Scotland's Carmichael Estate seeks to bring venison to a whole new market
Lanarkshire estate home to one of Scotland’s first on-farm abattoirs
There can’t be too many New Zealand teenagers who get a phone call from Scotland with an offer to become the future chief of a Scottish clan. In 1980, nearly three decades after that long-distance request, Richard Carmichael finally arrived in Scotland to take up the reigns as the top man of the Carmichael Clan, and the laird of the Carmichael Estate.
What he found was far from the healthy enterprise that exists today. Back then, five small tenant farms on the 2000-acre estate halfway between Biggar and Lanark weren’t paying their way. There were 60 cows, a small flock of sheep, and none of the red deer that have become so much of the current Carmichael offering.
After consolidating those farms, Carmichael did something that sets apart the food produced on his estate. In 1994 he built one of Scotland’s very few on-farm abattoirs – still so unusual that delegations of foreign vets have been known to descend en masse to watch the process.
Today, that means a truly closed system, with sheep and red deer born, raised, grazed, finished and slaughtered on the farm. Even the vast majority of winter feed is grown in Carmichael’s fields. The result is the absolute minimum of food miles and minimal animal stress. In fact, if you buy a leg of lamb or venison steak at one of the five farmers’ markets they attend, you might even be handing your cash to Stephen Christie, their slaughter-man and butcher, the person responsible for all the processing. You can’t get more direct than that.
As Carmichael puts it: ‘It is satisfying to meet with customers and offer them products that you’ve supervised from birth, all the way through.’ It’s a confidence-building message that has become even more relevant as the horsemeat fraud of 2013 continues to reverberate down the food chain.
The estate produces about 200 lambs a year and 150 red deer. Cattle, too large for the estate’s abbatoir, go to a larger local abattoir with beef returning to the estate butchery. It is venison, however, and its potential that Carmichael is most enthusiastic. ‘We definitely aren’t doing enough in Scotland. Look at New Zealand. They have 660 deer farms. We’ve got fewer than three dozen.’
That’s despite the fact that Europe’s deer farming industry started in Scotland, an initiative by Sir Kenneth Blaxter at the Rowett Research Institute outside Aberdeen. Following an experimental deer farm started at Glensaugh, near Fettercairn, in 1969, the first commercial farm started in Fife in 1973.
Carmichael’s red deer live in groups of 30 in an area of about 10 acres. They are ideally slaughtered at 18 months old, but with a delayed spring seeing calves born late, it can sometimes be closer to the 12-month mark.
You can buy (and eat) a venison burger or any of the other cuts of this lean and healthy red meat in the Carmichael Estate’s modest farm shop and café/restaurant, a favourite stop-off for walkers. It’s even possible to spend a holiday on the estate in one of the lodges, cottages or apartments that offer a few quiet days in the countryside.
If it’s simply a taste of the estate you’re after, the meat can be ordered online, by phone, or bought at farmers’ markets in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Haddington and Lanarkshire venues. Oh, and if you happen to be in Aubigny sur Nère (twinned with Haddington), 200km south of Paris, look out for a market stall manned by a venison enthusiast with a light New Zealand accent. Richard Carmichael is on a mission to bring his brand of venison to a whole new market.