Game / wild meat: introduction

What is wild meat?

It’s all about harvesting meat from the wild. In the UK, the kind of wild animals that are good to eat as wild meat (apart from fish) include deer, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, game birds such as partridges and pheasants, and pigeons. They can be shot, humanely trapped, or they could be road kill. Game animals can also be farmed, but then the benefits of truly wild game (below) are lost.

Plucking a road-kill pheasant for roasting

Plucking a road-kill pheasant for roasting.

What we don’t mean is the shooting industry, which isn’t really about food, is an incredible waste of resources and is the most expensive way imaginable of feeding yourself, in terms of energy and money. Animal Aid quote gamekeepers themselves when it comes to the figures. It costs around £30 to produce a pheasant for shooting, and the average price for a bird is £2, but most birds don’t make it to the table at all. It’s about killing animals for fun, and for social status / prestige reasons. US executives are flown over to shoot game in the UK for this reason. And almost none of the birds shot are wild (although grouse are).

Over 50 million pheasants are raised intensively, from battery eggs, fed grain that needs lots of land to produce, and released into the ‘wild’, where many of them get run over, starve or become easy meals for predators, because they’re not really wild at all. Plus these 50 million introduced animals are competing with native wildlife for food. Also, the shooting industry is responsible for the snaring and shooting of other wild animals that prey on game birds, including birds of prey. Breeding birds for ‘sport’ has been banned in the Netherlands, and we support Animal Aid’s campaign to have it banned here.

So, back to truly wild animals.

A red deer in the Scottish Highlands

A red deer in the Scottish Highlands; they have no natural predators, and numbers can be controlled by shooting for human consumption, although there is a proposal to reintroduce wolves into the wild in Scotland.

What are the benefits of wild meat?

If you are a meat-eater, then as long as the animals are not from an endangered species, this is probably the most eco-friendly way to do it. It’s much more sustainable than the meat industry, and as long as hunters have a conscience, involves much less suffering for animals. Food can be harvested from natural landscapes such as forests and moorlands, or even gardens – no land needs to be cleared for farms. Unlike the meat industry, harvesting wild meat involves no chemicals, hormones, abattoirs, pasture or animal housing, or land to grow roots or cereals for feeds.

Many game species are pests: squirrels ring-bark and kill trees, especially maples, and introduced grey squirrels out-compete the native red, which has become very rare (please don’t eat red squirrels!). Rabbits eat crops and young trees, and deer prevent attempts to re-forest areas by eating young shoots. Shooting and eating pest species is better than snaring or poisoning.

The meat of wild animals has a lower fat content than domesticated animals, and is therefore healthier.

Now a controversial point: vegetarians and vegans rightly point to the fact that a plant-based diet requires less land than a meat-based one, which is why we support vegetarianism/veganism. But this only applies if the land is farmed. Harvesting meat or plant foods from the wild involves no alteration of natural ecosystems at all, and therefore has a lower impact than even a vegan diet – and especially if the wild meat is local and the vegetables are imported. Perhaps the most sustainable (and healthiest) diet possible is mainly local and vegan, with the occasional meal including wild meat.

A further philosophical point is whether it’s ethical to eat meat at all. At the moment, that decision is down to the individual, and if you don’t think it’s right, you can become vegan. But it’s impossible to prevent the killing of animals, because that’s what happens in nature all the time. Red deer have no predators in Scotland, and so if left unchecked, will increase in numbers until they damage the ecology of their range, by overgrazing, preventing the re-growth of trees etc. Their numbers need to be controlled somehow. From an ecological perspective, controlling their numbers by shooting or by the proposed reintroduction of wolves will both work; but from an animal welfare perspective, shooting is probably the more humane option (i.e. is it more or less painful, stressful and terrifying to be shot or to be chased to exhaustion and torn apart by wolves?).

Whatever your position on this, we think that it’s a debate we can all have whilst still agreeing on the need to live in harmony with nature.

