Scotland’s venison sector is crying out for more farmers to diversify into deer as it struggles to meet growing demand from consumers at home and abroad.
The industry has ambitions to produce an extra 1,000 tonnes of venison a year by 2020 – a target which would require an additional 22,000 farmed deer on the ground in the next six years.
To help meet this ambition, the Deer Farm and Park Demonstration Project has been launched to encourage more farmers into deer farming.
Dick Playfair from the Scottish Venison Partnership said there are between 800,000 and 900,000 deer in Scotland.
He said Scotland produces around 3,500 tonnes of venison a year, of which only around 2%is produced from deer farms.
Around 1,200 tonnes is exported although this is countered by around 1,200 tonnes of imported venison from New Zealand, Poland, Ireland and Spain. In fact, UK game dealers are estimated to be importing around 25,000 carcases every year to meet demand.
Mr Playfair said the wild red deer cull, which makes up the majority of Scotland’s venison output, was declining, so there was a need to establish more commercial farming units.
“What we’re trying to do is fill the vacuum that’s being created by that drop in the wild red cull,” he said.
“We are not trying to debunk imports because they have driven up the UK market. We are just trying to get a bigger slice of a growing cake.”
He said there was a lot of opportunity for anyone interested in coming into the sector, whether on a small, medium or large scale.
Deer farming started in Scotland in 1969 when wild-caught calves from across the country were bottle-reared to form the nucleus of a breeding herd at Glensaugh, near Fettercairn. The initiative was led by Sir Kenneth Blaxter of the then Rowett Research Institute, and there are now around 30 commercial deer farms across Scotland.
John Fletcher from the Venison Advisory Service said the industry has gone through a period of boom and bust, with an initial period of growth until the late 1980s followed by a downturn up until 2010.
He said after dairy, venison is the second biggest agricultural output from New Zealand – exports were worth £105million last year, with 70-80% of that coming to the EU.
“It’s really important that we grasp just how big that industry is and where we could be in Scotland,” said Dr Fletcher.
“We are a lot closer to the market so our venison prices ought to be, and they are, a lot higher than they are in New Zealand.”
He said the traditional markets for venison – France, Germany, Belgium and Austria – were falling and exports to North America, the Netherlands, Russia and Korea were growing.
He said the Scottish venison market had turned a corner and was currently on the verge of a new boom.
“We will soon have a purpose-built abattoir in Fife killing sheep and deer,” he said.
“And the venison market is much more organised than it was before and major retailers are beginning to develop producer groups.”
He said there was capacity for existing deer farms to supply breeding stock to those wishing to start out, without prices going through the roof.
“We would really like to see some big units that have economies of scale in Scotland,” he said.
Alan Sneddon from the Scottish Venison Partnership added: “Scotland is the home of modern day deer farming and there is no reason why we cannot create 1,000-hind units.”