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UK's growing population of deer could be a menu opportunity for caterers

05 April 2013
UK's growing population of deer could be a menu opportunity for caterers

There are too many deer in the UK, so thousands will have to go. And there's more variety out there than you think. Janie-Manzoori Stamford reports

The UK's deer population is out of control. About 750,000 deer need to be destroyed to stabilise numbers and reduce their negative impact on woodland plants and the natural habitat of woodland birds.

That was the figure that was widely reported after the publication of a recent study into deer densities, conducted by scientists at the University of East Anglia. The number has since been refuted but there is agreement that in some parts of the UK, deer populations aren't managed as well as they could be. So could that be good news for chefs and consumers?

In the aftermath of the recent supply chain scandal that saw horse meat find its way into products labelled as beef, it does raise the suggestion that venison has a bigger part to play in British diets.

Its star is already on the rise. Sales of venison across the UK rose from £32m in 2006 to £43m in 2009 and consumption is growing by around 20-25% year on year.

"It's becoming more widely available so consumers are seeing it more often, and not just for special occasions. It's on lots of restaurant menus and just about every TV cookery competition there is," said Richard Playfair, secretary of the Scottish Venison Partnership. "We're recognising that it's good for us and about the healthiest red eat there is."

Popularity David Read, chief executive of Prestige Purchasing, agreed and added that on-going spikes in food costs would mean its popularity was likely to continue.

"It's very tasty, iron rich, low in cholesterol and high in anti-oxidants," he explained. "It will become more popular as the cost of pork, beef and lamb consistently rises above the rate of inflation. The deer population is rising faster than everyone thought, which will result in more supply and a more attractive price point."

But despite a potentially abundant supply of some of the six varieties of deer that roam parts of the British countryside, the UK imports much of its venison needs in the form of farmed product, as retailers and food service operators seek a more consistent product.

Prime farmed venison comes from deer of less than 27 months old because the meat, especially from males, becomes progressively tougher after that.

"We know we import around a third of the venison we consume in the UK, getting it from New Zealand, Poland and now Spain," explained Playfair. "Another reason is it is traditionally a seasonal product. So businesses that want the venison the whole year round would either have to source it from cold storage or import it. In some cases there's even a price benefit to bringing the product in from overseas."

Somewhat paradoxically, around a third of the venison produced in the UK is exported, but that comes down to taste rather than availability. Most of the product that is sold overseas, primarily to continental Europe, comes from roe deer, for which the English have less of a palate. Could that be set to change? That remains to be seen.

"Venison is a very generic word," Read said. "There are huge differences between the varieties of deer, which could mean it will become a very fashionable meat in years to come."

And according to Alan Hayward, butcher and game dealer at Vicars Game, the fact that venison is now being sold by its species means the seeds of change have been sown. "That has never happened before and that's a wonderful thing," he said. "It's about educating people.

"Deer are still Bambi to a lot of them. But people have become more and more aware of where their food comes from and there's a lot more acceptance that things do get killed so that they can eat meat."

VARIETIES

Muntjac
About The smallest species in the UK, but it originated in Malaysia
Size From 8kg
Season They have no fixed breeding season and as a result can be hunted all year round
Characteristics A bit like lamb with firm meat that is very fine in grain

Chinese Water Deer
About
The only species that has no antlers and instead the males have very long fangs
Size From 11kg
Season 1 November to 31 March
Characteristics Thick layer of fat over their backs. More like lamb than venison

Roe
About A native breed that was nearly hunted to extinction in the 17th century
Size From 16kg
Season Buck: 1 April to 31 October; doe: 1 November to 31 March
Characteristics Soft, mild, tender meat that is very easy to cook

Sika
About Originally from Japan, Formosa (Taiwan) or Manchuria, depending on the sub-species
Size From 35kg
Season Stag: 1 August to 30 April; hind: 1 November to 31 March
Characteristics Firm, dark and delicious

Fallow
About
Probably introduced by the Romans. Herd deer, making them hard to stalk on open ground
Size From 55kg
Season Buck: 1 August to 30 April; doe: 1 November to 31 March
Characteristics Grainy, not too strong, yields well

Red
About This species used to be found around Britain but is now restricted to Scotland
Size from 90kg (stag), 60kg (hind)
Season Stag: 1 August to 30 April; hind: 1 November to 31 March
Characteristics The meat is very dark and can be delicious, so long as it is not hung for too long

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