Pheasants, rabbits and a sika deer hanging in a larder

Pheasants, rabbits and a sika deer hanging in a larder, so that enzymes can break down proteins to improve tenderness and flavour; rabbits should hang for at least a couple of days, pheasants for about a week, and deer up to 10 days.

What can I do?

Firstly, you can only shoot or trap game on your own land, or if you have the permission of the landowner. There is no common land in the UK any more, so you have to find out who owns it and ask.

Shooting

Air rifle: shoots pellets; suitable for rabbits, squirrels and pigeons, you don’t need a licence, but here’s a code of practice.

Shotgun: for moving targets, relatively short-range (up to 35m) – e.g. squirrels moving through trees.  Code of practice

Rifle: single bullet, up to 300m, but more usually around 100m; best for deer.
Here’s a code of practice for deer stalking.

You need a shotgun licence for a shotgun and a firearms licence for a rifle. Licences are available from the police. Guns need to be kept in a locked metal cupboard bolted to the wall. Guidance on firearms and licencing can be found here.

There are seasons in which some animals can be shot legally; other animals can be shot all year round. More info here.

If you want to shoot game, you should think about insurance (landowners will probably want to see it before they allow you to shoot on their land). Talk to the dealer you bought the gun from. Plus, don’t try and shoot game until you are a very good shot, and know that your quarry will be killed cleanly. Practice on targets first.

You can’t use a bow and arrow to hunt game in the UK (although you can in other countries).

Trapping

We only condone trapping where the animal is killed instantly, not snares that can hold an animal in terror for hours or days.

Rabbiting: ferrets are put down rabbit warrens, rabbits are flushed out into nets, then killed instantly with a sharp blow to the back of the head, or a twist to break the neck. Don’t try it if you don’t know how to do it. Go rabbiting with people who know how to do it first.

Wild meat is becoming quite fashionable

Wild meats are becoming quite fashionable, and can be seen on TV programmes and on the menus of top restaurants; here’s a skinned squirrel about to be cooked at Otterton Mill restaurant in Devon.

Roadkill

You’re not allowed to take home roadkill if you hit the animal yourself (as it would encourage people to try and hit animals deliberately). But if someone else has, and it’s fresh, you can take it. There are quite a few people around who cook the usual roadkill – deer, rabbits and pheasant, but some have even developed recipes for pot-roasted fox or badger burgers. Waste not, want not. However, we wouldn’t advise you to do this unless you really know what you’re doing. If it’s a healthy animal that you know has died in a collision, and body is still warm and it’s winter then it’s probably fine – but inspect it very carefully.  In warmer weather, the intestines can burst and flies can lay their eggs throughout the body very quickly. A pheasant may well be good for the pot, but deer are trickier as they may have been ill (TB is the big one with deer but tularaemia is common with rabbits too), hence less able to avoid an accident. Any animal could be fresh but harbouring a parasite. It’s important to know what to look for before bringing any roadkill home. There also issues for pets and fleas.

Preparing

Many people have never tried wild meat, and many who have find it too strong or ‘gamey’; but if it’s prepared and cooked properly, game can be delicious. Wild animals have harder lives than domestic animals, and so their meat is tougher. For this reason, game is often hung for up to 10 days to allow enzymes to break down proteins and improve tenderness and flavour. The skin should remain on during hanging to retain moisture. The animal must be bled and gutted immediately after killing, then hung, skinned / plucked, butchered and cooked. As these are very practical skills, perhaps a course is the best way to learn.

Cooking

Game tends to be very lean, so you have to make sure that it doesn’t dry out during cooking. Also, it can be tough unless cooked for a long time. For these reasons, casseroles and pies are excellent ways to serve game. No room here for recipes, but you can find them in books and online.

 


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Charlie Portlock is a freelance writer and instructor specialising in ethical hunting, animal behaviour and rifle shooting. He’s a regular contributor to the UK field sports press and has published two ebooks on small game hunting. He’s based in the Shropshire Hills and is the founder and lead instructor at the Mindful Hunter.


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