The deer hunter: why we should eat more venison
by Nick Harman | 28 September 2012 | 16 commentsTweet
Venison is just one of the natural, organic and free-range meats we wastefully ignore in this country. Nick Harman stalks his supper to find out more.
It's 6 a.m. It's dark, it's freezing and I’m trying to find a tree with an armed man at my side. Somewhere out there wild deer are beginning to wake up and, with any luck one is destined to be my dinner.
‘It all looks rather different in the dark,’ says Barry apologetically as we once again, and with great difficulty, reverse our way out of a dense thicket. He may be a fully licensed and highly skilled deer manager, but he’s not so good at finding his own ‘high seat’ at 6 a.m.
A high seat is a platform up a tree from where wild deer are shot. The idea is that owing to the angle any misses will go into the ground and not into the nearest town. To get up to the seat you clamber up a simple ladder as quietly as you possibly can. ‘Deer are crepuscular’, Barry whispers as we finally sit aloft, trying to see into the pitch black.
Crepuscular means mostly active at dawn and dusk and slowly we begin to make out the field below us. Small bundles black against the frost-rimed grass reveal themselves to be waking partridges and from out of the treeline a fox emerges. Barry takes up his powerful binoculars and looks for signs of deer while I enjoy the wonder of simply being here as soft light breaks over the South Downs.
There’s a job to be done
Barry is no Hemingway-esque hunter; he’s not here for fun. The simple truth is that deer need to be culled to contain their growing numbers. ‘They have no predators,’ he explains as he loads .243 calibre soft nosed bullets into his ‘scoped’ rifle.
The problem is that deer strip bark from trees, destroy nesting sites of nightingales and dormice and trample crops. Every year there are also up to 74,000 accidents involving deer hit by cars, accidents that often prove fatal for both deer and drivers.
‘What we do isn’t cruel,’ Barry says, scanning the field. ‘Farmers used to control deer by poison, snares and even shotguns! That was quite inhumane. When we shoot a deer it’s dead instantaneously, it doesn’t suffer at all and has led a free life up until the last second.’
Suddenly Barry seems to have a fit, making noises that suggest either demonic possession or a large bone in his throat. ‘I’m imitating a deer,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes they’ll come over to see what’s going on.’
A gralloching good time
No luck today and at 8 a.m. we call it a morning and trudge back to where we left the 4x4s. The other teams have done better and there’s a dead deer waiting for us. It’s cleaned on the spot, ‘gralloched’ in a way that is perhaps gruesome to behold but matter of fact and avoids any bacteria from the gut tainting the meat.
The entrails and other bits are left for the foxes, rooks, badgers, hedgehogs and a host of other creatures who will make short work of the mess, cleaning it up totally and organically. Our deer is taken off to be hung, scheduled to appear on a local menu in around 14 days’ time.
And this is the point. Game is good. Venison is a fine meat, low in fat and relatively inexpensive and yet few people eat it outside of those who live in the country and who are connected to the deer conservationists and gamekeepers. To put it bluntly we seem scared of our country’s own locally sourced and organic meat options, which is such a waste.
Deer management is a vital part of the maintenance process of the English countryside. Some estimates say that 500,000 deer need to be culled to bring numbers back to sustainable proportions.
It has to be done and it is done. The real tragedy would be to see the resulting meat go to waste or to be pet food. So seek out game in the supermarkets, because even Lidls stocks venison, pester your butcher and enjoy the UK’s wonderful range of local, organic, sustainable and healthy meats.
Do you eat venison? Let us know in the comments below.