“Meet us in the pub car park at 9pm and we?ll go and have a look to see what?s about. The forecast is horrendous, but hopefully we?ll see something.? Those were my instructions and that is how I found myself waiting for two strange men in a dark pub car park, deep in East Kent, one recent evening. Phil Miles, who owns Godmersham Game Dealers, and local keeper and game supplier Daniel, had both kindly agreed to take me out lamping.
Like all the best plans, they had changed at the last minute. The night was dry and clear, Daniel had only just got home from work when we arrived and we were a team member or two down. ?The most efficient way of doing it is to have a team of four,? said Phil. ?One person driving, one person to pick-up the rabbits and open the gates, another to lamp and another person to shoot.? Tonight, Phil would shoot, Daniel would drive and pick-up, and I would operate the lamp.
Phil?s truck is well set-up for the job, with the lamp running off the vehicle and an excellent seating arrangement in the back. The metal legs of two grey plastic chairs, like you?d find in a school classroom, had been removed and the seats screwed to two lengths of wood, which stretched across the back of the pick-up to provide comfortable and safe seats for the Rifle and lamp operator. Phil was equipped with a .22 Brno with a 10-shot magazine for the rabbits and had also brought along his Sako .243 stalking rifle in case he had an opportunity to shoot a fox. We were out on a fair-sized partridge and pheasant shoot, so Daniel was keen to take any foxes that we saw.
An early success
It was a lovely, still and clear night, and though we could have done with a bit of wind, it meant it wasn?t too draughty on the back of the pick-up. Daniel drove us down the drive and switched his headlights off as we turned into the first stubble field. I swept the lamp from left to right and as I reached the 12 o?clock position, three pairs of eyes were hopping across the field towards the hedge. Phil got into position, using the roof of the vehicle as a rest, and took the first and the third as they paused briefly in the orange glow of the lamp before they could hop towards the cover of the hedgeline. There were two rabbits in the bag in about the same number of minutes, and as I scanned the stubble with the lamp, there were plenty more.
Swinging round to the left, another five rabbits froze briefly in the lamplight, allowing Phil to take two more, which we?d come back for in a second. We disturbed some partridges as we drove on again slowly in a U-shape to the top of the field, but there were several rabbits out on the stubble. Phil tapped on the roof and Daniel stopped to allow him to take another shot, resulting in another rabbit in the bag. As I scanned the lamp round we caught the glimpse of another three rabbits hopping into the covert to safety ? there were plenty about.
From field to chiller
Daniel controls the rabbits and foxes on his shoot as well as on several neighbouring farms. The rabbit population is such that he is often out lamping five nights a week and he shot nearly 4,000 rabbits last year. There is also a large hare population and we saw many of them in the hours that we were out with the lamp and rifle, including about eight or so in one field. ?The rabbits certainly favour different habitats,? said Daniel. ?There are often a lot in one area and none in another. I tend to shoot the most after the drilling is finished, when the new shoots start coming up. All the rabbits come out of the woods then.?
Though we were not aiming for a big ?commercial? bag for Phil to take back to his chiller on the evening of my visit, we ended up with 20 rabbits and seven hares in the bag after several hours, using an orange filter on the lamp and Phil?s Brno .22.
Phil and Daniel separated the hares and rabbits and set to work paunching them, both wearing gloves for hygiene reasons and because the rabbits smell strongly. ?It takes a while to get the smell out of your hands and rabbit is actually one of the few game species that I can?t dress out and eat the same day,? said Phil. ?They?ll hang for a few days in the chiller now and then we?ll process them for sale.?
It was after 2am by the time we got back to the farm, and we could hear the combines still at work in the distance ? time flies when you?re out with a lamp and rifle. ?It?s easy to be out here all night,? Daniel and Phil agreed. ?One moment it?s 11pm and the next it?s nearly 2am. There?s many a time that I?ve been out lamping rabbits all night and then gone home, fetched the .243 and been out stalking deer at dawn,? Phil remarked. We?d had a successful evening and even though it involves long hours to keep on top of the rabbits in the area, it had been good fun, too. Phil also kindly gave me a hare to take home, which was a real added bonus.
The journey to the table
Phil Miles?s family-run gamedealer?s business is a member of Produced in Kent, which is dedicated to promoting local food and drink in the county. Everything that Phil sells is produced as close to home as possible. ?The interest in game has increased in the past three or so years and people are more concerned about food miles,? Phil said. ?They?ve suddenly realised that local produce is always available and that it?s seasonal ? they seem to be relearning many of the old skills of eating seasonally and sustainably.
?We shoot some of the game ourselves and do a fair bit of the stalking, too. All our venison is wild, not because there?s anything wrong with farmed venison but because we have enough access to wild, renewable meat to keep us going.? The venison is provided by six or so stalkers and tends to be fallow in East Kent. Godmersham Game also has the Forestry Commission contract for venison.
?We attend London farmers? markets every weekend during the season, so we have to rely on additional game suppliers to provide game as I can?t shoot everything we need,? said Phil. From a business point of view, the farmers? markets are where the percentage is.
?We also sell to some of the local restaurants: ABode in Canterbury, which is one of Michael Caines? restaurants, JoJo?s in Whitstable, which appears in The Good Food Guide, The Sportsman at Seasalter, which has a Michelin star, and The Marquis in Alkham Valley, which is really good and on its way to a Michelin star. I also supply all the venison to the Goods Shed in Canterbury.?
There is still a perception among the public that game is difficult to cook, so Phil attends some of the local food festivals, country shows and game fairs to sell his game and to do some simple cookery demonstrations to help to dispel the myth. ?We go to the Canterbury Eurofair and Food Festival at the end of September, where I do cookery demonstrations with a local chef,? he told me. ?We sell packs of partridge breasts and I do a ?partridge in a pear tree?, for example, where I simply poach them in Vermouth with a bit of cream and add some other bits and pieces, which takes about 10 minutes to cook. It?s so simple and the public think it?s something they can have a go at, so we end up selling dozens of packets.
?Throughout the season we sell packs of pheasant, partridge, pigeon and duck breasts, so there?s no preparation involved. We do diced breast meat, diced mixed game for casseroles and rabbits ? whole or jointed ? and we?ve also found half a rabbit to be a good seller. For £2.75, it provides two meals, so we sell a lot to elderly people who are living on their own. Minced venison is also becoming more popular. Woodcock sells very well during the season. I think it?s one of the best-eating birds.?
For more information on Godmersham Game, contact Phil Miles, tel 07870 656967.