Raising the profile of British venison – and tackling supply
Nigel Sampson has turned his love of deer into a thriving commercial enterprise which produces everything from venison to clothing and furniture. Danusia Osiowy meets the farmer turned businessman to find out more.
Earlier this month, the BBC reported from the little hamlet of Altnaharra, Sutherland, where the temperature had plunged to -20degC - the lowest recorded in Britain.
As the cameras rolled across the white fields, the familiar presence of red deer from the surrounding estates formed the backdrop as the report discussed how deep snowfalls and freezing temperatures were disrupting the lives of people living there.
Seven days later, these same six-month-old deer arrived at Low Farm in Thorpe Underwood, North Yorkshire, the UK’s first commercial deer finishing unit.
Here they will stay, in their family groups, until they reach 18 months, before they are taken to a dedicated deer abattoir and transferred to the farm’s purpose-built factory for processing.
Every bit of the animal is used, even its skin, which goes into a range of goods, including clothing, furniture, accessories and gun sleeves.
Managing the whole process is Nigel Sampson, farmer by trade and businessman by nature. In 12 years he has transformed his love of deer into a multi-faceted enterprise supplying farm-reared venison to retail outlets, including to supermarkets, farm shops, butchers and mail order.
Although Nigel farms 25 per cent of the red deer, the enterprise now has 10 additional farmers - from as remote as Altnaharra to south west Cornwall - to help supply 100 deer a week to its various retail outlets. In the last 12 months, his supply network has extended to 15 farm parks across the UK. It is an impressive set-up, particularly so when the farm where it all happens is just 45 hectares (110 acres).
While the deer might be flighty, Nigel is calm and the overall business operation is professional and consistent.
Research has played a significant part in getting the business to where it is at today, but it was his experience of deer farming on the island of Jura in the west of Scotland which sparked his ambition to go it alone.
Having originally farmed with his father on a mixed unit near Tadcaster, he left to pursue his independence after being offered a chance to run a 5,666ha (14,000- acre) mixed unit on Jura, otherwise known as the ‘Island of the Deer’, where there are 5,500 deer to just 200 people.
“There were thousands of deer living on the estate and, at that time, I spent a lot of my time keeping them away from the farming operation,” says Nigel.
He began considering the viability of deer farming as a business enterprise and soon identified gaps in the market.
“In the remote areas of Scotland there are brilliant deer farms which are unable to finish. I also found there were many more deer farmers scattered across the country, but nobody was really concentrating on getting them into the commercial market.”
These factors, combined with a lack of interference from the Government within the sector, prompted him and his wife, Miranda, to return to Yorkshire in 1989 and begin the finishing deer farm. He initially sourced stock from the existing infrastructure of deer farmers before eventually securing long-term suppliers.
“Anybody who is going into farming has to like the animal they work with, and we liked deer. But one of the main attractions was the sector wasn’t hampered by Government input. It was a market that had to stand on its own two feet, and I liked that.”
Initially, Nigel marketed his produce to the British Deer Producers Society, but this did not prove a profitable route to market. In 1991, he bought Holme Farmed
Vension, and transferred the Cumbrian-based business to Low Farm, to process his own stock.
The business initially ran as a contract with a butchery wholesaler, which cut and packed the meat. After two years, Nigel moved into his meat processing factory in Boston Spa.
After eight years, co-funded by a Defra marketing and capital grant, the business moved into a 929sq.m (10,000sq.ft) factory in Sherburn-in-Elmet, quadrupling his production capacity.
“The decision to build another factory was influenced by the larger retailers demanding more volume, along with the fact we had outgrown our existing facility.”
The latest investment turned his focus back to the farm and the introduction of what is thought to be the first roundhouse building for handling deer.
The £150,000 system, installed last year, has already improved winter stock handling. The building has increased capacity for holding deer and can now house all ages, divided into different groups.
“We wanted to improve the facilities and, having spent profit and capital in the factory, it was time to start re-investing in the farm,” he says. “We wanted to increase our responsibility and house more calves efficiently.
“Deer have peripheral vision, so the building allows them to settle quickly and adjust to their environment. The ventilation means they always have natural air on their back.”
The Roundhouse is divided into eight pens, holding around 50 to 60 deer each. This is then further managed by holding 400 to 450 finishing deer, which are gradually replaced with the 600 new six-month-old calves. These are delivered intermittently between November to January.
On delivery, calves weigh 50kg and will spend a minimum of 10 to 12 months on-farm before being finished at 18 months at double their weight.
