Venison production in the UK if becoming popular with mainstream agriculturalists, and a Venison Advisory Service open day at Innerhadden Estate, Perthshire, provided interested parties with some advice. Ewan Pate reports.
There is huge growth potential for venison production in the UK as venison is now recognised as a healthy premium red meat option and domestic consumption is increasing.
Alan Sheddon, an independent consultant and board member of the Venison Advisory Service (VAS), explained: “New Zealand has been exporting about 1,200 tonnes of venison to the UK annually but that has now dropped to 1,000t, with more being sent to China and the Far East.
"Farmed production in the UK is increasing but it is still only about 75t per year, so there is no reason why it should not be taken to the next level.”
The management skills required will be familiar to anyone used to suckler cows or sheep, although the labour requirement is far less onerous. This is particularly the case at calving, with very little intervention required.
“The hinds are better left completely alone. They will calve quickly and quietly and then hide their calves for four or five days.
"A piece of ground with rushes or some other form of cover is ideal. The important thing at this stage is to feed the hinds well because the calves can put on 500g per day which is huge for a young animal,” said Mr Sneddon.
Calving mostly takes place in May and June, with weaning taking place in autumn when the youngsters weigh about 55kg.
One stag can serve about 40 hinds and although first calvers at two years old will only have a weaning percentage of 70 per cent, this will increase to more than 90 per cent for adult hinds.
The gestation period is seven-and-a-half months and out-wintering on silage and a little hard feed is the norm.
“The aim is to produce a 60kg carcase at 14-18 months old. To achieve this weaned calves should be introduced to about 1kg per day of whole barley and protein as soon as possible.
Yearlings adapt to winter housing remarkably quickly and there is no need for fancy accommodation,” said Mr Sneddon.
To meet market specification young stags should be finished off grass in their second summer, with paddock grazing systems proving suitable. Young hinds are mostly being sold for breeding or retained and that is likely to continue while the national herd is expanding.
Breeding stags are selected on conformation, temperament and health status and are easy enough to handle except during the autumn rut when they can be aggressive and unpredictable.
Mr Sneddon added: “The key for deer farming is to have good fencing and handling facilities. Most deaths are caused by misadventure with poorly designed gates or crushes.
"Raceways leading up to the handling pens should be long with kinks so that the deer always think they are getting away from you. It is possible to top up existing stock fences but really it is best to have purpose-built, full height fencing with gates positioned carefully to aid stock flow.”
Red deer are generally healthy even in a farmed situation and although they suffer from some of the same diseases as cattle and sheep, they show far fewer clinical signs.
Deer farmer and vet Dr John Fletcher believes this is because they have not been selectively bred to enhance production. Nonetheless, he recommends all producers have a health plan.
“Apart from anything else it is required by the multiple retailers. The Quality Meat Scotland template can be used as a basis for a robust plan,” he said.
“Although none are particularly problematic, lungworm, fluke, TB and Johne’s all have to be considered. Abattoir feedback is important.
Copper deficiency can be problem and will cause swollen knees and hock joints in calves and swayback in yearlings.
It may be a case of using copper boluses. If you are using concentrates use a cattle mix rather than a sheep mix because these have higher levels of copper in them.”
In terms of routine management, Dr Fletcher recommended quarantining purchased stock. De-antlering also reduced many of the handling problems and could be done painlessly as soon at the velvet had cleared off the antler.
Mark Mitchell, of rural agents Bell Ingram, told the VAS meeting that he could see a place for between 300 and 400 enterprises across Scotland compared to the 40 already operational.
Retailer demand has grown in recent years, with some supermarkets recording 100 per cent growth year-on-year.
“To replace the 1,200 tonnes per year which comes from New Zealand would require production to multiply by a factor of 18,” he said.
Banks were prepared to back deer farming in a way that they were not when demand was less certain and there are now dedicated deer abattoirs.
“Historically there was no support for deer farming but since 2014 and the introduction of the Basic Payment Scheme land used for deer farming is eligible for support, so it is a level playing field at last.”
Richard Barclay has farmed red deer on his 2,226-hectare (5,500-acre) Innerhadden Estate for two years and now runs a herd of 180 hinds on 60ha (150 acres) of the better in-bye land.
He said: “Our main business here is the Rannoch Smokery and we also have hydro and holiday cottages. I realised that although I lived in a spectacular place I hardly ever saw it because I was spending all my time behind a desk. I wanted a project which I could do myself and deer farming fitted the bill.”
The move coincided with the ending of a contract sheep farming arrangement and now the deer are the only livestock on the estate. Mr Barclay was able to buy an existing herd from a public park at Beescraig, West Lothian, so he has a herd of mixed ages.
“I have been amazed at how settled they have become and how easily the young deer socialised in the shed over winter. A simple division in a general purpose shed has worked well and I feed them twice-a-day in sheep troughs. Silage is fed in ring feeders inside but for the hinds which are out-wintered a bale spreader works best as it reduces bullying. I use a snacker behind the quad to feed concentrate.”
The hinds receive no routine drugs and the handling system only needs to be used once each year at weaning time.