4 May 2023
The Bambi problem.
By Lynda Goetz
For a long time now the Brits seem to have had a problem with eating meats like deer (venison) or rabbit. This is not really the case elsewhere in Europe and did not used to be the case here. Now it seems ministers are urging the public to eat venison to help curb the growing deer problem in the British Isles. (They have not yet tried this approach with rabbits, although as anyone who lives in the country could tell you, these too are a growing problem once again). It is hard to know why eating these animals is such a problem for those who have little issue with eating lamb or even chickens (known to make good pets).
The case for eating rabbit or venison as a means of control is strong, but many are suspicious. These are wild animals and for most urban dwellers very much an unknown quantity. Could they be diseased? There are no Health and Safety controls, so who knows where they’ve been, what they have been eating, what they might have picked up. Then, there is the Bambi issue, of course, otherwise known as the ‘fluffy bunny’ problem. For children brought up with stories of sweet little rabbits and baby deer, the idea of having these things presented as food can be upsetting, if realistic discussions have not been had around the subject of food. This is not going to get any easier with the current trend, amongst the young particularly, to view meat generally as a ‘problem’ for both environmental and health reasons.
A recent report which appeared in Animal Frontiers after dozens of experts were asked to look into such claims, argued that meat protein is actually important for human health and that unprocessed meat provides a high proportion of elements required in the human diet. It claimed that the 2019 Global Burden of Health Risk Factors report which posited that even small quantities of red meat were dangerous was ‘fatally flawed’. Nevertheless, the current prevailing direction of travel does seem to be on the side of reducing the amount of meat being produced and eaten. A 2021 report showed that meat consumption in the UK had reduced by 17% in the previous decade, but the UK government’s National Food Strategy is aiming for a 30% reduction within the next 10 years. The Countryside Alliance has raised the Plant Based Treaty as a local election issue after discovering that this document, endorsed by various cities, undertakes to ‘halt the widespread degradation of critical ecosystems caused by animal agriculture’. In practice apparently, this misguided document is designed inter alia to prevent the the creation of new farms for raising animals, the conversion of plant-based farms to animal agriculture and the construction of new slaughterhouses. It makes no distinction between good and bad farming practices and in its current form could be extremely damaging to farming and the rural economy.
As the National Farmers Union constantly attempts to point out to government, good farming practices should be considered an important part of government strategy and farmers have every interest in looking after the land on which their livelihood depends. However, although British farming methods are causing nowhere near the environmental damage caused by the ‘slash and burn’ approach still common in many developing countries (e.g. places like Madagascar where the Chinese demand for zebu meat has led to a catastrophic reduction in forestation) perhaps it is a good time to encourage the consumption of ‘wild’ or ‘non-farmed’ meat such as venison.
Although wild, deer in a small country like ours still need to be managed as they have no natural predators. Although many may not be aware, there are a number of different species of deer living in the UK, not all of which are native. Species like the muntjac, originally from Asia, which have spread throughout the south of England having escaped from the Duke of Bedford’s estate at Woburn Abbey during the early 20th C, do not live in large herds like Red Deer or Fallow. They, like the native Roe deer, live in small family groups in woodland, farmland and grassland areas. However, like the larger deer they too can cause damage by consuming tree shoots, plants, crops and shrubs. The UK deer population had been massively increasing from the late 90s onwards, but as the meat has never been widely sold for home consumption, the fall in demand from restaurants as well as less active management during the Covid lockdowns resulted in further increases. The UK deer population is now estimated at around two million, compared with a pre-pandemic estimate of around one and a half million. Not since the Norman conquest has the deer population been this high. Since the 1963 Deer Act, hunters require a licence to shoot deer, which cannot be treated as vermin even though they might be destroying saplings and crops. The new proposed quality assurance scheme will aim to promote both the useful management of the deer population, a nationwide venison market and generally assist in sustaining UK forests.
As someone who has been eating venison since I was in my teens, thanks to close connections with a number of those involved in the deer world, I can safely say it is absolutely one of my favourite meats. It is lean and tasty and if you are ever fortunate enough to be able to try different varieties of venison then do take up the opportunity. They are not all quite the same! This initiative may not save the planet, or indeed your health, but from a number of perspectives it makes a great deal of sense. This is a national, natural resource which has been long neglected or ignored. Culling wild deer and using the meat will introduce the general public to a delicious new and sustainable food source and protect woodlands and crops from predation by excessive deer numbers. A win-win situation. The meat badged with the new quality assurance check mark is expected to go on sale next year.