Deer are brought inside in winter and are fed silage, straw and some concentrate. In March they are put out to grass, where they graze in family groups for six months before being housed again in October.
Getting them from the field into the building is carefully planned and takes weeks of coaxing through the use of additional feed.
From late August they are fed around 450g (1lb) per head of concentrate to give them a better finish and for them to become familiarised with Nigel and his farm manager Mick Sellars.
“You can’t just expect them to come in - it has to be organised,” says Nigel. “We put out feed and gradually encourage them into the building along a half-mile track from the field, over the bridge and into the building.
“They are naturally alert and wary, but on a farm they have to get used to people to minimise stress before slaughter.”
The stags are de-antlered and any worming undertaken. “If at this stage we hear them coughing or identify a worm count through their faeces then we can inject them. Over the last four years there have been no health issues.
“The stags are de-antlered for both their safety and ours. It’s also so they can get into the feeders and don’t damage themselves or each other during transportation.”
The first supplies will be drawn from the stags until early December, where the hinds will be used until Easter.
After being taken to the abattoir 40 miles away, the carcases are transferred to the factory where the premium cuts, such as the haunch and loin, are broken down into boneless primals and then stored and matured for up to seven days before being cut and packed.
“The way you handle the carcase is paramount to its quality and succulence. The deer carcase has no fat and dries out very quickly. When the skin is exposed it oxidises and turns a grey colour, which is something we obviously want to avoid,” says Nigel.
All remaining cuts, such as the shoulder and cheaper cuts, are processed straight away into burgers, sausages and for casseroling meat.
Although the busiest time is between October and Easter, Nigel is adamant venison is not seasonal, but an all-year-round product. Realising potential, his venison burgers outsold lamb in Sainsbury’s and Asda for the first time this year, a result he is determined to repeat.
“Many people have yet to try it but by turning products into accessible products, such as sausages and burgers, it no longer has the niche label attached to it and the price is kept low enough for people to try it.
“Multibuys in the supermarket have dramatically increased and also proved successful. It means customers can now try venison as part of their overall meat mix.”
Despite a surge in popularity, the UK’s venison market is 50 per cent under-supplied. The bad news is it still relies heavily on imports, but the good news, says Nigel, is there is plenty of room for improvement.
“There are 180 national parks in the UK, which offer red and fallow deer which are grazed and managed very similar to our farming system. Calves are naturally raised with their mothers and graze on grass to produce a good annual crop each year.
“Over time, we hope to replace the imports with product seized from a combination of farms and national parks.”
By ‘we’, he means the British Deer Farmers Association, for which he is a council member.
Already on its way to addressing the lack of supply, the organisation agreed unanimously to change its name to the British Deer Farmers and Parks Association to attract more new parks to participate in the initiative and help bridge the supply gap.
One area of concern for Nigel has been the industry’s inability to attract more farmers and new entrants, a problem he admits is partly down to lack of communication.
“As an industry we have been unsuccessful in encouraging new entrants into deer farming,” he says. “There is a high level of capital costs involved and people are put off by the high costs of fencing and housing needed to get you started.”
Having attended many shows and events this year, the organisation realised a drastic change in approach was needed to break down current barriers. New initiatives include visiting colleges and universities to promote the industry, introducing a new lecture programme for students and working with graduate trainees, who will complete a one-month placement on a farm to learn about deer management and handling.
When asked if he is a farmer or a businessman, he pauses before realising he is both.
“I am looking to get back on to the farm and spend my time with the deer, which is what I like to do best.”
Although the farm is up to maximum capacity, Mr Sampson hopes to rent additional land as he looks towards implementing a new breeding system.
“Next year we will look to pick out the best hinds and set up a satellite breeding system which includes all our associated farms, as we have the capacity to triple what we process now.”
For now, he is happy to consolidate and ensure the factory runs as efficiently as he can. But as the cold snap returns to the UK, he can rest assured the deer from Altnaharra will arrive come rain, hail or shine.
- BRC global approved factory
- All deer born in May/June
- At six months old the deer arrive on the farm, weighing 50kg
- Deer spend a minimum of 10 to 12 months on-farm
- Finished at 18 months
- Finish stags at 50-60kg deadweight and the hinds 40-50kg
- Altnaharra in Scotland produces 25 per cent of the calves
- In the winter months, the mail order facility represents 25 per cent of business
- 26,000 website hits per week
- Overall, £1 million has been invested in the factory
- Employs 40 staff across the business