply re­quires larger-scale busi­nesses to join in. For­tu­nately, all sorts of peo­ple en­joy their shoot­ing and among them are those in­volved with eco­nomics, mar­ket­ing and other food busi­nesses who well un­der­stand this ne­ces­sity.

Michael Can­non, best known to Field read­ers as the owner of Wem­mergill grouse moor, made his for­tune in pubs and grub: inns and brew­eries in the UK and fast food in the USA. Last year he launched Wild and Game, a new com­pany with the aim of in­tro­duc­ing more con­sumers to all types of game meat. Pies, pasties, sausages and pâtés dom­i­nate its prod­uct range and are sold via an ex­cel­lent web­site. Raw pheas­ant, grouse

Deal­ers are find­ing they have to pluck and dress to se­cure sales

and pi­geon are also avail­able but the fo­cus is in­creas­ingly on those all-im­por­tant ready meals, such as Pheas­ant Chilli and Pheas­ant Tikka Masala.

Wild and Game was started from scratch but Willo Game is an ex­am­ple of a rein­vented com­pany. With ori­gins in tra­di­tional game deal­ing, new in­vestors and new think­ing have now taken it in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. One of the own­ers is Nick James, a pas­sion­ate shooter with wide ex­pe­ri­ence of mar­ket­ing gained in the wine and spir­its trade.

“Our tar­get au­di­ence is peo­ple in their twen­ties and thir­ties who have never tried game be­fore. We do still sell oven-ready pheas­ants but 30% of sales are now of prod­ucts pro­cessed beyond the dressed whole bird.” The com­pany of­fers breast fil­lets, prestuffed roast­ing joints, diced and minced game meat and fin­ished sausages and burg­ers.

Willo Game’s busi­ness plan is un­usual, too. It will still buy pi­geon, rab­bit, veni­son and wild­fowl — for which the mar­kets re­main buoy­ant — but a shoot want­ing Willo to col­lect pheas­ants or par­tridge will have to pay around 30 pence per bird. In the cur­rent chal­leng­ing times, many are pre­pared to do so and Nick James ex­plains it is these col­lec­tion pay­ments that make the sub­se­quent game pro­cess­ing eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.

Col­lec­tion pay­ments make the game eco­nom­i­cally vi­able

Re­cently, the first Eat Game Awards were pre­sented at a re­cep­tion in Lon­don, “cel­e­brat­ing ev­ery­thing that is best about wild Bri­tish pro­duce”. Founded through a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween gun­maker Purdey, Bois­dale restau­rants — the qual­ity at ei­ther end of a shot bird, as it were — and Taste of Game, the awards recog­nise in­di­vid­ual chefs, restau­rants and pubs reg­u­larly serv­ing game and farm­ers’ mar­kets, butch­ers and game re­tail­ers both large and small.

“To con­sume what we shoot is vi­tal for the fu­ture of game shoot­ing,” says James Horne, chair­man of Purdey. “Sta­tis­tics show that 72% of con­sumers never eat game and we hope the awards can pro­vide the nec­es­sary in­cen­tive to en­cour­age many more to par­tic­i­pate.”

added value

One im­por­tant cat­e­gory in the Eat Game Awards — se­lected for spon­sor­ship by The Field — is for the Best Added Value Game Prod­uct. Wild and Game and Duchy Char­cu­terie were run­ners-up for this but the 2018 win­ner was Truly Trace­able, the small busi­ness of hus­band-and-wife team Steve and Lynn Tricker. They re­spec­tively stalk deer and cook ex­cel­lent veni­son pies, op­er­at­ing from their home in Suf­folk. This rather brings us back to small-scale en­ter­prises and self help on the shoot.

