I’m not sure what I expected to feel when holding the still-warm heart of one of the rarest deer in the world. An animal that I’d just seen shot.
I knew I wouldn’t find it gruesome – I’ve spent enough time gutting fish and butchering whole carcasses not to be grossed out by the visceral reality of organs, body parts and unprocessed meat.
I wouldn’t have anticipated being sad either, and indeed I wasn’t – I’ve always been relatively matter of fact about the life and death of animals, be they pets, animals raised for sustenance, or wild creatures.
Had I thought about it in advance though, I probably wouldn’t have imagined that my feelings could be summed up by the words ‘wonder’ and ‘respect’. Not least because, being a wannabe alpha male, I hate to admit any form of emotion, even to myself, and I certainly frown on effusive conduct.
But, really, there was genuine wonder at the physical beauty of the organ in my hand, and at the concept that, just fifteen minutes before, this thing had been the life force of a stunning eighty-odd kilogram Pere David’s deer. There was respect for the beast that had just been shot and gutted in front of me, that a few days later would be butchered to provide meat for tens of people, as well as a good deal of respect for the man responsible for both the life and death of that animal.
I spent a day last week in Norfolk visiting Houghton Hall, the former home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and now the residence of the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholmondeley. It is not small.
Impressive though the building is, I wasn’t there to look at bricks and mortar. The Hall sits in the middle of about 500 acres of deer park, which is itself part of a 6000 acre estate. That estate is a working arable and pastoral farm and runs a sizeable game shoot. They’ve got a tasty looking herd of English Longhorn cattle, many of which will end up in your Waitrose shopping basket, some happy and equally tasting looking pigs (Durocs and a cross between Tamworth and Middle White), an old Norfolk breed of sheep, more pheasant, partridge and hare than you could imagine, and a whole load else. Just seeing the farm in action and hearing how things are done was a great reminder that meat isn’t grown in vac pack bags.
But the real reason we were there was to see and hear about their deer … and then to shoot and gut one, and skin and butcher another.
I thought you might be interested to read a little bit about the experience and maybe to see some photos too; provenance, ethical animal husbandry, nose-to-tail butchery and cooking are concepts and phrases that are easily banded about, but it’s good to see the living-creature-to-tasty-meal process in action.
It was a real privilege to be shown around by the estate’s deer manager, a guy called Julian Stoyel, who is pretty much the most energetic and hard working man you could ever meet. I feel like everyone should know of Julian, so apparent is his skill, knowledge and ultimately passion for both the welfare of his deer as they live and die, and for that same deer as a food product. There’s talk of a TV programme coming out about him – ‘Deerman’ or something like that. If so, it will be fantastic viewing.
There is a slightly surreal juxtaposition between being driven and then walking around a deer park, looking at the beautiful, almost ornamental, white fallow deer and also the world’s rarest species, the Pere David’s deer, both breeds wandering around in acres of parkland, along with six or seven other types of deer, and then switching quickly to Julian shooting one, bleeding it, putting it on a trailer and driving to a shed to deal with it.
The moment of death was quick and clinically efficient: identify one of the Pere David’s that had been selected to be culled, take aim at the head from about 250-300m away, and dispatch a bullet with expert accuracy. It seemed to take just a few seconds between Julian first focusing on the task and job being complete.
The advantages of shooting animals in their habitat, rather than herding them and transporting them to a slaughter house, were obvious. The welfare of an animal in its last moments and, by consequence, the quality of the eating experience of the eventual food product is affected by the way it is killed. In this case, the deer was totally unaware of his impending death and the velocity of the bullet that hit the animal’s head killed it instantly. There was no trauma or bullet damage to the body of the deer and limited panic amongst its mates. I’ve seen the alternative of being herded up and driven to a slaughterhouse, then being pushed into a fenced corridor and shoved along that until it’s time to be stunned and killed and, as efficient and impressive as those places are, I know that if I was a animal being fattened for eating, I’d prefer my last moments to be as quick and unexpected as the being-shot-in-a-nice-field method.
Standing over the dead animal was sobering. An animal bigger than me had been killed in a second and lay lifeless but obviously warm. Yet the death made total sense too. Herds must be managed so as to preserve and improve the health of that species, and to keep them in balance with their habitat. This is as true for controlled parkland deer as it is for wild ones. Between August and April each year, Houghton Hall cull about 500 parkland and 120 wild deer.
The deer’s throat was cut to start the bleeding process and then we loaded it on a trailer to head to an outhouse equipped for hanging, butchering and storage.
Whilst I’ve watched a deer be expertly skinned and butchered, and done the same myself in a slightly more amateur fashion, I haven’t seen a deer gutted before. It is quite a sight and the organs are strangely beautiful. Intestines have a faintly mesmerising bluey tinge when they are fresh. The offal – the lungs, liver, kidneys and heart – are all different shades of red and purple and are also transfixing. Like I said above, holding that heart just minutes after the animal had been shot made me think about what that animal had given. I have no desire to preach, but over the last few months, and in particular following this experience, I’ve come to believe more and more strongly that the best way to respect an animal that’s been killed for food, is to waste as little of that animal as possible.
The deer that we shot was to be hung for four to seven days before being butchered. This is less time than some other species and age of deer, which often hang for seven to fourteen days or more before being skinned. But the Pere David’s deer is a paler meat than others, akin to veal, and the animal that we had shot was only just over one year old and didn’t need a particularly long period to hang before it would be tender and good to eat.
It’s funny how the removal of the skin and head of an animal makes such a difference to how you view the same object; cute or beautiful animal, to meat carcass in a matter of minutes (Julian made it look so easy). Very quickly Bambi turned into a product to be cut up and portioned for consumption.
With a few well practiced and swift cuts, swipes, saws and slices, the deer was made even more recognisable: the shoulders were removed to be minced to make burgers or sausages, and diced for stewing; the belly would be cooked slowly, then pressed and maybe breaded; the fillets were easily taken off from under the rib cage; one loin was removed whole, the other loin kept on the bones to be cook like a rack of lamb or as chops; chops too from at the back end of the saddle; then the two legs were split up, one of which could be butterflied or roasted, the other divided up into the muscle groups (silverside, topside, knuckle and rump) and portioned into steaks for us to take home. All of the carcass, including the offal, was accounted for.
We discussed a great deal during our little tour that I haven’t covered in this piece – the life, death and taste difference between farmed, parkland and wild deer; the taste difference between the species and how, as consumers, we’re only just getting access to and knowledge of these differences (so many game dealers just bag meat up and sell it as generic ‘venison’, yet a muntjac and a red deer, for example, are very different beasts); and so much more. But I suspect I’m losing you so will end here.
Please do click on the slideshow below and see the pictures in full size and technicolour; I think there’s something compelling about the ones that show the reality of killing, gutting, and butchering an animal for the purpose of satisfying our appetite.