Venison farming in Fife
The Scottish deer farm offering sustainable, humane agriculture
Venison isn’t an obvious meat for the rolling farmland of Fife, but in the northeast of the county there is a deer farm with much to offer sustainable, humane agriculture, finds Donald Reid.
Auchtermuchty can be hard to pronounce without a bit of practice, though it’s famous enough as the home town of accordionist Sir Jimmy Shand, popstars The Proclaimers and, to anyone tuned into inspiring Scottish food stories, John and Nichola Fletcher, who farm deer on the edge of the Pitmedden Forest in the hills above the town.
In spending five years studying wild deer on the island of Rum in the early 1970s, John, one of the country’s few specialist deer vets, observed that deer seemed perfectly content in enclosures. This led to the Fletchers establishing the first deer farm in Britain in 1973, and ever since they have been inspiring advocates for venison, and a system of farming, that is remarkably self-contained, humane and sustainable.
The red deer live contentedly among the native broadleaves of the farm, feeding on hay, local potatoes and grass; at 200m above sea level, grass is about all that grows well on the farm. Deer are naturally lean and fit animals requiring little or no treatment or intervention.
Rather than having to take the animals to an abattoir, the Fletchers have a special licence to allow the animals to be shot as they graze. This means they are killed in prime condition at 18 to 27 months without stress to the animal (nor, research has shown, distress to deer nearby). By contrast, the age and condition of the animal is less easy to control with wild venison, and the killing can be less precise.
With the carcasses being hung and butchered on the premises, the tiny 30 hectare farm supports five employees. It also means that the food miles only start when the Fletchers set off to one of their local farmers’ markets, or you leave with some fine cuts of the dark, flavoursome meat in the boot of your car.