IT is famed worldwide as Scotland’s monarch of the glen whose meat has long been regarded as the foodstuff of kings. And now the drive is on to make homegrown venison the next premium dish to emerge from Scotland’s well-stocked larder of quality produce,

The Scottish Government is seeking to promote venison and raise the industry’s profile with fresh investment and initiatives to target growth, putting it on the same track as Aberdeen Angus beef and Loch Fyne oysters.

However, it is not the meat of wild deer shot on the hills and glens that is being targeted, but a new revolution in farmed meat which could support the industry all year round.

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Despite vast numbers of deer being culled in Scotland, venison remains an underused resource and much of that sold in UK supermarkets is imported from New Zealand.

Scotland is the largest producer of venison in the UK, producing 3,500 tonnes of wild venison, but only 70 tonnes of farmed venison, each year.

Earlier this month, Scottish Environment Link, an umbrella group of conservation charities, called for tough laws to compel shooting estates to cull a set number of stags and hinds each year.

They believe that the huge wild herds, said to number around 350,000 animals, are damaging the environment by stripping away new tree growth.

The Association of Deer Management Groups, which represents the estates, opposes this move saying that local landowners are best placed to control the herds which cross their lands.

The Scottish Government has prepared a report on the management of wild deer, which is due to be released in the coming weeks.

Wild venison is a gamey meat which has only niche appeal in its local market, and much of what is taken from the hills is exported to European countries such as Germany and France, where there is an appetite for such stronger flavours. It is also heavily seasonal, with shooting allowed between July and October for stags, and October and February for hinds.

But farmed venison is available all the year round. It is lighter in flavour than its wild counterpart and it is hoped it could soon find a wider audience among Scottish consumers.

With a fat content of just 2% – lower than chicken – it is one of the most nutritious of all red meats and a good source of healthy protein, along with iron and vitamin B.

In the Borders, farmer Stuart Mitchell has turned his back on the sheep farming which has been his family’s stock in trade for decades in favour of venison production.

A year after selling their flock of 1,000 ewes, the residents of Whitriggs Farm are fawning over their new stock of red deer. The farmers have built up the herd from scratch to 300 over the last 16 months. It is one of 30 deer farms in Scotland.

The decision to move away from sheep was made after they discovered 82% of their flock, near Denholm in the Borders, had the viral disease maedi visna.

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“We tried to work our way out of it by breeding from those that were clear of the disease. When we retested them six months later, two-thirds of the negative ones were now positive,” said Mitchell. “We sold them all when they were in good condition. The money we got wasn’t an awful lot but we weren’t prepared to put that back into sheep in uncertain times.

“We had started looking at other enterprises the previous year, including pigs and chickens, but venison production suited our skills a lot better.”

One of the first steps in the journey towards setting up the deer enterprise was securing a contract from the First Venison co-operative, which sells meat to Waitrose supplier Dovecote Park.

However, they will have to wait until September or October next year – more than two years after getting their first 50 deer in August 2018 – to see any return on their investment.

In addition to the cost of the fencing, they have had to pay out £2,500 per stag and £450 per hind, and build specialist deer-handling facilities, including a shed to house the calves from mid-September to March.

Mitchell says his family have no regrets about their decision to buck the trend and branch out into deer farming.

“There haven’t been a lot of problems,” he said. “Deer take a lot less management than sheep – it’s often a case of leaving them to get on with it and just enjoying them.

“It has meant we can give more attention to increasing the profitability of our cattle, and we now have a grain enterprise where we sell grain rather than having to keep it for feeding animals.

“When you come to handling deer, they are a lot quieter than you would think. You go into a field and they all come towards you and stand and look at you. In the summer, you can just sit in a field for ages and watch them. They are really inquisitive animals.”

The most recent estimates show that there are thought to be around three-quarters of a million wild deer in Scotland.

With no predators to keep numbers in check, thousands have to be culled each year to protect the environment, with licences issued to take down 35,000 in 2020 alone. Aside from encouraging deer farming, part of the Scottish Government’s strategy for venison would see greater access to get it to market, with better supply chains and facilities to preserve the meat.

This approach has been backed by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, which called for recreational deer managers to be allowed to undertake supervised culls in a document sent to MSPs at the end of last year.

Dick Playfair, secretary of the Scottish Venison Partnership, said: “The first-ever strategy for Scottish venison was launched by the Scottish Government in 2018 covering venison from both wild and farmed sources.

“Increasing interest in and output from farmed deer, which remain a small component in terms of overall venison supply, is a part of that strategy as the UK continues to import significant quantities of venison from New Zealand and elsewhere to meet market demand.

“While the consequences of Brexit remain unknown, Scotland has the skills and resource to grow its stake in a home market which is increasingly focused on quality product and healthy eating, venison being the healthiest of all red meats.

“A Scottish Government-funded market and consumer research programme that will give the sector a much better idea of venison performance across the UK, who is eating it, how frequently and much more has been commissioned and is being undertaken over the next two months. This will provide up-to-date data about how the venison market is performing and where future opportunities lie.”