The new merchants of venison: What is to be done about the glut of wild red deer? Joanna Blythman reports on supermarket plans to persuade us to eat their healthy meat

VENISON has an image problem. It conjures up images of the sporty rich tucking into joints they have just shot on some chum's estate. Many people have never eaten venison; even fewer have eaten a prime saddle of roe or sika, the two most prized types of the meat. But could it be that venison's time has come? It is healthy. It seems to be green. And now it has a powerful advocate in a major supermarket chain.

This week, Safeway has embarked on a brave experiment. It is the first supermarket to put Scottish wild, as opposed to farmed, venison on its shelves. Only time - and customer feedback - will tell whether or not it will succeed.

Wild venison has attracted a lot of good publicity for Safeway on environmental grounds. The population of red deer is generally agreed to be excessive, having doubled in the last 40 years. The deer are steadily chomping their way around Scotland's great glens, causing serious damage in the Cairngorms, Easter Ross and the Angus Glens. They overgraze, stripping trees of their bark and colonising the habitat of grouse and other wildlife.

Inspired by the Prince of Wales, patron of the British Deer Society, Safeway's initiative is a welcome domestic boost for sales of red deer, whose export market has collapsed against cheaper Eastern European and New Zealand competition. Venison accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total meat market, despite the fact that it is an excellent source of high quality protein, significant levels of vitamins and iron, and is low in fat.

But what of flavour and tenderness? Anyone who has tasted a really prime saddle of young roe or sika deer will need no persuading that wild venison can be absolutely magnificent, offering a fascinating mouthful of complex flavours. Yet the majority of wild venison, like Safeway's, is from red deer which is often less distinguished. Ask any game dealer, and he or she will tell you that wild red deer is much more of a lottery. Only 20 per cent is fit for eating when it is culled. The other 80 per cent is either diseased, injured or too old. Some have not been sufficiently cleanly shot. Safeway is not going to be selling the most desirable cut - the saddle - but will concentrate on haunch meat for joints and steaks. The shoulder and neck will be boned out and find its way into pies, pates and pre-cooked meals. The key problem for Safeway's meat buyers is going to be ensuring the even quality of the raw meat on sale, and that involves accurate ageing. Old deer can be as tough as old boots.

Safeway is aware of these problems. It says all its deer are selected in Scottish larders which adhere to the strictest hygiene standards. They determine the deer's age by the tooth. However, experienced stalkers and scientists say this a far from exact science. Nicola Fletcher, the first venison farmer in Britain, says: 'The tooth wear on a deer which lives on the Isle of Rhum with all that sand and wind will be quite different from one grazing on lush east coast pastures.'

She believes that, at best, venison from wild red deer can be as tender as her farmed; at worst, it can be distinctly ropey. She is at pains to point out that farmed venison, in contrast to the battery chicken or caged salmon, was conceived as a high-welfare meat. At Reediehill Farm, near Auchtermuchty in Fife, her deer graze on generous acres of open pasture, within a perimeter fence. They get instant veterinary care if they are injured or ill. In harsh, wintry weather such as that which recently afflicted the area, she brings them in to shelter in airy barns where they feed on hay and potatoes.

Because each animal is tagged, she knows its pedigree and precise age. Wild venison, as she points out, may be free-ranging in a wider sense, but this is not necessarily a good thing. The deer may have eaten potatoes treated with mercury.

It seems likely that venison is going to be a more popular meat in the future, with supplies plentiful, costs low and food values high. It is already appearing more frequently on supermarket shelves.

Tesco sells farmed venison, and Sainsbury stocks 'parkland-reared': a hybrid of wild and farmed. These animals graze in a large, controlled area, protected from sprayed crops. Unlike farmed deer, however, they live outdoors and never come in, although their grazing may be supplemented with cereals in lean months. 'We commissioned a major report on wild venison and reached the conclusion that we could offer no guarantees about end quality. There were too many variable factors affecting quality: breed, age, sex and how it was shot,' says a Sainsbury spokeswoman.

Safeway has played safe by going for mild, delicate venison, which tastes very like a good piece of beef. More mature meat can sometimes taste sour - almost livery - which many people find off-putting. Given the level of public ignorance about cooking venison, Safeway is producing recipe cards. And there is a price incentive. Safeway's wild venison will be 20-30 per cent cheaper than farmed. To give an idea of what you might pay, a haunch joint weighing just under 2lb will cost about pounds 8 or two steaks weighing 12oz about pounds 3.50.

This initiative cannot be seen as the great solution to the environmental problem caused by too many red deer. The key to that lies in finding something to do with the 80 per cent of red deer which is not fit for the table. Venison Whiskas might be the answer.

(Photograph omitted)