Game is suffering a slump in price and popularity, but it was viewed as a luxury food until recently, as Lindsay Waddell recalls
If you have little or no knowledge of shooting beyond the past 20 years or so, you may think game has always been plentiful and relatively cheap. Not so. One of the main problems we have in encouraging the general public in this country to eat more game is the simple fact that most have never eaten it as, historically, eating a gamebird was too expensive. (Find our game recipes that can be cooked in under 20 minutes here.)
Game – a luxury food
It was, indeed, a luxury food that was most associated with the landed gentry and London clubs. Country dwellers did have access to some game, either legally obtained by consent or by rather more dubious means from a local ‘supplier’.
In the Highlands, those who risked taking the odd red deer from the hill were pursued by the stalkers and, if caught, the punishment would be a spell in Perth prison with few of the luxuries that prisons now contain. Salmon were also on the menu for those who dared sneak up the rivers and burns at night with a cleek or gaff to take the odd fish to eat.
Even when I started down the gamekeeping road, the humble rabbit, even if you didn’t want or need to eat it, was worth poaching for the money it fetched. Roll on a few years and we were getting nearly £1 per rabbit — 40 years ago. If you can find the market for them, you might get £1.50 now, but some gamekeepers’ salaries have risen eight to tenfold in that time, so they have become much less expensive in relation to earnings.
Pre-dating that by a fair number of years is an advert for game quoting prices from 1855 that demonstrates precisely how expensive game was — and this was the buying price, not the selling price.
A high price
A hare was three shillings and a pheasant three and sixpence, with a rabbit coming in at nine old pennies. I could convert that for younger readers, but it will make an interesting homework project for them — or they could ask their grandad. Given that most workers were earning rather less than £1 per week, this illustrates the relative cost of game.
Although there were estates and individuals that shot huge volumes of game prior to World War I, there were also many who were far more modest in their sporting efforts. However, the war depleted both the owners and the workers, and numbers of staff fell considerably between the two wars. This also led to a decline in the number of birds reared, as everything pretty much relied upon numbers of men to staff the rearing fields.
Despite a further reduction of staff following World War II, rearing was becoming an industrial process. Incubators were commonplace and were becoming capable of holding hundreds, then thousands of eggs.
This replaced the broody hen system that had been the mainstay of rearing most feathered things for hundreds of years. This shift from hens to mass rearing has revolutionised gamebird production, but to what end?
As far as many of the staple game species are concerned — such as pheasants and partridges — the glut or excess of shot birds, if I may call it that, has pretty much ruined the market as far as prices go. Yet, it has not really persuaded the consumer to eat vast quantities of it.
People take quite a bit of convincing that changing their eating habits is a good thing and those with any connection to the countryside are getting fewer by the year. Will we ever see game prices going back to where they were when you can still buy a chicken for very little? They were once an expensive item on the shopping list, but the industrialisation of farming has seen them become an everyday choice for many.
I have read many a book on the lives of gamekeepers and stalkers. Setting aside the few who could afford to rear and shoot large quantities, one thing that strikes me time and again about the bags is how modest many a whole season was for a lot of shoots, even with a full-time gamekeeper.
They would maybe shoot a handful of days per season, the best of which was perhaps 120 birds. The season would amount to 600 or so, but all reared in-house and by one man. The shoots were mainly private affairs and therein lies the reason why game was the preserve of those with the funds to buy it. These days, the shoot that does not rely on some form of input from let days to survive is a rarity. It is now too expensive for most owners to meet all the costs of a gamekeeper, so more birds need to be put down to enable more days to be shot.
Prices are driven by two things — the amount of something and the demand for it. The demand for game is simply not there and, in the past couple of decades, we have been producing more and more of it.
The result is a slump, one that grouse keepers were well aware of a few years ago when everyone had so many grouse they did not know how to shoot them. They also ended up giving them away.
This is a bird that, way back in the 1970s, was fetching £8 or £9 per brace right through the season. Pheasants were a few pounds per brace. In fact, our birds went every day from the moor to the train station at Hexham and then to London. On the odd occasion, the train would even wait for the consignment to arrive before departing. It is hard to believe that, through the use of medication, pretty much every moor in the country had such a surplus.
I once read a comment that the sheer numbers and low price would create a demand. Well, that demand has not materialised yet. It is well short of what’s required to meet the production.
The crunch is this, though. Too many birds on the ground may depress the price, but the moor owners and keepers have found out that too many grouse in a wild environment has not been sustainable. Populations all over the country crashed and, although some of that crash had a weather factor built into it, that was always the case, even before medicated grit.
Last year, despite COVID-19 and eateries being under restrictions, the lack of birds saw a market for them once more. It wasn’t back to the heady days of the 1970s, but at least they had a value. For the sake of sporting shooting and the species that depend upon it, that value is vital.