Scotland's main game dealers imported the equivalent of 25,000 deer carcases last year to meet a growing demand that shows no sign of abating.

That has prompted the Scottish Venison Partnership to set the ambitious target of 400 more deer farms in Scotland within the next 10 years, to increase output of this increasingly popular lean meat by about a third.

Most will associate deer with Highland "sporting" estates. While deer stalking and culling wild animals has been the main source of venison in the past, it is increasingly being supplied by overseas deer farms in the likes of New Zealand – and that's best for consumers.

Deer-stalkers prefer to shoot "trophy" stags, but such Monarchs of the Glen are mature beasts, whose meat is often tougher than that from younger animals. Farmed deer don't have such variability in meat quality, as they are mostly slaughtered as young animals in their prime.

Another problem with deer shot and gralloched on the hill is that such "game" cannot fulfil the red-meat standards required by the big retailers.

Yes, modern farming methods are a surer way of consistently procuring quality meat than outdated "hunter-gathering".

While deer farming is well established in countries like New Zealand, it has never really taken off in Scotland.

In 1968, a foot and mouth disease outbreak prevented game dealers from selling to their export markets and the Highlands and Islands Development Board began to look at alternative domestic markets.

It noted the high export prices that wild venison was making, and the high – and they believed unsustainable – level of subsidy being paid for hill sheep, and concluded the venison market could be expanded. Others were thinking along similar lines, and in 1970 funding was put in place for an experimental deer farm to be managed jointly by the Hill Farming Research Organisa-tion and the Rowett Research Institute at Glensaugh, Kincardineshire.

An extensive period of research took place both at Glensaugh and in laboratories in Aberdeenshire and elsewhere. All aspects of red deer were investigated, and by 1988, 127 scientific papers had been published, placing Scotland at the forefront of world deer research, both in theoretical and practical skills, for many decades to come.

Buoyed up by publicity, commercial deer farming began to develop in Britain. Private deer farms multiplied and those early farms thrived on a shortage of breeding females.

Prices for red deer hinds reached £500 per head and signifi- cant numbers were captured by feeding wild hinds into enclosures and moving them on to deer farms. Exports of breeding deer to new deer farms worldwide, but especially in Europe, grew and continued for 25 years, with one Scottish deer farm winning the Queen's Award for Export in 1990.

As the price of breeding hinds inevitably declined, attention shifted to the marketing of venison. With the emphasis moving from the lucrative sale of breeding hinds it became less easy to generate revenue and many deer farmers became disaffected and abandoned the project.

Another reason for the decline was the absence of specialist abattoirs in Scotland – the only dedicated deer abattoir was at Round Green Farm, Barnsley, in South Yorkshire – although Scottish deer were killed at conventional abattoirs in Dundee, Strathavon and Galashiels.

The industry's contraction accelerated as those who started deer farming in the 1980s retired. There was also a sense of betrayal among those long-established deer farmers when deer were excluded when single farm payments were introduced on a historical basis.

Politician's had encouraged farmers to diversify into deer farming during the 1980s and 1990s, reassuring them that subsidies would soon be phased out. Indeed, a number of deer farmers had been given "start-up packages", with grants for deer fencing and the provision of hinds, from the Scottish Department of Agriculture.

As it became clear that deer farmers were not to be included in the agricultural support mechanism, many became dispirited and abandoned the project, and that inevitably discouraged others from entering the industry.

Against that backdrop of betrayal, the Scottish Venison Partnership will have to work hard to encourage new entrants to the industry. They may be helped by the pending reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy support payments that look set to include deer farming – but nothing is certain.

The partnership can also tout financial results currently being achieved, that indicate deer can be more profitable than sheep when you discount subsidies. That has been helped by the price of venison rising from £3.30 to £4.40 per kg deadweight over the past 18 months, and yearling hinds for breeding up from £250 to between £350 and £400 over the same period.

Those who breed and finish deer for slaughter are cur- rently achieving gross margins of around £76 per hind. Given a level playing field with sub-sidies, that compares very favourably with sheep.