by Deborah Hadfield
With the cost-of-living crisis starting to bite, is wild deer a solution to eat cheaply? The challenge is to find reasonably-priced, locally-sourced venison.
Shooters say that venison is possibly the most under used, misunderstood red meat available in the UK. For most people looking, the first stop is a supermarket.
All the major stores stock venison, everything from sausages to steaks. But where does it come from and what does it cost?
Aldi, our cheapest supermarket according to Which?, also won best supermarket at this year’s Eat Game Awards. It sells a whole range starting at as little as £2 for steaks, about £7 per kg.
The drawback is that a huge proportion of the venison sold in supermarkets does not come from the UK. Some of it is transported halfway round the world from farms in New Zealand. BASC says the food miles makes this a poor choice, when the UK has a healthy, wild deer population.
Anne Woolcock is head of wild food for BASC. She says seeing venison on supermarket shelves is good news as it helps people develop an appetite for it. She says: ”It’s always good to see venison on the market regardless of where it comes from, because that gives the consumer the opportunity to buy venison, and that means that they develop a taste for it. Therefore, we can then introduce wild venison. If we can educate them on the benefits of wild venison over from venison rather than overseas, then then that’s really good.
The problem with cheap, foreign venison is that it drives down the price of local venison.
It prices wild-shot deer out of the mass market, as the supermarkets demand year-round availability. In 2007, Gordon Brown’s government repealed the ban on selling game and venison out of season. So, deer are shot in season, frozen and enter the food chain all year round. A good option to source local venison can be found online with social media. A good example is the private group on Facebook Giving Up the Game. It was founded in 2016 by Billy Wyatt.
The group is an online marketplace where anyone, providing they follow a few simple rules, can sell, give away, buy, and acquire game and venison. For example, a recent post offered 4 good sized Roe bucks weighing up to 19kg. They were £40 for unbutchered or £80 butchered, vacuum packed and labelled. It certainly ticks the cheap and local box. Although some of the real bargains may require butchery skills.
Anne is a fan of the site and its founder who was voted a game hero. She says’ That page has really introduced a huge amount of people to game, not just venison.’ Annette sounds a note of caution about the online do-it-yourself marketplaces. She says ‘We do have to be careful. This is a professional meat industry. Even through those sorts of pages we have make sure that we are that best practice is used there. So those people on there have to be registered as a food business. You know, we must make sure that we are squeaky clean.’
Another more kitchen ready online alternative is companies that process and deliver venison.
During the pandemic, Deerbox was one of several that started up. Fieldsports Channel has covered other stalkers who are registered as ‘food businesses’ and passed the hygiene regs, including Chiltern Venison and Dartmoor Deer Services. Companies soon realised there was a real demand for venison. Unlike the supermarkets Deerbox labels the meat according to the animal it comes from. Ben Heath of Deerbox says each Deer species has a distinct flavour. He says ‘Red Deer has a slightly more iron flavour than something like fallow, which is extremely mild, almost beef. Roe deer is fine and textured, softer, but has that slightly darker and richer taste to it. And I don’t know how to describe Muntjac. It’s just lovely.’
Ben and his partner Mike Robinson are deer stalkers, and they also have another on staff too so they can meet the rising demand. They freeze meat during the culling season to ensure supplies all year round. Ben says ‘People think of it as a winter food and it’s not. It’s an amazing summer food and it’s great in salads. It’s a great alternative to steak or as a burger. I just can’t emphasize really how fantastic it is, really, and that more people should try it. He says people can be scared of venison in case it is strong or very dry, but he emphasises it is neither of these things. He says ‘Quite often it’s just a case of educating people on the best ways to prepare it. And it’s so quick and easy to do.’
The nutritional advantages of venison are attracting a wide range of customers. We’ve heard of a boxing gym where venison is very popular supplied by a local stalker. Ben says his customers include vegans. He says: “For health reasons they now need to consume animal proteins and for them they want to know that it’s being hunted, it’s a wild animal and everything’s being done correctly.’ Anne is not surprised venison is popular with vegans. She says the food industry already knows of venison’s health benefits that include being low in fat, high in nutrients, high in protein and low in cholesterol. She says: “It is one of the healthiest meats, if not the healthiest meat on the market. And, because it’s wild, it doesn’t have any additives and they’re not fed medication. Vegans are looking to try it because it actually fits their ethos and their ethics.”
Deer Box is booming but not suitable to every customer as not everyone wants to buy such large quantities or pay for the premium service it offers as not everyone has a chest freezer.
Many local butchers do sell venison, but only in the winter.
Owen Taylor’s Butchers in Leabrook, Derbyshire, sells it all year round. The family butcher has been operating for 100 years. The great-grandfather of current managing director, Richard Taylor, started the business in 1922 on a farm in Derbyshire. It sells venison in its shop, and it also delivers to restaurants, pubs, schools, hospitals and universities.
Richard Taylor says that people are beginning to appreciate the benefits of venison. He says: “I think people are starting to realize that game, especially venison, is a healthy option and a good value option as well. It might have a name of deer, but it’s not dear. It is value.as steak, diced, mince, burgers, or sausages. Even as a medallion, for an event, a function, or a wedding it is still good value.”
Owen Taylor still purchases its meat from game dealers as local as possible. Richard says it’s important to him to support local businesses. He also believes wild deer taste better too. He says: “I think venison has got more flavour. It’s in such abundance and the closer we can get it to the source the better it is. If we can tell people where it’s come from it’s just better all round.”
The company has seen a rise in the demand for venison. It sells everything from a whole red deer carcase for the freezer to a venison pie at just £3.45. Richard says he is attracting more customers who are catering for the public. He says that, in his shop, venison is popular at Christmas. Richard makes venison available all year as he says it is good for barbecues, especially as burgers, sausages, kebabs, and steaks.
If I want to buy venison that grows on the hills and in the woodland near where you live it is possible regardless of how small your budget is. As butchers such as Owen Taylor and companies like Deerbox thrive, it is becoming easier to get venison all year round. The products they sell are a great example of food that is sustainable, local, and good value, perfect for any barbecue.