We're here for the deer: Why a vegetarian is trying to persuade us to eat wild venison

Dr Naomi Sykes is taking to the classroom to convince pupils to try a bit of Bambi and help to control Britain's population of wild deer.

They should be in assembly. But instead, Kaylee, Saffron, Aimee, Marwa, Nateiya and Craig are "euwwing" and "ahhing" over a dead fallow deer splayed out in their school's teaching kitchen.

"Where's the bullet hole?" "Is all the blood still inside?" "Why are its eyes still open?" "Do you hide in bushes?"

The questions fly at David, a part-time deer stalker, who is helping them butcher the young stag in a medieval-style "unmaking ceremony". The 12 and 13-year-olds will then cook venison steaks for their parents. The rest of the meat will be transformed into stew for school lunch.

As home-economics classes go, this one at Nottingham University Samworth Academy may raise a few eyebrows. But for David and his colleague, Dr Naomi Sykes, it's the first step in promoting wild venison as a free-range, healthy and sustainable British resource.

The session is one of many Sykes, a zooarcheologist – and vegetarian – hopes to run as part of Fair Game, an educational initiative that aims to democratise venison. Currently, there are an estimated two million deer scampering around Britain – the highest the population has been for 1,000 years, according to government figures. While Bambi may look pretty, he and his chums are destroying woodland. In such large numbers deer are also at risk from disease, starvation and cars: an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 are killed on the roads each year.

We can thank the Normans in part for our current problem. They reintroduced fallow deer to England as hunting quarry in 1066, and by the end of the medieval period deer parks had sprung up across the country. But when hunting fell out of fashion, the parks fell into disrepair and inmates escaped. Because we'd already hunted bears, wolves and lynx to extinction, the deer had no natural predators and bred like rabbits.

Today, the majority of wild deer are "managed". Landowners including the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence cull around 300,000 a year. But to even keep the population at its current level, another 200,000 need to be shot, according to a government report.

"The deer issue is real," says Sykes. "But instead of seeing it as a 'problem' we should look at it as a wonderful food resource." Until recently, around 80 per cent of Britain's culled venison was exported to the continent, only for supermarkets to import it from New Zealand. Now, after a surge of interest in game, some of the major players stock British farmed venison but only a handful stock the wild meat.

"I don't want to drive deer farms out of business," Sykes says. "But I would prefer to see wild venison rather than farmed, imported venison being sold in supermarkets. It seems crazy when we've got so much on our doorstep."

The chef Valentine Warner, who has been stalking since he was 20, agrees. He exalted the virtues of wild venison in an episode of the BBC's Great British Food Revival earlier this week. "Logically, if something is being managed and shot and is delicious we should be eating it," he says. "We're very nervous about eating anything that hasn't gone through modern farming practices. But wild venison is very hygienically produced. You can pretty much trace it back to the field it was shot in and by whom a lot of the time."

Britain's six different species of deer: red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water, tend to be lumped together as "venison". But they all have different seasons and, according to Warner, taste remarkably different.

"The red deer grazing on heather up in the Highlands is very strong meat – it's my least favourite," he says. "The fallow tastes very different, much more gentle, while roe deer is incredibly delicate. We tend to think venison is something that's eaten in autumn or winter, but a roe deer salad on a hot summer's day is delicious."

Venison is also leaner than a skinless chicken breast and stacked with iron. Thanks to Warner and other chefs, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it is increasingly popular.

Asda's venison sales are up by 25 per cent a year, while Marks and Spencer reported a 10 per cent increase on last year. This month Tesco launched Highland Game wild venison in its Doncaster store – a breakthrough for company owner Christian Nissen. "In the last few years venison has gone from being a hard sell to a meat where demand may outstrip supply," he says.

Even the National Trust, which used to cull deer behind closed doors, is opening up about its practices. Charlecote Park in Warwick sells its award-winning fallow venison in-house and is planning "unmaking" workshops next year. Other National Trust deer parks are butchering their culled meat in on-site facilities.

Buying wild venison online is also a good option. Simon Williams runs Lincolnshire Wild Venison, the online shop of the countywide collective deer group. It sells a range of cuts and even muntjac carcasses to carve up at home.

The collective's venison steaks are £18.50 per kilogram, while Charlecote Park sells its venison for £13.75. By comparison Waitrose's venison steak is £27.99 per kilogram.

Back in the inner-city classroom, the Year Eight pupils are searing their fallow steaks after following Dame Juliana Barnes' unmaking instructions in The Boke of St Albans. The 15th-century hunting manual describes the ritual as a day-long event in which a deer was hunted and butchered in a community get-together. The meat was dished out according to rank. The lords scored the best bits – the testicles and liver. To the children's delight, the lord in this case is their head teacher David Harris.

Sykes hopes that by including Britain's deer history into her sessions she will provide a bigger context for eating wild venison. It seems to have affected 13-year-old Kaylee Hempenstall.

"You go to McDonald's, but earlier somebody killed a cow and did exactly what we're doing to this deer. It makes you see meat in a different light," she says before disappearing, no doubt to remind poor Mr Harris about his lord's lunch.

fallow-deer-project.net

lincolnshirewildvenison.co.uk

highlandgame.com

Venison curry

By Valentine Warner

Serves 4

A large handful of shaved dried coconut or 3 tablespoons unsweetened desiccated coconut

40g ghee or butter
2 small red onions, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick (about 4cm long)
6 black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large thumb-sized piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon flaked sea salt
4 cloves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2.5 teaspoons hot chilli powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
A quarter star anise
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons tomato purée
500g venison fillet (be it red, fallow, sika, roe or muntjac), cut into medium cubes
300ml coconut water or water
Juice of half a lime
Shredded coriander leaves, to garnish
Rice, paratha or naan bread to serve

In a dry frying pan, gently toast the coconut until you notice the first signs of it colouring. Allow to cool. Melt the ghee or butter in a wok or pan (the lighter and thinner the metal, the better, as it is closer to using Indian cookware such as a balti).

Throw in the onions and cook fairly briskly with the cinnamon and peppercorns until softened and deeply golden, taking care not to burn them. Using a pestle and mortar, or blender, crush the garlic, ginger, salt and all the remaining spices into a fine paste and combine with the tomato purée.

Add the curry paste to the onions and fry for 2–3 minutes, stirring often. Do not let it burn.

Add the meat and briskly sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the coconut water or water and lime juice and bring to a rapid simmer for 4 minutes, or until you have a thickish gravy.

Remove from the heat and scatter with the coconut and coriander. Serve with rice, paratha or naan bread.

From 'The Good Table: Adventures in and Around My Kitchen', by Valentine Warner, £25, published by Mitchell Beazley

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