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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Women protest at the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh
tvReview: It's a tough watch, but the details of the brutal gang rape and murder of medical student need to be shared if we want to strive for global gender equality
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
people
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jeffrey Archer holds up a copy of 'Kane and Abel', a book he says was ripped-off by Bollywood
books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Reach Volunteering: External HR Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers