Venison. Photograph: Alamy
A piece for The Guardian’s Comment is Free on the rise in venison sales across the UK
The British have finally embraced venison. Sales of the meat have risen by 50% in Sainsbury’s compared with last year, while Marks & Spencer sold three times as much in 2011 as it did in 2010. Total UK sales have more than doubled in the past five years, as British consumers haveshown a preference for more unusual meats and more game.
As a meat, venison has a lot going for it. Its ferrous, gamey flavour is far more interesting than flabby pork or cheap chicken. Gram for gram, it contains less fat than a skinless chicken breast. It has the highest protein and the lowest cholesterol content of any major meat. It’s thoroughly sustainable and always free-range. Why, then, has it taken so long to become popular?
A clue lies in the name: the word “venison” comes from the Latin verb for hunting: venare. For centuries, venison was restricted to the wild meat that landowning families sourced on their estates. The Normans and the Plantagenets demarcated much of England into royal forests, preventing farming on those lands in order to promote the growth of deer, wild boar and specific birds they enjoyed hunting. It thus became almost impossible for ordinary Britons to eat any venison unless they poached it, and the penalties for that were severe.
This entrenched a perception that venison was intrinsically high-end or “posh”, the effects of which linger to this day. It isn’t helped by the fact that a deer – perhaps especially the majestic red deer of the Scottish Highlands – is an exceptionally handsome creature, in a Landseerish sort of way. When Country Life magazine launched a campaign in 2008 for the UK to eat more venison, it knew it would have to brook fierce opposition from a public inclined to sympathise with good-looking mammals.
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A red stag in Richmond Park. Photo: Getty
A piece on stalking for the Guardian
When the first deer appears, seemingly from nowhere, I swing the rifle round too quickly and it spots the movement, vanishing without a sound. We wait a few frozen minutes up in the high seat, until the stalker decides it isn’t coming back, and whispers that we should hunt from the ground. Once I’m halfway down the ladder, the muntjac skitters past almost in mockery.
There are probably more deer living wild in the UK than ever. No one knows how many; they are secretive, wide-roaming animals, and populations fluctuate each year. But they breed quickly, lack predators apart from humans, and are superbly adapted to life in the British countryside. These islands’ six free-living species total well over 1m animals, who thrive even though 350,000 are shot and 74,000 are involved in car accidents every year.
Anti-hunting, pro-animal charities and much of the general public question the ethics of stalking. “It’s a bloodsport, a branch of the entertainment rather than the food industry,” says Alistair Currie, policy adviser for Peta. “Many of the animals are not killed instantly, and the killing of individual animals by hunters leads to changes in the local deer population which lead to other stresses.” What of farmers whose crops are damaged or destroyed by deer? “As ever with human dealings with animals,” says Currie, “the solution is a lethal one. Fences keep deer out.” (People involved in deer management claim that putting up costly fences and letting nature control deer numbers condemns many deer to starvation, and many more to acute hunger.) A spokeswoman from the League Against Cruel Sports tells me it’s “crazy” that “untrained people are allowed to go out and shoot deer. At the absolute least, we think there should be a minimum competency of gun use before people are allowed to stalk them.”
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