Fair and Fowl: the name of the game

With the Glorious Twelfth hoving into view, thoughts are beginning to turn towards heath and moorland as the season beckons for that most traditional of produce, wild game.

The game market in the UK has undergone a remarkable renaissance over the last 10 years. Where it was once a niche market dominated by the shooting seasons and heavy tweed, both feathered and free-running game has entered the mainstream. In 2009 – the latest figures available from Mintel Market Intelligence 2010 – the industry commanded annual sales of £75m, while sales for 2010 are projected to increase by a further 6.7% to £80m.

With the recession persuading more people to cook from scratch at home, game is enjoying a boom. Much of the growth in its popularity has been attributed to the explosion of television cookery programmes, which have seen celebrity chefs vying to bring the freshest, most original recipes into people’s homes. The Countryside Alliance’s game campaign, Game-to-Eat, has been at the forefront of a major media campaign to raise awareness of the health benefits and versatility of game meat, a factor that has formed part of its appeal. Alexia Robinson, spokesperson for Game-to-Eat, highlights the relatively low carbon footprints of local sourcing, which is now a key driver in consumer purchasing, explaining that the expected area for growth lies in customer concerns about food origin, coupled with animal welfare and the trend towards wild, seasonal, ‘authentic’ food.

As Oliver Shute, wild game chef and owner of newly-launched David Oliver Fine Foods, explains: “You can eat organic and free-range, but nothing gets as back to nature as much as eating something from the wild.”

Shute runs a wild game cookery school and has noted a considerable rise in numbers since he and his business partner set it up five years ago. “There’s definitely more interest than there used to be, which I think is only going to grow,” he says. “We’ve doubled in size since we opened and had to move to a bigger location.”

The buoyant market and increasing consumer confidence with game has largely been fuelled by growth in the foodservice sector. Ben Bayer, chief executive of DB Foods, sees a market that is still expanding.

“Chefs, hotels and restaurants are looking for different things to put on their menus, as lamb and beef are very expensive at the moment. Game has very good provenance and enables restaurants to put on local products,” he says. The market research bears this out, showing that game was eaten in shops, pubs and restaurants on 31.7 million occasions in 2008/9, an increase of 15% from the previous year (TNS Worldpanel consumption data, 12 months to end May 2009).

Richard Townsend of Yorkshire Game sees foodservice adopting game as an important development in demystifying it to an ever-widening audience. “You look at the growth you see in the pub chains and I think that’s a reflection of people’s eating habits,” he says. “They aren’t just top-end restaurants, they are pub-type places, so it’s not just experienced game-eaters eating it, it’s people new to game who are trying it and coming back for more.“

“We’re seeing people not just trying venison, but looking at it and saying, ‘Well, we’ve tried red deer, what does fallow or roe deer taste like?’ So they’re developing the taste and differentiating between the species as well.” This, he feels indicates great potential in the marketplace.

Venison has seen perhaps the biggest increase in demand, moving it firmly into the mainstream red meat market. Now worth £43m, it contributed more than half the total spend on game, having increased by 34% between 2006 and 2009.  

However, this surge in demand has had a discernible impact. Whereas before, a large percentage of UK venison would have been exported to the Continent, demand has reached the stage where venison is being imported more and more often, particularly from Ireland and New Zealand. But as Townsend explains, increased demand has occurred at the same time as a worldwide reduction in the deer population.

“Numbers coming out of Scotland are less than they were four or five years ago,” he says, highlighting a succession of harsh winters in Scotland, which have caused a high natural mortality rate in some areas. However, he also credits excessive shooting for conservation reasons as exacerbating the problem. “It’s all taken its toll,” he says. “New Zealand numbers are well down on what they were five years ago too — probably by a third.” As a result, the tightness of supply and increasing demand have contributed to pushing prices upwards.

Bayer agrees: “We used to bring of a lot of venison over from New Zealand but the price of importing it just makes it too expensive at the moment, although it may well be that we have to swallow that. It will be interesting to see what prices end up like this year. It just depends on what’s out there.”

Wild fowl
Meanwhile, feathered game — primarily pheasant, partridge and grouse, although pigeon and guinea fowl are creeping up the list — has continued to grow, up 31% between 2006 and 2009 and has a market worth £21m (Mintel figures published in 2010).

