Sustainable meat: Venison on the hoof

Deer prudence

It’s time for a change of attitude to wild British venison

Country Notes

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

From behind a large rock, some 60 yards away, I could hear the shot connecting.

A moderated rifle makes a hissing sound and then as the round hits skin and flesh, there’s a muted phut. The first shot was followed by another; then there was a pause before two further shots were fired.

I looked up to see 20 hinds, four fewer than there had been, scrambling across the rocky scree with the wind in their faces. Down below us the river was frozen at its edges and the glen was naked in the bright cold.

Willie, a man who knows West Affric as well as anybody, stood up from the heather and beckoned me to come up to where he had been shooting with a young ranger called Nicola. “A success?” I asked, after tramping through the snow. Willie shrugged. Four deer might seem like a lot, but the season ends in mid-February, and in West Affric they still have a lot of red hinds to cull.

The only way, Willy explained, to really hit them hard, with such short daylight hours, is to sleep in one of the bothies so you can get out on the hill as soon as the sun comes up. The Glen is a long way from the nearest town and by Land Rover and then Argocat, the going is slow. You do need the fire on, though, Willie added and you need a decent sleeping bag if you’re going to manage to get any sleep at all.

West Affric looks slightly different from other glens across Scotland. There is heather and scree, and there are deep gullies worn away by water and time but there are trees too. There are weather-beaten mature pine and birch trees, and there are saplings here and there. It looks, most ecologists would say, like Scotland ought to look.

It is a landscape with trees because deer numbers are kept in check. In truth, most of those involved in the culling feel that they ought to be reducing deer numbers even more, but time and resources are limited.

The other very depressing issue is that game dealers pay so little for venison carcasses that culls can result in estates being left with a glut of almost-worthless venison.

Wild British venison earns almost nothing, whilst farmed New Zealand venison is at a premium

At best, Willie and Nicola receive forty to fifty quid for a large female hind, which in their words, just about covers the fuel and the ever-increasing cost of ammunition.

There are some people — including a few notable vegan environmentalists — who believe that deer should simply be shot and left out on the hill but for most deer managers, the idea of shooting them and not eating them is sacrilege. “If the venison has no value at all,” Nicola told me, whilst she bled one of the beasts, “a lot of the respect we have for deer goes too.”

The galling thing is that whilst the price for wild British venison sits at almost nothing, in most of our large supermarkets, farmed venison from New Zealand is readily available as a premium product. Wild British venison is meat at its most sustainable. Shoot a red hind and save a sapling tomorrow, whilst farmed venison from New Zealand involves pretty much every food production ill, from ruining wild landscapes over there to the tens of thousands of food miles it takes to transport the meat over here.

It might seem absurd, but the truth is that wild food is difficult. It’s never quite the same size, the flavour differs and the supply is irregular. Willie and Nicola might have a big day at Affric, resulting in twelve hinds for a dealer to shift, or they might shoot only one. It is very hard to know what to do about it all. But lately I’ve been hearing of more and more cases of people objecting to deer management in the hills. I even had a chat with a gamekeeper on the Isle of Lewis recently who told me that incomers (“English incomers,” he was keen to point out) are increasingly expressing their unhappiness about the deer being culled.

Good luck to them. It’s a free country after all but I can’t help but think that if this were a more environmentally-aware country, rather than hitting out at those who manage wild deer, people would be down at Tesco, hitting out at those who make good money out of importing something of which we already have too much.

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