Country Matters: The benefits of eating Bambi

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The Independent Online
FOR several hunded years deer parks have been a key feature of the British landscape. Originally the hunting preserves of monarchs, designed to provide sport for the royal household, they became highly valued - in the days before any form of preservation was available - as reservoirs of meat on the hoof, available all the year round.

Such was the importance of the herd that some owners took it with them when they shifted their quarters seasonally. At Stonor, in Oxfordshire, for instance, estate workers would build a seven-mile wattle fence along which the deer could be driven from one park to another when the family went up from its main home in the valley to its summer house in the hills.

As time went on the parks acquired aesthetic significance as well - for nothing enhances the aspect of a great country house more picturesquely than a herd of fallow or red deer grazing on landscaped hillsides. Some parks were abandoned during the Second World War, but many survived - and indeed numbers have risen in recent years, for the Eighties saw a sudden expansion in the production of high-quality venison, as landowners sensed a new public appetite for meat with a low cholesterol content, and opened parks or farms by the dozen.

In country inhabited by wild deer, it is easy enough to start a park. All you need do is fence in a suitable area and leave a few leaps, or gaps, with a drop on the inside, so that deer can jump in but not out. Animals soon start to arrive, attracted by the good grazing inside, and in a year or two you have the makings of a herd.

This method was used at Wormsley, the estate bought by J Paul Getty in the Chilterns, where a new park was laid out in 1989. Local fallow obligingly emerged from the surrounding woods, and were augmented by red deer bought from the Great Park at Windsor.

Owners living outside natural deer country were obliged to buy in their entire stock - and it was this new demand that made prices rocket. Whereas a dead hind was worth perhaps pounds 75 as meat, the same animal alive might fetch pounds 500. Some owners even found it worthwhile to catch hinds in Scotland and transport them all the way to the south of England.

Now things are very different. Various factors - not least the recession and fears about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - have put paid to the demand for live animals, and proprietors are hard-pressed to dispose of surplus stock.

To most people, deer are lovely, graceful creatures. Spotted fawns (of fallow) and calves (of red deer) are so cute that for walkers or picnickers the temptation to go up and cuddle Bambi is sometimes irresistible.

Yet deer are also exceedingly efficient breeding machines, and in the absence of natural predators such as wolves or lynxes they increase relentlessly at an annual rate of 30 per cent. This means that any established herd must be culled by nearly a third every year: if a park contains 200 animals, some 60 must be taken out, alive or dead.

Until recently the normal method of culling was by rifle - and in fact most park deer are still shot in the open. To pick off animals that have no chance of escape may not sound very sporting, but it is an essential activity which demands a considerable degree of skill.

For one thing, the rifleman has to exercise the greatest care, firing high-velocity bullets in areas often crossed by footpaths and bridleways. Last week I myself was helping with a cull when two girls came riding right through the middle of our operation, having ignored the prominent notices put up to warn them of the danger.

Another problem is that the rifleman needs to be rigorously selective. If animals of the wrong sex or age are shot, the whole cull is vitiated.

With deer scattered about the park, the first few shots of a day are relatively simple, but selection becomes increasingly difficult as the herd reacts to danger by closing into one huge, tight bunch. When a couple of hundred deer crowd together, with every animal partially covered by or covering another, no clear shot is possible, and one has to wait perhaps half an hour for a single chance to present itself.

Finally, there is the gruesome business of gralloching (gutting) culled animals, cleaning them up and preparing them for the butcher. For a stalker out in the woods, it is no problem to deal with one or two deer in a day; but to grapple with perhaps 20, one after another, is a real chore.

Needless to say, the aim is to carry out the cull as humanely as possible, and to subject the survivors to the minimum of stress. This demands pin-point shooting, good organisation, and a feeling for when to stop for the day. A further aim is that the whole operation should be done discreetly, and kept out of the public eye, so that casual passers-by are not upset.

Shooting in the open, then, is still the most-used method of reducing stocks. Yet in recent years many landowners have built elaborate systems of funnel-fences and wooden-walled corrals, so that they can push or lure the deer into ever-smaller spaces, and in the end 'crush' (or apprehend) them individually, check them out, send some live for sale, if necessary despatch others with a humane killer, and release the rest.

Experiments have shown that once deer are packed tight in a high-sided enclosure, they lose their fear of humans, and a man can move among them without causing panic. They also go quiet if placed in the dark - and the elegant hexagonal handling shed in Windsor Great Park takes advantage of this tendency, by creating a twilit environment inside.

Such installations make precise management possible; and a further advantage is that the deer remain essentially wild, for after a few minutes in the pens, they revert to their normal free lives. On deer farms, by contrast - 'concentration camps', as one park-owner described them - the animals are handled so frequently that they become as tame as cattle and so, for many people, quite lose their magic.

Now, in the culling season, the problem is a general drying- up of income. Not only has the market for live animals closed down: still worse, the price of venison has fallen disastrously. Roe deer meat - by common consent the best of all - has held up reasonably well, and still fetches 90p or pounds 1 a pound from game dealers; but red deer venison collapsed from a high point of 90p three years ago to a low of only 30p last season.

The main cause was the flood of cheap venison that poured out of Eastern Europe into Germany (the main consumer) as soon as the Iron Curtain came down. The Germans suddenly had far less appetite for venison from the Scottish Highlands, and the fall in prices ricocheted down through Britain.

One answer to the problem is to increase home consumption, and the British Deer Society has been working energetically to do just that. With advice from the society's officials, the Safeway supermarket chain is planning a major launch of wild venison in Scottish stores - a project that will be initiated at a marketing conference in Aviemore on 25 September.

I know it is not an easy concept for non-shooting people to grasp; but it is paradoxically true that the best way to secure a good future for Bambi is to eat his kind more often.

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