Fallow Deer Project

Of all the world’s deer, none has a closer relationship to people than the Fallow Deer. Ever since the Neolithic, humans have selectively transported and maintained this elegant animal, taking it from its restricted native range where it is now an established icon of stately homes.

Wherever deer have been introduced they have altered the physical and psychological landscape and their distribution is a direct record of human migration, trade, behavior, and worldview. Given their impact and significance, deer are genuinely worthy of investigation, with the potential to provide cultural data of the highest relevance and significance for a range of disciplines and audiences.

Fair Game Initiative

Why doesn’t the public eat much venison? I’ve asked this question to lots of people and the replies are similar: venison is expensive; a food of Michelin star restaurants or for those posh people who ride around the landscape shooting deer (and hunting is a cruel blood sport – run Bambi, run!).

For years I was of this opinion too and I still struggle with the idea of killing animals, perhaps unsurprisingly as I’m a left-wing vegetarian who is opposed to animal cruelty and social inequality. Strange then, that I now find myself working very closely with deerstalkers to actively promote the consumption of wild venison.

So, what caused this monumental U-turn in my beliefs? It occurred gradually as my knowledge of deer management, both past, and present, increased.

For over a decade I have been researching the natural and cultural history of the wild deer. I use the term ‘wild’ to denote deer that live freely within the landscape. Under this definition I include nonfarmed park deer; those are left to their own devices and are not given supplementary feed.

The deer helped to plug the venison-gap left by declining roe populations and, by the end of the medieval period thousands of deer parks were established, each housing hundreds of deer.

Deer hunting and the consumption of venison were central to medieval society, helping to create community as people came together to help procure and consume the venison from a single animal. As with all popular culture, however, hunting fell out of fashion. People found other mechanisms for socializing and, as the taste for venison dwindled, deer parks fell into disrepair and their inmates escaped.

But whilst the hunters went away, the deer did not – in the absence of human and other natural predators the deer bred, and bred, and bred… According to recent government documents, deer are now more numerous than at any time in the last thousand years.

Burgeoning populations of deer have been joined by growing numbers of exotic species. How lovely to have such a large number and variety of deer! Well… maybe… Deer are certainly beautiful things that enhance the look of the landscape and, in moderate numbers, have a positive effect on the environment. However, in large numbers, they have the potential to do a lot of environmental damage – ravaging crops, retarding woodland regeneration, and impacting negatively on biodiversity.

Nor are large populations good for the well-being of the deer themselves – too many animals in one area or park will lead to starvation, disease, and illness. Then we have road traffic accidents, with an estimated 40-70 thousand deer killed on the roads each year. Collisions with deer also bring human casualties.

In sum, in the absence of human control, modern deer populations are unsustainable environmentally and, arguably, unethical in terms of animal welfare. So what is to be done? Rather than being a ‘problem’ deer are a wonderful resource, if only we could reconnect with the concept of venison.

At a time when locally sourced, seasonal, healthy and ethical foods are at the top of consumers’ wish-lists, wild venison ticks every box – wild deer, or those that have not been supplementary fed, provide exceptionally lean venison and, most importantly, you don’t get a more free-range and ‘happy’ meat than wild venison!

Unfortunately, the message is not getting through – the public’s abhorrence of animal killing, and ‘hunting’ in particular, is too strong. Of course, public attitudes don’t stop deer culling, it just means that the majority of venison produced is exported.

This is where our arts and humanities research is becoming important – we have the ability to serve up this difficult issue in a more engaging and palatable way. To do this, the Fair Game Initiative, an educational campaign staffed by archaeologists and deerstalkers, explains the history of deer and the benefits of eating their venison.

The approach is hands-on. After an introductory lecture, people work as a group and follow the instructions written in medieval hunting manuals, to ‘unmake’ (skin and butcher) a complete deer.

Everyone gets involved in the process, learning a variety of important lessons encompassing archaeology, anatomy, animal welfare, environmental ethics, food security, healthy eating, and history. The aim is to democratize venison and make it available to all, such as these inner-city schoolchildren who spent the day working with us to create a tasty meal for their parents.

Contrary to popular belief, venison is far cheaper than any other meat, if obtained directly from the stalker. It is also healthier – what better product for our children’s school dinners? And what better way to help manage deer populations?

The Fair Game Initiative aims to roll-out across the country, linking deer stalkers to educational establishments, and getting local venison onto school menus.