Anyone for antler pie?

Now that venison has become a popular lean meat, what is the most economic, humane way to manage the deer? Duff Hart-Davis investigates
Last week, in the splendour of the Sculpture Gallery at Woburn Abbey, 70 deer farmers and park keepers assembled to discuss the baffling intricacies of the venison trade. Rough country clothes looked slightly out of place against the crimson walls; yet the wider setting was appropriate, for outside the windows lay Woburn's own 3,000-acre deer park, one of the finest in England, with 11 species on view.

The conference was called by the British Deer Farmers' Association (BDFA), and its theme was "Park venison - an undervalued resource?" For various reasons, farmers can get a much higher price for their meat than park keepers can, and the BDFA was urging the park men to produce better carcasses.

Until about 30 years ago, venison came principally from two sources: wild deer, and the herds in parks surrounding country houses. Then in 1970 the first farm was started at Glensaugh, in Kincardineshire, with wild red deer driven into enclosures off the hill. Because the calves were picked up and bottle fed, they became completely tame, and could be managed like sheep or cattle.

The success of this new form of husbandry led to a rapid proliferation of farms and a sharp demand for stock. At its zenith, in the Eighties, the BDFA had 700 members, and a single red deer hind could fetch pounds 1,000. Then the bubble burst. People who had rushed in, scenting quick fortunes, opted out when they realised that a long, hard slog lay ahead, and today the Association has only 200 members. These, however, are what their vice-chairman John Fletcher calls "serious enthusiasts", and their mood is optimistic.

At first farmers were so busy building their herds that selling venison seemed a secondary consideration; but gradually farmed venison won itself a reputation as an excellent red meat, lean and healthy, whose quality could be guaranteed because it had been properly handled and came from young animals slaughtered with minimal stress. For nearly two decades producers were able to sell whole carcasses at pounds 1.35 per pound, and in the past two years the price has been steady at pounds 1.80, with consumption increasing rapidly.

Wild venison, meanwhile, has retained a cachet that no tame product can match; yet over the past few years its price has fluctuated wildly, from a low of 30p per pound after the collapse of Communism, when barriers in Europe came down and a flood of East German and Polish meat swamped West Germany - traditionally the most voracious buyer of deer from the Scottish Highlands - to a high of pounds 2 during the BSE crisis, when people were scared off beef. It has now fallen back to about 60p, only a third of the farmed price.

Several factors militate against wild producers getting better money. One is that deer are often shot at long range, or in bad light, or by amateurs, so that the rifle bullet extensively damages the carcass; another - particularly in the Scottish Highlands - is that most estates wait till stags are mature before culling them, and beasts of 10 or 12 are liable to be as tough as old boots. Landowners cannot even claim that wild venison is organic, because they do not know for sure what the wide-ranging deer have fed on.

Occupying the middle ground, between wilderness and domesticity, are the deer parks. In contrast with farmed deer (which are tame enough to be corralled, and are dispatched on the premises with a humane killer or sent by lorry to a slaughterhouse) most park deer are still shot in the open. The aim, either way, is to minimise stress, both for humane reasons and because anxiety increases the amount of lactic acid in muscle, making meat tough; but controversy rages about which method is best.

Not only that: human sensitivities come strongly into the equation. Among supermarket chains, Tesco and Waitrose refuse to handle deer shot in the open, but Safeway sells wild venison, and Sainsbury's is also a declared believer in the merits of field shooting.

At last week's meeting, members of the Association revealed that, because of their own success in marketing high-quality venison, they cannot now satisfy the demand, and they challenged the park keepers to raise standards of carcass production to match their own. But the representative from the park at Chatsworth cried out, "We have a moral duty not to let sanitisation rule!" and one of the most fluent papers came from "Blue" Thomas, a freelance deer manager, who stuck up for traditional methods, pointing out that in most parks policy is strongly influenced by aesthetic considerations. Owners, he said, like to see plenty of red stags or fallow bucks with good antlers - more than make ideal breeding ratios - and they do not want their rolling acres criss-crossed by unsightly internal fences or pens.

If the symposium produced no dramatic new initiatives, it did set everyone talking, and participants went away with as many ideas in their heads as the astonishing red stags at Woburn carry points on their antlers. In the Highlands a 12-pointer is known as a Royal, a 14-pointer (exceedingly rare) as an Imperial. At Woburn stags grow that many points at two years old, and the park's record beast, Berry End, produced 40.