Country Notes

Deer prudence

The puzzling economics of venison

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the shadow of a thin hawthorn hedge, the old keeper and I crept slowly through the watermeadow. The shooting season had just come to an end and Simon was in a reflective mood. 

“Thing is,” he whispered, “I’m too fat to run these days and I’m too old to fight.” He stopped, glanced through his binoculars at the tangle of scrub in front of us, and then went back to telling me about how much things have changed in the past 30 years. 

When he was a younger man, poaching was a weekly occurrence and being handy with your fists was almost part of a gamekeeper’s job description, but Simon reckons it happens less these days and when it does, the police would rather you gave them a ring. 

“Other thing that’s changed of course,” he continued, as he stopped again, a hundred yards out from the scrub, “is the deer. When I started here, deer wasn’t even part of my life, but now I’m taking 150 beasts off a year: roe, fallow, muntjac, Chinese water deer, and the reds.”

Reaching into his pocket, Simon pulled out a small rubber ball, and as he squeezed it, a long plaintive squeal filled the silence. The sound appeals to the muntjac’s protective nature by imitating a fawn in distress. Simon swung his rifle down off his shoulder and placed it in front of me on a set of sticks. “If one does come out, don’t mess about.” My breath rose in the cold air as we stood there waiting, but nothing came and we wandered on. 

Numbers of deer across the country have boomed

As we threaded our way through the meadow, woodcock danced away in front of us and teal burst noisily from beneath our feet before stringing out across the sky, but all the deer that Simon had seen the previous evening were seemingly tucked up elsewhere and when we heard the church bell, half a mile away, chiming four, we turned for home. 

It’s so often the case, when you’re in the field, that your last cast lands a fish or that the ducks only come when it’s almost too dark to see. Rural pubs are full of stories of ones that got away — always told by those who failed to stay focused till the end. 

From behind a tussock of reeds, when we were almost back at the Land Rover, a muntjac buck bolted for the wide open field on our left. Sixty yards out, just before he got to the hedge, he glanced back, as though trying to work out what it was that we wanted. I suspect he never came to any sort of conclusion because as soon as he paused, I pulled the trigger and we gralloched him in the last of the light. 

“You can have the carcass,” Simon said, as he dropped me down the road. “Game dealer won’t pay me much more for the meat than it cost to buy the round you shot him with.” 

Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, my girlfriend’s grandmother and I butchered the little beast. As we worked away, she told me about all the rabbits she’d skinned as a child. “Not squeamish, never squeamish, not like my sisters.”

We need to convince the nation that this is a fantastic product to be had

In Britain today, we have a problem. Nobody knows quite how many deer there are but across the country, people like Simon are acutely aware that numbers have boomed. It’s lovely to see them but because deer browse out woodland understorey, one of the consequences is that British birds have lost vast swathes of habitat. The willow tit, for instance, has declined by 94 per cent since 1970. 

Over the following fortnight, I ate every bit of that creature. Clearly, on the face of it, our deer problem has an obvious culinary solution but it’s not that simple. James Chiavarini, a pal at the helm of London’s oldest family-owned Italian restaurant, explained to me he just can’t get the stuff. 

When he rings his butcher, they tell him he can have as much venison as he likes. “But thing is, Paddy, it all comes from deer farms in New Zealand.” The problem is that butchers and supermarkets want complete uniformity in size and flavour and no two wild beasts will ever be quite the same. 

Simon’s quip about the cost of his rifle rounds wasn’t far off — due to a lack of demand for wild venison and ever-increasing supply, game dealers are currently paying just 55 pence a kilogram for muntjac carcasses. In financial terms, deer management is hardly worth the bother. 

The answer is fairly obvious. We need to convince the nation that there’s this fantastic product to be had, a product that helps conserve British woodland, but quite how you’d ever really manage that is far from obvious at all. 

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