Michael Moore has de­vised a prac­ti­cal idea for adding value to shot birds. He calls it the Game Bird Crowner and he has just started sell­ing the de­vice on­line. It looks rather like a wall-mounted stir­rup pump but it is con­structed in cater­ing-grade ny­lon and stain­less steel. Hand-op­er­ated by one per­son, it has a fixed saw blade against which the wings of a dead bird can be rapidly re­moved. The skin and feathers over the breast are then eas­ily peeled back be­fore the car­cass is pushed on to a cen­tral ‘sad­dle’ – breast bone up­per­most. A trea­dle is then depressed with one foot, pulling ev­ery­thing away from un­der the crown, which is left ready to cook. It takes 35 sec­onds per bird and there is a video on Moore’s web­site (www.game­bird­crowner.co.uk).

Shoots tempted to start pro­cess­ing their own game like this need to be warned, how­ever, about the le­gal re­quire­ments (see panel, left). Mak­ing some sausages or pâtés for a pri­vate shoot lunch is fine, be­cause your guns are, pre­sum­ably, your friends but once game meat preper­a­tion takes on a com­mer­cial as­pect you must read, un­der­stand and abide by the Wild Game Guide pro­duced by the Food Stan­dards Agency. The le­gal re­quire­ments are be­ing widely ig­nored at present and the pace of en­force­ment is about to in­crease.

Beware also of the lo­cal coun­try­man who of­fers to take on a few brace, dress them and flog them round the vil­lage. ‘Fred in his Shed’, as he is univer­sally known by larger game deal­ers, may ini­tially seem like part of the solution to over­sup­ply but he is in­vari­ably op­er­at­ing out­side the law and can be re­spon­si­ble for low stan­dards.

There are ways other than pro­cess­ing whereby value can be added to game. One is to pro­vide greater cer­tainty as to its prove­nance and the stan­dards to which it has been reared, man­aged, shot and han­dled from farm to fork. This prod­uct as­sur­ance route has al­ready been taken by most food in­dus­tries and for the game­bird sec­tor it is the pro­fessed aim of the re­cently formed Bri­tish Game Al­liance (BGA).

AS­SUR­ANCE SCHEMES

The BGA seeks to marry shoot stan­dards with an as­sured game prod­uct and is us­ing Acoura to in­spect shoots and ad­vise. Early up­take has been en­cour­ag­ing, with nearly 300 shoots signed up so far but, to work in mar­ket­ing terms, as­sur­ance schemes need to be truly wa­ter­tight. The chal­lenge will be to en­sure full com­pli­ance.

An­other way to as­sure the pub­lic that game is well pro­duced, safe and good to eat is to keep the fi­nal sale close to the point of sup­ply. At Rhug es­tate in North Wales they do just that. The shoot here is greatly helped by the fact that the owner, Lord New­bor­ough, took the whole es­tate down the route of high-qual­ity, or­ganic meat pro­duc­tion some years ago. A huge farm shop, bistro and car park sit along­side the A5, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from Welsh lamb and Aberdeen An­gus beef to or­ganic bi­son farmed on the es­tate. There is even a drive-through re­tail point.

There is no doubt that adding value is key to the fu­ture of game sales, whether it is through strong lo­cal brand­ing, as­sur­ance or dress­ing, pre­par­ing and cook­ing birds to in­crease their ap­peal as a re­tail prod­uct at ev­ery stage.

For the fore­see­able fu­ture, how­ever, its ben­e­fits to shoot­ing are likely to be mea­sured in in­creased saleabil­ity rather than in profit. In­deed, the whole move­ment may ini­tially cost the sport money over­all. With game over­sup­ply still a big con­cern, how­ever, that’s a price we must be will­ing to pay in or­der to make shoot­ing truly de­fend­able.

Above left: an­other bird de­liv­ered but need­ing a con­sumer. Above: fewer and fewer peo­ple will take them in the feather

Ready meals that fly off the shelves in­clude Pheas­ant Tikka Masala (top) and Pheas­ant Chilli (above)

Above left: the Game Bird CrownerTop: Truly Trace­able at the Alde­burgh Food Fes­ti­val Above, right: the Scream­ing Pea­cock burger bar

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