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Best ways to find venison on a budget

On his quest to find the most cost-effective way to fill his freezer, Will Martin eyes up some prime red meat in the form of venison

I am not a pescatarian, and with both my past forays into discovering which sport provides most bang for your buck being positively fish-based, it was time to find some proper red meat. In the UK, this means venison. 

Venison comes from the Latin verb venari (to hunt) and the old French venesoun, meaning “meat of a game animal”. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, King Harold lost his eye and William the Conqueror took the throne, bringing his language with him. French was, in fact, the official language of England until 1362. Interestingly, venison was a sort of catch-all word to describe hares, rabbits, boar and other game that landed on the plate of the early British monarchs. But of course venison is now taken to mean the meat of a deer. 

Buying stalking is not that difficult; a quick Google search will bring up lots of sporting agents willing to take you out for £90 for a guided stalk. It’s important to note, though, that on top of this you will likely have to pay a cull fee dependent on the beast shot, as well as rifle hire. And if you would like to take the carcass home with you, you will normally need to pay around the £3 per kg mark. 

For a medium-sized culled roebuck, 17kg in the fur, you would be looking at around £250 all in. Once dressed, you might get around 7kg of meat. While that would be enough for 14 suppers for two people, it’s difficult to see how I could succeed before I had even started. 


Finding a bargain

I was discussing this with Andy Gray of butchers MC Kelly Ltd, who had thought of a potentially better value solution: charity auctions — in particular, fishing auctions. This was not a bad idea; most rivers have a river’s association, and most donors have stalking that is often undervalued. In most cases at these auctions, the fishing ends up overpriced and everything else is a bargain. 

I have found that this applies to nearly all single-sport auctions. I was once at a rugby club auction where English Lion George Kruis’ old wash bag went for £260, whereas Steve Smith’s Ashes top, in which he spanked 212 runs at the Oval, went for £80 — I snapped that up in a hurry. 

Andy brings his Blaser .30-06 for the day, but not a shot is fired

A more recent and more sporting example is the current British Deer Society auction. An accompanied sika stalk in Dorset is available for £710, while at the River Taw Fisheries and Conservation Association auction, an accompanied stalk for red, roe and fallow went for £100. These bargains were just what we needed.

And so I scoured the river associations, found a day for £80 and won. I invited Andy Gray along, and we were instructed by the very generous donor that the roe deer were destroying his new conifers and we were to shoot at least two. At £80 for two roebucks, we were talking — this might just be the most profitable adventure yet. 

We met for a light lunch of cheese and biscuits and then set off, parking halfway up a wooded valley. Quite frankly, the drive in could have been marketed as an off-road adventure drive and sold for twice what I had paid — it was stunning. Banks of oak gave way to glades of bluebells, and halfway up the long valley was the new plantation of conifers. 

Will Martin and Andy Gray make their way to the new plantation of conifers


Palpable excitement

We unloaded the car, Andy bringing his Blaser .30-06, and we set off up the hill. Three deer were sat almost on top of us as we crested the rise; all we saw of them were their three white tails disappearing into the covercrop. The excitement was now palpable. 

Roe deer enjoy nothing more than browsing on small trees, and where they are left unchecked their populations can decimate new forestry. Total deer numbers in the UK are currently thought to be at a 1,000-year high — there are more deer than when William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. As a result, our trip, while a hunt for food, was also a serious work mission to get the numbers down and protect the new forestry. 

With this in mind, we were working with a thermal spotter to give us a chance to find a roebuck in the dense cover. People often ask whether the introduction of the thermal has changed stalking. My opinion is that it has certainly given an upper hand when it comes to finding the deer. What is lost, though, is that often if you have glassed a dell with the thermal and nothing glares up, you stride through bold as brass only to discover a deer couched behind a root ball and now bolting through the forest away from you.

Without a thermal I find that everything is done a little more carefully, with more pauses, more time spent looking at slots and the added excitement that any movement could mean a deer coming into view.

Looking through the thermal reveals strong heat signatures of squirrel after squirrel

Anyway, we were with the thermal and already it was showing heat along the edge of a large patch of elephant grass. We crept in closer and saw a fox slink along the edge, its tail straight in the wind. We watched as the large dog fox trotted along the cover, occasionally going in, only to emerge 15 yards further down the track. While we put the rifle to the sticks, the fox hardly presented a shot and we were quite content to let it continue on its way. 

Then the thermal picked up a very strong heat signature. A squirrel. Then another, and another, and another. The squirrels, it seemed, were everywhere. As were the bluebells, and while it was glorious, it was slightly deerless. 

We crossed a clear stream untouched by farm run-off, slurry or fertiliser; a proper woodland stream. Small trout could be seen in the dappled sunlight and it was hard to drag myself away to scale the other side of the valley. But with the sun just starting to drop in the sky, we headed up into the winter wheat fields: roe stalking paradise. 


Setting the stage

After a quick scan with the thermal, which showed nothing but wheat, we carefully marched along the tramline to within 150 yards of a small clutch of blackthorn and hazel stems. The sun behind us, it was like a stage set for a roebuck. The thermal picked up heat in the cover. 

We sat among the wheat, hidden, and waited. Three red hinds emerged from the woodland below and calmly marched up. Bathed in the evening sun, they looked magnificent, the red of their coat amplified by the low light. With reds out of season, we watched them graze methodically along the edge of the winter wheat before they slowly disappeared into the cover. 

The heat was still showing underneath the holly — it could only be a roe deer, but was it a buck? A decision had to be made, as we were losing light fast. We crept out of our position to see whether we could get a line of sight, let alone a shot, into the holly. Silently, we retreated back to 250 yards and joined the hedge. Creeping along it, we peered round where the dell met the hedge and waited. 

The pair move through the tramlines to get into a good position to watch and wait

Will crouches down in the wheat while Andy uses the thermal to scan for deer

Then, movement: a jay, the stalker’s friend, cried as a doe and a very young fawn emerged into the dell. It couldn’t have been more than hours old, and they both stepped into the sun. Not to sound too much like a certain Springwatch presenter, it was absolutely incredible. 

Our host had warned us that the roe may have started dropping, and he was not wrong. The fascinating thing about roe deer and their young is how much time young deer will spend on its own laid up. They move away from where they were born as the smell of afterbirth attracts predators, then the fawn will likely lay couched for three weeks. 


Quiet disappointment

Andy and I looked at each other in both disbelief and quiet disappointment, as we had pinned our hopes on the heat signature being a buck — but then that is stalking. 

We marched on for a further 30 minutes as the trees started losing their verdant greens and night drifted in before we finally called it a day. It was a very nice day, but ultimately a fruitless one and my first total loss in this series. 

With the next month looking like nettle soup for breakfast, lunch and supper, I am looking forward to rabbiting and then hopefully the summer pigeons — meat is starting to taste a bit sweeter.