Farming Opinion: Deer population needs to be controlled, says Graham Downing
Chairman of the Country Land & Business Association’s Suffolk branch, GRAHAM DOWNING, on the need to keep control of wildlife populations in our species-rich countryside, and the joys of a venison steak
EVERY five years the British Deer Society conducts a survey to discover where wild deer may be found. Results of the most recent survey have just been published and, as with every report since the series first started, the evidence shows that pretty much all species have continued their spread to new parts of the country.
Indeed, there are now more deer present in the British countryside than at any time since the middle ages. Suffolk hosts all but one of our six native species, with roe, red, fallow and muntjac deer being distributed throughout the county. Now the latest research shows that one of our more recently introduced species, the Chinese water deer, has continued to establish itself in this region, spreading along the river valleys and out into the wider countryside. In fact there are now probably more Chinese water deer in East Anglia than there are in their native China, where the natural habitat is under threat from rapid industrialisation.
It’s great news for deer watchers, but a growing headache for those who have to manage the countryside. The magnificent red deer of Minsmere may melt into the woods and marshes during daytime, but at night they’re busy feeding. And a ravenous herd of red deer can make short work of a field of sugar beet or oilseed rape, just as roe, fallow or muntjac are happy to chomp their way through bluebells, oxlips and a host of other important natural flora. Nature reserve managers can be just as concerned about deer damage as farmers.
Deer are also a real danger if you’re driving the county’s roads. I had to brake sharply for a herd of red deer crossing the A12 at dawn near Darsham not so long ago, and last week I swerved violently to avoid a muntjac which jumped out of a hedge in front of me at Huntingfield. The carcasses we see littered by the roadside tell their own story. Usually it is the deer that comes off worst, but there are now reckoned to be 70,000 deer collisions a year in the UK, resulting in about 20 human fatalities.
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So deer numbers need to be kept in check, and with populations capable of increasing by 30% a year, deer management by organised culling is an important job. It also produces a valuable and delicious by-product: venison.
If you are not already a convert, then try it at your first opportunity. Venison is not just for winter stews and casseroles; on the contrary, flash-fried fillets and barbecued steaks are absolutely perfect for this time of year. A muntjac haunch, boned and butterflied on the barbie is quite fantastic, but my personal summer favourite is hot-smoked muntjac haunch, which I smoke using oak chippings from the same woods in which the little beasties are shot. Served cold in thin, pink slices, smoked muntjac works perfectly with a fresh green salad from the garden.
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Fresh venison is widely available in our restaurants and from specialist butchers, but before buying, do check that it is wild and locally sourced, not imported from a New Zealand deer farm. That way you will be helping to invest in the management of our own countryside and ensuring that we continue to have sustainable populations of wild deer here in Suffolk.
Graham Downing is chairman of the CLA’s Suffolk Branch. To find out more about the CLA visit www.cla.org.uk or follow on Twitter @CLAEast. He also sells wild venison and home produced lamb and mutton from his farm in Chediston, near Halesworth. Tel: 01986 873688 or email@example.com