The Rona Venison Story

Even twenty years ago I despaired at the way deer were being treated as vermin. I gave up on the Shooting world when I came to the Island of Rona and still I read in the papers of the behaviour of so called Conservation charities, namely the John Muir Trust and their policy of killing deer and leaving them on the hill to rot. As Greta says ‘ How Dare You”. Nothing makes me angrier than carcasses left on the hill to rot. 

In 2003 the decision to introduce red deer to the Isle of Rona was highly controversial: we had an on going Scottish Forestry Grant Scheme – why would we want to introduce Red Deer onto an 2400 acre island with the perfect environment for regeneration where no herbivores were present and the regeneration of the trees was seen as paramount? However, we felt that the deer, given time, would increase bio-diversity and habitats, acting as natural foresters to open up paths throughout the island improving and eventually provide an income from stalking and venison with sustainable culling.  The re-generation would be managed by the deer, their presence enhancing the Island.

Admittedly there were hurdles to overcome; in the early years of small culls it was unviable to send away one or two carcasses by boat to the game dealer. However estimating a potential future cull figure of 20 to 40 deer annually, we decided to deal in game ourselves, building a larder & acquiring a license – the initial market being guests in the three island holiday cottages.

Another potential issue was averted by our Game Dealer whom we had been dealing with for years and to whom we are very grateful for taking run stags for his market  – those culled during our guests’ traditional stalking weeks in late September/October, when our time is so limited.  Happily he agreed to take these stags if we could supply at least the same number of good quality hinds in season, and also suggested as a bonus that we supply some summer stags. This reduces our local venison supply but we work flexibly to accommodate this.

From these early days we have increased venison sales to our full capacity. Word has spread amongst our summer visitors that quality venison is available from the island. We have also built a small & loyal market for Rona venison locally and have supplied several thousand venison burgers to the local chip shop since 2020 despite the pandemic.

We butcher our venison to a very high standard with inevitable trimmings and when the local Vet was looking for venison to feed to a canine patient, this opened up a further avenue for pet food . We now produce healthy petfood for a network of owners, and hence achieve almost Zero waste from the carcasse.

To quote from a recent article I read: Venison is packed with nutrients that support the health and well-being of your dog. Deer meat contains a high amount of B vitamins, giving your dog the energy they need. Dog food with venison also provides the perfect amount of zinc and iron to support a healthy immune system and organ function”.

Torn Ear

On the subject of Zero Waste we  are horrified to see perfectly good carcasses left on the hill to feed scavengers, whether they are Eagles or Crows and  for photo opportunities. It is unacceptable in our view. Of course a stalker who knows his deer will decide to leave very poor hinds or/and  calves in winter on the hill or even during better months when it is obvious that the carcass at hand will not be fit to go into the food chain. But in our opinion if you call yourself a Deer Stalker/Hunter then you should retrieve it.

Traditionally, apart from a summer stag or two, or winter yeld hinds butchered  for the ‘Big House’ and the Estate workers, most culled deer carcasses from the Highland Estate would be uplifted by the Game Dealer, giving a much needed boost to income. Many in the Highlands rarely consider buying venison, often having had bad experiences with badly-handled meat from unreliable sources. Or getting it for nothing from the local poacher for next to or/nothingwhich is seldom the best handled venison. But venison has become popular and estates should be well placed to supply the local market a quality product, in season. It freezes well, it is healthy, and chemical free.

I’ve been pleased to discuss the potential with Craig Ross, stalker at Inchnadamph Estate who has initiated the Estate’s own venison sales; Ross is proud to be able to supply Inchnadamph’s venison locally with zero food miles – the end result from deer hard won on the hill, and a full time ghillie has even been employed lately,  a substantial part of whose duties are assisting with the new enterprise.

At the end of this season (2022) Craig reports a very successful season with potential for year round sales, this is something that needs to be considered when there is a surfeit of venison in the summer but short time for butchering. More storage perhaps or third part butchers coming in to deal with the product?

Many Estates already have good larders, a head start in adding an extra string to the bow. But for some Estate Stalkers this will not be an option –  joining forces with other estates, there is the potential to develop central, even mobile facilities to process local venison creating employment, increased income, and enhancing the positive public perception of the Estate in the community.

On Rona there is much still to do.  Of course it would be easier to send all our carcasses away, their value much diminished. 9 hinds went off Rona this year, 5 very good heavy hinds, in fact some of our game dealers heaviest and the return – £485!!! Not good enough considering the expense of casual stalkiers, incurring accommodation and other expenses. Standing in a cold larder butchering may not suit everyone but I gain a huge amount of satisfaction having watched the deer herd grow, selecting the surplus at the right time of year, in season and in their prime, stalking on the hill, and selling the end product.

Yet another big order for Rona Venison

Obviously I believe that Rona venison is superb, whether due to the Island’s vegetation or the stress free life the deer lead (no cars, visitors, or dogs for part of the year) If the deer are cleanly & efficiently killed (usually neck shot by the resident stalker), quickly & thoroughly bled and gralloched, and in the larder in the shortest time possible, this is reflected in a quality product.

The Deer Working Group Report and subsequent seasonal/licence changes may be forced upon the Deer World. It is clear that there has been no thought by the DWG or Scottish Government about  out of season ‘Scottish Venison’ being offered as a quality product. The existing seasons were put in place when the deer are best to eat and best to be culled. Let us keep it that way and make sure that Estate venison is shot and sold in season.

We can do better.