‘Deer are destroying habitats’: push to get venison on to UK dinner plates
“It’s crazy and indefensible,” says the MP Charles Walker. “Venison is a wonderful, sustainable resource but is seen as too posh to eat, ergo – very few people eat it and it ends up being made into dog food. It’s a contradiction of mind-bending proportions.”
From ancient Celtic folklore and Arthurian romance to the Harry Potter films and Warcraft games, it is the iconic stag that is conjured up to symbolise the spirit of ancient England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
But now conservationists, environmentalists and the farming community have come together to warn that Milton’s “behemoth biggest born of earth” is destroying the countryside it has come to represent.
Thanks to a two-year pause in culling during Covid, the deer population is at its highest level for 1,000 years: at about 2 million animals – 50 years ago, the population was at 450,000 – there are more deer nibbling away at trees and crops now than when William the Conqueror arrived.
These herds are growing exponentially: at the current rate, there will be almost 2.4 million deer in the UK by the end of the year.
“It has no natural predators any more,” said Jim Lee, the lead wildlife manager of Forestry England. “Bears, wolves and lynxes are long gone. Control through culling is the only plausible answer, otherwise deer destroy the habitats of our native flora and fauna, and the ability of trees and soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere.”
Given the speed with which deer breed, at least 750,000 animals need to be culled this year just to stop this enormous population increasing further. Thanks to post-Brexit complications in exporting the meat, however, and the lack of a UK market for venison, only 350,000 animals are currently being culled each year.
At the same time, a growing number of families hit by the cost of living crisis need healthy food, particularly from protein-rich food groups including meat.
There are now more food banks across the UK than ever: far more than there are McDonald’s outlets. But while demand has soared, donations have plummeted – in some cases by up to 70%. Protein-rich foods donations in particular have become a scarcity.
A pilot scheme says it can help solve all these urgent issues at the same time: Forestry England, Farm Wilder and the Country Food Trust, of which Walker is chair, is determined to get wild venison on to dinner plates across the country. Increasing demand, the Conservative MP said, would enable more animals to be culled and give the countryside a chance to recover from the herds.
To increase demand in a resistant market, the three organisations have created a pipeline funnelling protein-rich, low-fat, low-cholesterol venison meals to food banks, schools, hospitals, the armed forces and prisons across the country.
The pilot is starting with food banks: Forestry England will supply 5,000kg of wild venison from forests in Devon and Cornwall to Farm Wilder this year. It will process the venison into ragu and the Country Food Trust will distribute it.
“These meals have literally been a lifesaver,” said Gill Bates, the manager of the Bexley food bank in Erith. “Demand from families is up by 150% but we often have no protein in stock at all. This is a problem because from a health point of view, proteins are the building blocks of life, far more so than the white carbohydrates we get donated in far greater bulk.”
By the end of the year, it is hoped 1 million visitors to food banks will have dined on wild venison ragu. And that’s just the pilot: the aim is to roll the scheme out nationally.
SJ Hunt, the chief executive of the Country Food Trust, has been told to expect a call from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) shortly to set up a meeting. “I’m hoping they’re going to agree to scale us up,” she said. “Then we can really address the food poverty issue right across the country.”