Rural: Why this year is a fallow time for deer

For anybody involved with the management of deer, a persistent aggravation is the way the price of venison fluctuates wildly from one year to the next.
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At present, in the south of England, the going rate for fallow deer is 90p per pound for whole carcases - with head and feet off, but the skin still on - and for roe, generally considered the finest meat, pounds 1.20. Yet these amounts are more than 50 per cent down on last year's, and in the Highlands the price of the ubiquitous red deer has crashed from the 1996 high of pounds 2 per pound to a wretched 60p. On big estates, which depend largely on venison sales for income, this amounts to a damaging loss.

External events, apparently unconnected, often have a strong influence on the market for deer meat. Worst of all, in recent memory, was the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986, which spread radioactive debris over much of northern Europe and put the fear of God into the West Germans - normally the greatest consumers. This drastically reduced demand for all venison and knocked prices down to a new low.

Another sharp fall was caused, paradoxically, by the collapse of Communism in and after 1989. When the Iron Curtain at last came down, a flood of Polish and East German venison poured into West Germany, swamping the market there and, in a knock-on effect, cutting the appetite for Scottish imports.

Last year saw a record price surge, partly because of the scare about BSE, which turned a good many people from beef to venison; another factor was that imports from New Zealand temporarily dried up, because deer farmers there were consolidating their breeding stock and culling fewer beasts than usual.

The result was a dramatic rise not only in prices, but also in poaching. All over Britain, from Cornwall to Caithness, gangs were out at night with lamps, rifles, shotguns and lurchers; with a red deer hind (for instance) suddenly worth nearly pounds 200, they made instant fortunes.

In Mortimer Forest, near Ludlow, at least 100 fallow deer were killed illegally, and this winter stocks are so depleted that the Forestry Commission has reduced its projected annual cull by three-quarters. The poachers, being indiscriminate, have, of course, wrecked long-term plans for managing the herd, besides losing wounded animals in the dark.

Outside factors thus drive venison prices to some extent, but the truth is that the home market has never been effectively developed. Wild venison is almost fat-free, and entirely uncontaminated by artificial foodstuffs; yet sales in the United Kingdom remain relatively small, and probably 60 per cent of the country's output still goes abroad, principally to Germany.

A courageous attempt to increase home consumption was made by Highland Venison, a co-operative of forest owners who joined forces with the Safeway supermarket chain to promote sales in this country. Instead of sending whole carcases abroad, as most Scottish dealers do, the firm began cutting and packaging venison like other meat, and made some headway. Then funds ran short, and the company was sold and has now been taken over by a Danish firm, so that export is likely to become its main business once again.

Attempts to increase home sales of game in general are being made by the Game Marketing Executive, which was set up last year with funds from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Countryside Business Group. By talking to supermarkets, by training chefs and organising a Chef of the Year competition for game cookery, the executive reckons it is making progress. The UK market for game, about pounds 17m in 1992, is now thought to be worth pounds 34m, and is expected to rise to pounds 56m by 2002 as people in search of healthy food become more aware of the possibilities on offer.

At present the venison sold by supermarket chains such as Sainsbury and Waitrose all comes from farms that can guarantee more consistency than dealers in wild deer; farmed animals are killed relatively young, whereas a stag shot in the Highlands may have been scrambling up and down precipitous slopes for eight or 10 years, and may, if not treated well, turn out as tough as old boots.

There is no doubt that in the past much Scottish venison has been poorly handled. A carcase often has to be dragged off the hill, through peat bogs and flooded burns, before it reaches a vehicle or a pony. It may then spend several days hanging in an inadequately chilled larder before being collected.

In spite of all-round improvements recently, the problem with wild venison, particularly in England, remains that there is no central marketing organisation: instead, there are hundreds of individual sellers, who make life difficult for themselves by refusing to club together.

If they did, they might secure better prices - and certainly it is galling for them to see what a mark-up butchers make. At present a fallow carcase, weighing 70lb in the skin, fetches only pounds 63 for the landowner; in the run-up to Christmas, the butcher will have no difficulty selling each 1llb haunch at pounds 4 a pound, so that the haunches alone bring him pounds 88. He then has the saddle - 8lb at pounds 4.50, ie pounds 36 - and a dozen pounds of stewing steak off the forequarters and neck, at pounds 1.50: total pounds 18. His return on the beast is thus pounds 142, well over 100 per cent.

Still, that's trade. The question, now, is whether the threatened ban on beef on the bone will drive venison prices up again. So far there is no sign of any upward movement - and for the time being people in our part of the world are snapping up bony joints of red beef as though there were no tomorrow.