Part of this has been the snowball effect of growing availability fuelling customer demand. Although once the preserve of game dealers and local butchers during the season, game has been seen more and more on supermarkets shelves, and is now readily available frozen as well as fresh.
As of this year, just about all major supermarkets will be stocking game and while previously this may have been limited to venison burgers and oven-ready birds, there has gradually been a widening of game on offer.

“It’s not just the traditional venison and pheasant,” says Bayer, “People are more adventurous and demanding things like wild boar, partridge and grouse — maybe even some of the other game birds. You also see more game going into sausages, and we sell a lot more venison and wild boar sausages than we ever did, as well as diced game meats, which includes rabbit.”

Retail butchers and farm shops are very well-placed to build their customers’ confidence in cooking game through their ability to advise them at point-of-sale. Alan Downes, of Hawarden Estate Farm Shop, identifies a key component: “If you can enthuse your customer by not just supplying the meat but also the recipe and the know-how on how to cook it properly, it won’t be wasted,” he says.

Part of Game-to-Eat’s marketing campaign supports butchers by providing advice and support, as well as practical point-of-sale posters and a new recipe booklet featuring quick and imaginative game ideas.

Rabbit, which has no closed season, has proved another success story of recent years, although it can be difficult to source a steady supply of consistent quality. “The general public is asking more and more for rabbit,” says Downes. “It’s healthy, very lean, and there’s plenty you can do with it.
“One of the key drivers of our business is our café/restaurant as it gives us a theatre to showcase what we do seasonally. Our chefs put on a rabbit stew as a special over the back end of the winter and it got to a point where our butcher was quartering fresh rabbit and selling it on the counter because it was so popular.”

Townsend also recognises a subtle shift towards more value-added products. “The trend is changing all the time to include a greater variety of products than before,” he says. “There has been an increase in demand for further processed game. It’s not just oven-ready any more; it’s looking towards ready meals or something you can add value to, such as a boneless easy carve.

“There are all sorts of ideas out there and people are beginning to get much more imaginative, especially with pheasant,” he says. “I know one of the supermarkets is going to be stocking pheasant en croute, so it’s that sort of thing that’s changing.

“However,” adds Townsend, “it would be nice if they got a bit more adventurous with partridge as there’s probably an oversupply overall.”

It’s not just the supermarkets that are taking advantage of this growing trend. Chefs Oliver Shute and David Holliday have used their extensive gastro-pub experience to launch a range of luxurious pre-prepared meals, which aim to deliver restaurant-quality game food in an easily accessible format. Their range includes a classic venison stew as well as guinea fowl with puy lentils and rabbit with flageolet beans.  

“We felt there was a huge gap in the market for a good quality ‘ready’ meal,” says Shute, who recognised a growing demand for game, but understood that many amateur cooks lacked the time or the know-how to work with the ingredients at home. “The best way to capitalise on that was to do something that David and I really knew about, which was game food,” he says.

Downes agrees. “More of our customers are looking towards the convenience side of things, so over the course of the last six months, we’ve produced what we call ‘Meals to Dine For’. It is a kind of convenience food, but with the integrity and credibility of the farm shop,” he says. Among the range is a Pheasant Bourguignon, a twist on the beef classic. ”About 90% of the range sells between 3pm and 6pm,” adds Downes.

With a healthy public appetite for game firmly rising, there is ample opportunity for independent butchers to capitalise on the growing trend for all things wild.

The problem of poaching
The increased demand for game has brought a serious problem back to the fore, as incidents of poaching seem to be ever present.

In January this year, police in Sussex claimed that organised crime had sprung up around game supply, particularly venison, partly as a result of the surging interest from foodservice. Only last month, Lancashire Police instigated a widespread search of butchers’ shops, game dealers and restaurants to ensure there was no illegal game on the premises.

Richard Townsend confirms that it is still a big problem for the industry. “It is an issue, it always has been,” he says. “People should fight shy of thinking they’re getting a cheap deal from somebody who just comes and offers them game at the door. Ultimately, they’ve got no traceability and no come-back if ever there’s a problem.

“Any licensed dealer now will have an EC number now – it’s not a game dealer licence anymore as that’s been abolished – and the UK EC number will give the assurance that everything is being done properly, that the game dealer has records about who he’s bought game from, so you know that it is all be above-board and legitimate.

“By buying through legal means, they are supporting the game industry rather than undermining it,” he says.  

The National Game Dealers Association can give details of dealers in the area who can supply locally sourced game.


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