Liam Stokes became the new chief executive of the British Game Alliance just over a month ago. What's his plan?
Liam Stokes joins the British Game Alliance (BGA) from DEFRA. He previously worked for BASC and the Countryside Alliance and taught gamekeeping and countryside management at Wiltshire College Lackham.
Shooting UK had a chat with him on Zoom.
SUK: What challenges does the BGA face?
LS: “Lockdown has put everything up in the air, so we’re looking to support shoots in the post-lockdown period and continue our rate of growth. About 30% of the birds being shot now are being assured. That’s where we are at after two years.”
SUK: Do you think there have been mistakes made by the BGA in the past? What have you learned?”
LS: “I don’t think there is anything to be gained from looking back. My focus is on what’s happening ahead, building relationships and avoiding any duplication of work already being done.”
SUK: Why do you think the BGA assurance scheme is important in securing a future for the game industry?
LS:” The days in which people could shoot birds and eat them without someone asking questions about provenance and safety are gone. They were on the way out already; Covid has provided the côup de grace. The pressure for standards of traceability, sustainability and safety will increase, and the only credible response is independently-audited assurance. Every other farming sector already has this in place, yet prior to the launch of the BGA game shooting did not.”
SUK: How do you think the shooting community can give people confidence to eat wild game when they might say: “It’s wild meat, I can’t eat wild meat, look what happened in China with the wild meat in wet markets there.”
LS: “We shouldn’t be alarmist about it but it’s something to be aware of. As a sector we essentially need to modernise and embrace assurance just like every other meat sector. “
SUK: Is that something ongoing?
LS: “We have introduced independently audited assurance into the game meat sector. Obviously we have gone for the shooting aspect first as that attracts most scrutiny. Before the COVID-19 emergency it was more about sustainability and environment but moving forward I think we are going to hear a lot more about traceability and food safety. That in itself is interesting.
“When I was in DEFRA I would be asked, because of my game background whether there were any game assurance schemes. The BGA one is the only one around.”
SUK: Why has a game assurance scheme taken so long to come about?
LS: “Shooting is a very traditional sector and the game meat market has come out of a very traditional activity and so it’s just taken a little while to get the machinery of a modern food enterprise in place. We are getting there now and my hope is that we can project a vision that everyone wants to get on board with.
“What we are doing is sorting out the consumer-facing marketing of game, that is our bit and we need to be laser-like in our focus. It hasn’t been done before.
“It all comes down to some sort of assurance. Regardless of what you are doing with your game, whether you are selling it, giving it to your beaters or eating it yourself, someone is going to take an interest in what you are doing.
“If the public is going to think about ‘where can I get my local, traceable meat from’ we have a moment in which we can point out that game is a great British meat and that has great resonance.
“Something I am very keen to do within the BGA is embed game as a British meat. DEFRA promotes British food and that needs to include game, so I think there is some really good messaging that we can build over the coming few months, if we can get people to listen to it.”
SUK: How will you do that?
LS: “We need to identify what people care about, we need to acknowledge people’s concerns and frame our response accordingly, we can‘t just give the answers we would like to give. I started off in this sector due to my interest in ecology and conservation but if that is not what people care about at the current moment that that is not the message to give out there.
“What people were talking about, and it will come back, is carbon and climate change. So we need to be saying ‘if you buy pheasants and support shooting you’re supporting trees and copses and more hedgerows on farms’. Many environmental management schemes are about afforestation which you can support by eating pheasants.
“If on coming out of lockdown people are talking about traceability we need to be in a position when we can say ‘great news game is assured, we can trace where it came from, from the game farm all the way to the processor. You can be confident about it in terms of provenance, handling, safety and sustainability.
SUK: More people are now working from home and will continue doing so more than previously. Is that an opportunity for you, for example with more home cooking?
LS: “We need to take game to a place where it is extremely accessible, where it can literally be taken off the shelf, cooked and eaten. We need to get over that hump initial of ‘ that is different, haven’t had this before’. “
SUK: How are the BGA working with farmer’s markets?
LS: “We were doing a bit of promotion, but we have had to review everything during lockdown. We are going to be campaigning in farm shops and with more intimate, local suppliers.
I do think there will be a revival in local buying and local economies and that will be good for game as long as we are ahead of the curve on that. Speaking to farm shops and encouraging them to get game on the shelves. A lot of what we are going to be working on in product development is which products sit well in farm shops. What do people like to buy in them and helping farm shops get to get BGA products on the shelves.”
SUK: Which game products do you think would do well in farm shops?
LS: “Farm shops are associated with pies and hearty fare. People want to buy ready meals, should there be game options in there? We are working on it as part of this campaign, developing lines that we think will set well in farm shops.”
SUK: It sounds like a lot of your focus going forward is going to be domestic rather than international?
“LS: That is my view and that of our new commercial director as well Our focus needs to be on the UK, there are great opportunities here. Game processors need help in establishing confidence in their product, which is something we can work with them on
“If we are going to talk about sustainability, traceability and low food miles it makes sense to make this a British operation. I am not making sweeping statements that we are shelving the export market, far from it, but the domestic environment is where I want to focus.”
SUK: There has been a lot of talk during the COVID-19 crisis saying that it has made Britain realise we need to focus much more on our manufacturing industry. Do you think game production will be part of it?
LS: “Absolutely. Processors doing creative things with game will be a big part of that.”
SUK: Do you supply game processors with market research so they know what they should be producing?
LS: “We aim to work closely with them on what they need. We work with them individually, each has a different thing we can do for them.
“The BGA was founded with number of different objectives. Part of these was to bring value back to game. In my view that has to be every link of the supply chain. Our initial supporters were shoots and they want value for their game at the farm gate. We can’t do that if we’re not also bringing value back to the processors, so that is kind of our objective when we talk to each processor, how can we help them bring value back to their product. In some cases we will be working with them on new products, in some cases we will be helping them with promotion and in others helping them locate new stockists and suppliers to take their product, so our work varies significantly.”
SUK: Is there anything the BGA can do to improve the promotion of wild venison?
LS: “Venison has the same problem as the beef market. It is associated with the hospitality sector which is currently shut down. Meats like venison have been hit hard because people don’t tend to cook them at home. We’re asking ourselves is there something to be done in that space to encourage people to cook at home, can we help at all? It’s on our agenda.
SUK: What’s happening with mail order and game? Ordering food online has become a big thing during lockdown.
LS: “It has taken off. Wild and Game is doing well with game boxes and new businesses are being launched, because it’s that much of an opportunity. Most processors are now looking at mail order being a viable business option. I think we are going to see new game mail order businesses springing up all over the place. People want quality food they can make a nice meal out of.
“It feels to me that this is something people have discovered during lockdown and why not continue with it afterwards? I think it is a trend that is here to stay, certainly a trend we are looking to build upon.”
SUK: When did you last eat game?
LS: “Last week. I had a fantastic Wild & Game pistachio pâté for lunch.”
SUK: What game do you have in your freezer right now?
LS: “Definitely some partridge breasts, pheasant breasts and a Wild and Game pie. I don’t have a very big freezer, I wish I’d bought a chest freezer before lockdown.”
SUK: Can you quickly sum up the BGA’s main objectives?
LS: “We are here to promote, develop and assure the consumption of game. Our promotion work focuses on introducing game to members of the public who have never tried it. We want every shoot, large or small, to be able to boast of rigorous, independently-audited assurance. Assurance is a fundamental part of modern food production, and we are determined to make it available to game shooting.”
SUK: To finish, what does success look like to you at the BGA?
LS: “Increasing the number of shoots under our assurance scheme and the value of game meat to processors and shoots.”