What the Dickens?
Things that go bump in the night, and more.
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.”
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).
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