Changing consumer tastes and a desire to try out different types of food is leading to a surge in the venison market and, as demand grows, Ben Briggs visits the Cairngorms to meet two pioneers leading deer production and helping shape its future.
In a world in which consumers’ meat eating habits are shifting all the time, traditional tastes for red meat have seen the most significant change of all.
Between 2005 and 2015, the amount of beef purchased in Britain dropped from 293,000 tonnes to 275,000t, while at the same time, consumption of white meat, such as chicken, grew by 13 per cent.
As society has undergone profound cultural shifts over the past 25 years, the nature of many people’s culinary habits has changed, with more emphasis on diversity and choice than any other time.
While the staples of beef and lamb struggle to maintain their market share, venison is reversing its trend and seeing a rise in sales, with some of the big supermarkets seeing year-on-year growth in sales of 115 per cent in recent years.
It is against this backdrop efforts are gathering pace to promote deer farming as a viable option to farmers who believe they can make it work on their units.
One of those leading the way is Ali Loder, who farms at Culquoich Farm, Glenkindie, Aberdeenshire, and has 200 breeding females, plus stags, which form part of his Strathdon Deer enterprise.
With 1.9-metre (6ft 3in) fences rising to contain the animals on the smart unit, it is quite removed from the traditional image of deer one might associate with Scotland, with those of huge stags silhouetted against the ever-present Highland backdrops in the country’s marketing message.
Yet this is commercial deer farming and Ali has been producing animals for both breeding and eating purposes since 2004.
Ali, who runs the 80-hectare (200-acre) enterprise, says: “The market is completely different to when I started. I got a grant to go into it, but the route to market was not as smooth or as constant as it is now.
“The problem for supermarkets is if they put venison on their shelves and it sells out, they might struggle to get hold of new stock, which is not good. They are therefore restricting where they put it into.”
With only 35 commercial deer herds in Scotland, the issue of supply and demand is a pertinent one, especially considering New Zealand, the world leader in farmed venison, has a national herd of more than 250,000 deer.
This also gives it huge clout when it comes to exports, with much of it making its way to the UK, after the major export destinations of the USA and Germany.
The rising demand and relative lack of numbers on the ground is why the Venison Advisory Service (VAS) is so keen for more people to come into the industry.
The consultancy is headed by three directors: Dick Playfair; Alan Sneddon; and John Fletcher – the latter being, in many ways, the godfather of the Scottish commercial industry.
The founding president of the Veterinary Deer Association, John has dedicated his life to the deer industry, both as a vet who graduated from Glasgow University and an early trailblazer of online marketing for venison.
John says: “We started a mail order venison business and it made me realise farming is only a small part of the meat business. There is so much more involved in getting it to market.”
With a PhD from Cambridge via studies on the Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides, John still has the 20ha (48-acre) smallholding and deer herd he started in 1973.
Having seen the market rise and fall several times, John and Dick are convinced the demand currently being stimulated by retailers such as Waitrose is here for the long-term.
John says: “The market became overheated initially, then some TB issues crept in and it was enough to kill off many of those early ventures.
“It has now started to grow steadily and we believe it is going in the right direction. People have been interested in venison for a while and the change in meat eating habits means venison is a growing niche.”
Dick says: “The market is growing at 10 per cent a year at the moment, which shows there is latent demand from the consumer.”
He is clear that what happens to deer on the hill is a different business and breeding model to what goes on at commercial units, such as Ali’s.
Dick says: “What goes on on the hill is a management function and is a different product. We now have new entrants’ support and subsidies can be claimed for deer farming enterprises, which is a big thing for us.
“The farmed product is consistent and, with animals being culled at the same age, it leads to good conformation in the product hitting the shelves.”
Getting started in the industry is beginning to tempt those who see it as a viable business option as demand rises among the public.
The physical infrastructure on farm, if Ali’s unit is anything to go by, needs to have been properly thought through, so both hinds and stags can be handled safely and calmly.
After all, with their huge antlers and powerful frames, stags have the capacity to hurt farmers if not put into the right system.
Ali’s smooth handling system flows animals through different pens and into the shed where they can be pinned in a specially designed crush if antlers and hooves need trimming, or other attention is needed for the stock.
Out in fields, fences rise to 1.9m (6ft 3in), either purpose-built to such a height or existing stock fences boosted to reach this level.
Ali tries to finish stags so they produce a deadweight carcase of 60kg and hinds at 50kg, both at about 16-17 months of age. He is adamant the better the grazing, the better they taste so he looks to finish them off grass.
Ali says: “The better the ground, the better the results. If you finish on marginal land, the product might not have the taste you are looking for.”
He warns there is currently a real shortage of stock, with many of his females sold as breeding stock and his stags going for meat.
“There is a real shortage of breeding stock, which is one of the constraints new entrants are facing.”
John adds: “Nobody is culling females at the moment because of this shortage, but females can breed until they are 12 years old, so there is longevity in them.”
With a hind selling for about £450-£500 as a breeding animal and stags as high as £2,000, all animals Ali shifts from his unit for breeding are via private sales. He is also striving to improve the genetics of his herd on a constant basis.
He says: “I am trying to bring in Romanian bloodlines to add a bit of size to the carcase and try to improve genetics of Scottish deer.”
Yet for Ali, and the others, there is some tension about how to best develop the industry going forward and which organisations will play a key role in the growth of Scottish, and UK, venison.
Ali says: “New Zealand is marketing its deer to the USA and spending millions of dollars in the process. In Scotland, we know Quality Meat Scotland is not interested in promoting venison, as it does not have a levy on it.
“It has also only been the last couple of years we have seen bigger herds arrive and for bigger operators to emerge.
“When I started, there was very little information available about how to handle deer and about the wider industry in general, but now there is much more for people to draw on.”
With availability of stock potentially a limiting short-term factor for the growth of the industry, there is no doubt those seeking to drive the deer industry forward believe there is a bright future for commercial deer farming, particularly in Scotland.
If the British consumer continues to adopt adventurous culinary choices, in time, venison could become a red meat success story.