Oh deer! They say Scottish venison farming is in a rut as it struggles to cope with demand.
But with thousands of tonnes of meat having to be imported into the UK every year, Borve crofter Robert MacRae believes he has hit a money earner with stag..gering potential.
For the former Portree guest house owner has now established Skye’s very first Deer Farm and its right on his own doorstep with the fully fattened up venison eventually being eagerly snapped up by the likes of M&S and Tesco whose customers just can’t get enough of the new power food.
Already thousands of motorists on the Portree-Uig route have passed by his deer fenced croft little suspecting that inside there’s a whole new industry starting up on the island.
But, for those who do take to the time to have a good look then wandering around the grassland they might just spot the stag and 30 hinds that will form the foundations of Robert’s breeding stock.
He said: “I can’t remember the exact figures but there is something like 20,000 tonnes of venison imported into the UK to try and cater for demand so there’s got to be a market for deer breed on Skye.
“The intention is to build up our breeding stock by keeping any hinds born but the stags will eventually go off to Fife where they will be further fattened up before being sold onto the supermarket chains.
“I’ve had the idea of setting up a deer farm for about 20 years now and I know someone did try it down in Sleat once but that involved wild deer rather than farmed and didn’t last that long.
“Over the last few years my wife and I have travelled to around10-15 deer farms to find out just what we needed to do in order to get started. Although the deer fencing is expensive it’s possible at the moment to get a 60 percent grant towards the overall cost which has helped.”
Robert’s stag came from an already established farmed herd at Contin while his hinds travelled from further afield some from as far away as just outside Thurso.
Robert added: “When we sold the guest house I wanted to find myself a little hobby although it looks like it’s going to turn out to be not quite as little as I expected!”
In fact Europe's deer farming industry started in Scotland. The initiative came from Sir Kenneth Blaxter at The Rowett Research Institute outside Aberdeen, and in 1969 an experimental deer farm was started at Glensaugh, near Fettercairn to find out if red deer would make an economic alternative to heavily subsidised hill sheep. The deer farm still exists. The first fully commercial deer farm was started in 1973 in Fife, and today there are around 30 deer farms around Scotland, from Orkney to the Borders, all farming red deer.
Initially, deer farmers concentrated on providing breeding stock to meet the ever-increasing demand, and deer from parks and Highland estates were recruited into farming herds. Some estates built catching and handling facilities so that their annual hind and calf cull was taken alive instead of being shot.
Nowadays there are enough farmed deer to provide breeding stock for UK farms without recruiting from wild stock, and Scotland's deer farmers, instead of trying to be store calf producers, breeding stock producers and finishers all at once, have now become specialised, with store calf producers in the uplands, and finishers on the low ground better pastures, just like other livestock industries. Deer farmers like to talk of ‘finishing' their deer rather than using the beef term ‘fattening' because one of venison's main attractions is that it is so low in fat.
Farmed deer are raised on grass, with generally only young stock (calves) being housed during their first winter to protect them against the elements. Farmed deer are extensively grazed on grass, supplemented by hay, straw, and roots such as potatoes in the winter. Because deer lose their appetite and ability to grow in the winter, there is no point in feeding expensive concentrates, though some young stock are given grain such as barley for a few months until they are turned out onto the spring grass.