Keeping in the Game


Fallow deer at the Knepp Estate in Sussex (photo Julia Claxton)

Game meat is always a bit of a contentious issue. The idea of killing Bambi horrifies kids, whilst the image of the landed gentry striding across moorland estates and blasting birds from the sky doesn’t really strike Joe Public as particularly 21st century. However we should revisit our preconceptions and look at why game meats are great to eat, and also good for the conservation of our countryside.


So, what is game? It’s obviously deer and rabbit, but also a whole variety of bird species such as grouse, duck, goose, partridge and pheasant, and lesser known birds including snipe, woodcock and ptarmigan. Most species are native to the UK, but some have been artificially introduced over the centuries, most notably by the Romans and Normans in the past two millennia.


Some species can be farmed – or at least managed within an enclosure. Many of the grand estates of England and Scotland continue to manage semi-wild populations of deer, and also farm breed game birds that are then released into the wild for the shooting season. However, vast numbers of wild game roam freely around the country enjoying the lack of natural predators – and that includes us – that would historically have kept their numbers down.


With the UK’s deer population now standing at around two million head, it is believed to be at its highest level in the last 1,000 years.


There are six species of deer in the UK. The majestic Red deer that we associate with the Scottish Highlands but that can also be found in forests across England, and the smaller Roe deer which roams throughout the British isles. The other four species – Fallow, Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water deer were all introduced so are not natural players in the ecosystem.


Each species has its own limited shooting ‘open season’, with that for males typically longer than females so as to avoid killing unborn fawns. The Muntjac deer doesn’t have a season, due to its ever-expanding population, although the British Association of Shooting and Game Conservation advises its membership never to shoot an obviously pregnant Muntjac doe.


Wild deer cause a lot of damage to arable crops, tree plantations – they love eating bark – and are detrimental to protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest where they strip out the undergrowth which then undermines the shrub layer for ground nesting birds. It’s suggested by major academic and environmental studies that localised culling of deer should take place to reduce the populations to more eco-system friendly levels.


But perhaps one of the main reasons for looking at reducing deer populations is the surprisingly high number of road accidents they cause annually. The Deer Initiative organisation says up to 74,000 vehicle collisions are registered each year, causing around 450 human injuries and 10-20 human deaths. So when you see a road sign that reads ‘Caution: Deer’ then slow down and pay attention to the sides of the road and not just what is in front of you.


Some people are squeamish about game, because of the intensity of the flavours. Ultimately these animals and birds have been eating a wild diet so their meat is more intense and earthier than domesticated farm animals that eat a diet exclusively of grass and grain. But obviously how you cook the meat, will impact on the flavour. As game is a lot leaner than farmed meat, most cuts don’t require as much cooking.


Grouse is one of the UK's most popular game birds (photo Julia Claxton)

The intensity of flavours is enormous when it comes to game. From the strength of hare, which needs pairing with very bold garnishes to hold up against the huge dominant flavour, through to the really gentle subtle flavours of birds such as pheasant and partridge. Obviously the hanging time in birds such as pheasant makes a huge impact on the end flavours of the meat.


Venison pairs well with earthy flavours such as celeriac and also easily lends itself to fruit and berries such as pear and blackberry. If you’re feeling adventurous try pickling the fruit to add another dimension to the dish.


Certainly from a health perspective, wild game meats are a lot healthier than farmed meats. By the nature of how the animal lives in the wild, it’s moving around more and eating a natural diet which converts into lower fat, higher protein and a range of vitamin benefits including zinc, selenium and vitamin E. Whilst we think of fish such as salmon as being the best source of Omega 3, venison has an optimum ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids making it one of the best sources of good fat. Wild game also doesn’t have any growth hormones or antibiotics in its food chain which is an increasing concern for many consumers who are thinking about what they are putting into their bodies.


If you’re interested in reducing food miles, then game is usually supplied by local gamekeepers to local butchers. Meaning that not only are you eating an animal that hasn’t been intensively farmed and has lived wild until the last second of its life, but also the carbon footprint is incredibly low – as opposed to that leg of New Zealand lamb or steak from Argentina.


To source game locally, check out your local farmers market or quality butcher. Even if the butcher doesn’t have game in, they can certainly order it for you.


In a time where most of the meat that we consume, and the process by which it reaches our tables, is abstract and hidden from us, there is something raw and visceral about game meats but, for many reasons, it’s time we reconsider that and enjoy this quality, healthy and local meat.


Join me for my Taste of Game pop-up dinner event at Christ Church, Henley on Thames on Saturday 5 October. For more information and tickets click here.