Often regarded as too posh for everyday dinners, could eating more venison be the key to solving a range of environmental problems?

Overlooked by Schiehallion and clinging to the banks of Loch Rannoch, the family-run Innerhadden Estate is the very essence of Highland hunting and shooting utopia.

Most years Richard Barclay will see around 30 wild stags and 60 red deer despatched from his estate’s land. More recently, however, it’s his herd of farmed deer that is helping to bring home the bacon.

For alongside the 5,500-acre Innerhadden Estate’s long-established stalking business, is one of Scotland’s growing numbers of venison farms.

Launched in 2016, Richard now keeps 200 hinds on around 150 acres of fenced-off land. It’s hands-off farming: there’s little a deer farmer needs to do other than roll up, keep an eye on things and, when the calves reach 18 months old, send them to market.

It may seem a slight contradiction for Scottish highland estates to want to take on board even higher numbers of the very animals that can pose such an array of problems in the wild.


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But if moves to encourage more of us to swap our red meat – or, indeed, even vegetarian diets – for more sustainable and environmentally-friendly venison, then fields of farmed deer may become as much a feature of the countryside as sheep and cattle.

It’s a vision expressed by net zero campaigner Lord Adair Turner, who recently revealed how he has switched to eating venison and duck as part of his personal efforts to help the environment.

The chair of the Energy Transition Commission, a global coalition of leaders from across the energy landscape committed to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century, warned consumers must cut down on red meat to stop deforestation.

Talking to Times Radio, he warned heavy red meat diets are driving the loss of tropical forests for soya beans destined to aid meat production, and to cattle pasture.

The former head of the CBI and the Financial Services Authority said he had “dramatically” reduced his own red meat intake in favour of venison and duck: “I used to be a big beef meat eater,” he said, adding: “I've cut it almost to zero.”

His comments may be a “hallelujah” moment for the venison sector – precisely the message it has been trying to hammer home. Indeed, just days later came the launch in England of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs quality control scheme, intended to boost consumer confidence in venison and encourage new markets to help absorb the rising problems posed by too many wild deer. Numbers soared in England as culls were halted due to Covid.

But while work begins in England to boost venison consumption, efforts are already well underway in Scotland. Launched in 2018, the Scottish venison strategy Beyond the Glen announced aims to establish new markets to absorb culled wild venison and increase Scottish farmed venison production from 100 tonnes to 850 tonnes by 2030.

That would see the annual kill of farmed venison soar from 1,700 animals to 15,000 per year - growing the value of the sector from £540,000 to £4.6m at the farm gate.

That, along with culled wild venison – of which around a third of the 3,500 tonnes culled annually is currently exported – could see venison find its way onto the dinner plates of far more Scots more regularly, in a wider range of convenience foods and, potentially, in school dinners and hospital meals.

Key aims of the strategy are to improve and create new supply chains, invest in the abattoir and processing sector to meet growing demand, and to encourage more farmers to embrace the idea of deer farming.

Farmed deer is far from new: Europe’s deer farming industry began in Scotland, when an initiative led by Sir Kenneth Blaxter at The Rowett Research Institute near Aberdeen saw an experimental deer farm launched in 1969 at Glensaugh, near Fettercairn.

The first fully commercial deer farm arrived in Fife in 1973.

Today Innerhadden Estate’s herd of 200 managed deer is one of around 100 registered deer farm holdings in Scotland – with hopes rising that there will soon be many more.

“It’s an animal not widely known in farming world, not every farmer wants to farm something they don’t know anything about,” says Richard.

“As farmers, you can be far more ‘hands off’ than if you’re sheep or cattle farming.

“You can leave them to their own devices: I’ve never given the animals antibiotics; they need minimal medical intervention - just a bit of worming but not the inherent problems that sheep and cattle have.

“The flipside is that they are hard to handle: they still have that wild streak.

“They’re lovely to look after and beautiful to look at.”

That, however, could be part of the problem for consumers who have become increasingly detached from the blood and guts reality of meat production.

“I don’t think it’s that people are not eating venison because they’re thinking of Bambi,” Richard adds, “I think they don’t know much about it.

“Venison is perceived as ‘posh man’s food’, especially the wild stuff culled on the hill. It’s seen as a ‘hunting shooting’ thing and difficult to cook, but that’s a myth.

“I eat a lot of venison mince in lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese. You can make it into burgers or, if I’m cutting a piece for myself, I do a roast or steak. The trick is not to overcook it.”


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One sign of venison’s creeping entry into the everyday shopper’s basket comes from Dundee-based Highland Game.

Originally a poultry and game dealer’s production unit, it was acquired by Danish entrepreneur Christian Nissen in 1997. At that time, venison was mainly sold through independent butchers and delicatessens, with just 5% of UK venison consumed domestically and the rest sent to France and Germany.

However, its family-friendly products such as burgers, sausages, grillsteaks and meatballs has seen it double in size many times over.

A key turning point has been the arrival of its venison products on the shelves of budget retailer, Aldi – recently named in the Eat Game Awards as the large game retailer of the year.

Annette Woolcock, head of wild food at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, says it helping bring venison to a rising number of UK tables.

“Once people try it, they love it but there’s a worry about trying it and cooking it. And it’s perceived as being expensive, something to eat in a restaurant,” she says.

“It’s a case of educating consumers about the whole process of wild venison production. It’s not that anyone is trying to eradicate deer from the landscape, we are trying to control them, so there are good healthy herds, we can maintain woodlands and crops and for conservation.”

Richard Playfair of the Scottish Venison Association points to a string of initiatives aimed at boosting venison production, consumption and improving education.

One is Hill to Grill, an educational initiative that allows secondary school pupils to shadow deer stalkers, then watch as a butcher transforms a deer carcass to venison products.

Elsewhere, growing numbers of small rural communities are working with stalkers to establish their own venison larders, taking in carcasses killed in the wild to butcher and then distribute the meat.

And Highland estates are increasingly making use of social media to spread word of their products and delivering them to customers across the country.

“Just four years ago we didn’t have any data on venison sales, now research for that is being funded,” he adds.

“There’s also a programme that’s assessing what the processing sector looks like, where the pinch points are so we can see how to improve getting wild venison to market.

“Part of that involves training stalkers in butchery skills, making local independent butchers more comfortable handling it so venison appears in the butcher’s window next to the more traditional cuts of beef.”

Another Scottish Government supported scheme is following private enterprises as they grow into full-scale venison producers who can then share their knowledge with others, helping to grow the sector.

“We have to be sure whatever is killed on the hill ends up on someone’s plate and not buried in the ground,” he adds.

“We have a brilliant food resource, but there’s an educational job to be done, and cultural change – people need to recognise venison is healthy, decent protein not just for special occasions and when you go to restaurant.”