Hard on the cloven heels of Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda, Morrisons will be stocking wild diced venison meat and steaks from Dundee-based Highland Game in 70 of its stores until the end of the shooting season in February when, if sales go well, it will switch to farmed sources, adding to demand for a product that is already outstripping domestic supply by roughly two to one.
Venison, which had been enjoying a 75% year-on-year rise in sales, due largely to the patronage of celebrity chefs and the meat's healthy, low-fat credentials, was kicked into the premier league this summer by a frenzy of footie linked discounting on barbecue grill steaks around the World Cup. But it was something of an own goal for a traditionally seasonal industry that has struggled to a build a consistent, 12-month supply.
"There's nothing like enough in the UK. We have roughly 50% of what we need," says Nigel Sampson of Holme Farmed Venison, a dedicated processor, which supplies four of the major multiples from a 10,000 sq ft EC-approved plant in North Yorkshire. "Normally, we carry ourselves through the summer, but this year we've seen as much as a 300% increase in orders on a daily basis. We have consumers creating demand for a product that UK farmers are failing to meet."
Which is why the British Deer Farmers Association has just embarked on a £450,000 government-backed project involving slaughterers, processors, retailers and agri-food researchers, to put some muscle behind the UK industry's 33,000-head of farmed deer and, hopefully, knock a few spots off the New Zealand product - currently the only, but significant, source of imports. While the research will look at comparative rearing and slaughter systems and its effect on meat quality, as well as packaging alternatives, one of the most revealing aspects of the Deer Link Project will be a series of consumer attitude surveys.
WHAT CONSUMERS WANT
According to Christian Nissen, of Highland Game, which specialises in wild shot venison off the Scottish hills, there are three types of consumer: "One who wants wild, one who wants farmed, and one who wants venison - they're looking to buy on price and will not make a differentiation between one or the other. The common denominator is that it's healthy, low fat and an alternative to other meats."
Farmed, park or wild; red, fallow or roe, there's no doubt venison is the meat of the moment - Tesco rates it alongside veal as the only speciality meat to make any profitable impression on consumers. But there's a deal of confusion among buyers as to what they're getting, not helped by an industry itself historically divided over a meat which is not one product, but two.
While farmed and, to a lesser extent, parkland deer producers boast a consistent tasting, moist product, reared extensively but under controlled feeding conditions, wild venison suppliers play on the virtue of its variability.
"The consumer who wants to be exclusive, doesn't want the standard product that farmed would be - they want to be able to tell a story," says Nissen. But he admits that the reality behind a ruddy-faced ghillie paunching a royal on the purple hills is a meat that can be as high as the crags it inhabits.
"Sometimes, because we cannot guarantee the exact age [when shot] you are likely to find wild venison has more flavour than perhaps liked by some."
TAMING THE BEAST
Although the three-year-old Scottish Quality Wild Venison scheme, to which Nissen subscribes, aims to introduce some consistency and trust, there is a limit to how far the industry can tame the beast - as, indeed, there is a natural limit to its supply of around 800t off the hills a year. Which is where farmed venison, if more livestock producers can be persuaded of its viability, steps in.
Danny Russell, of Freedown Food Company, a supplier of speciality meats to the catering trade, would welcome extra supplies of UK farmed venison, as indeed would many chefs - not least Raymond Blanc, who insists on buying his game wild, save when it comes to venison, which he prefers farmed for its tenderness.
"The things we sell most of are steaks off the haunch and then fillets," says Russell. "It's a mixture of farmed and wild, but it stands to reason that the farmed ones will be killed at the same age and it's a bit hit and miss off the hills."
As the tightened Meat Hygiene Regulations introduced this year affect wild venison processing for the first time, the price of a meat that has historically been a by-product of more lucrative sporting interests - to be "got rid of" through local outlets - is likely to rise. Farmed venison, meanwhile, through the introduction of more economic production systems, its own Quality Assured Farm Venison scheme, and the activities of marketing and procurement groups like Venico, which drive costs out of the chain, will make venison accessible way beyond the port swilling toffs on whose estates the "knobbies" and "royals" once thrived.