Fair Game: valuing the bio-cultural heritage of fallow deer and their venison for food security, sustainable woodlands and biodiversity

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Archaeology and History


Fallow deer are an icon of the British landscape and an important part of the island's bio-cultural heritage. They are native to the Mediterranean but, over the last 2,000 years, have been repeatedly introduced to Britain. They are now more numerous than at any point in the past and are overgrazing landscapes and prohibiting woodland regeneration, to the detriment of their population's welfare and broader biodiversity.

Deer culling is contested but is currently the only viable population management strategy. Deer stalkers are in decline due to lack of training and because younger generations have a negative perception of deer culling. Indeed, fear of negative publicity is a concern for deer management organisations, which further suppresses discourse on the subject.

The cultural distaste for deer culling and venison consumption is exemplified by the National Food Strategy, which regards wild animals as outside of human consumption. For this reason, most wild venison is discarded or exported at a low price. By contrast supermarket venison is expensive and generally sourced from deer farms located as far away as New Zealand.

Both the government-funded Deer Initiative (1995-2020) and DEFRA's 2022 consultation on deer management stressed that wild venison is affordable, healthy, high-welfare, sustainable and a by-product of necessary deer culling. Yet this messaging has not connected with the general public.

Our AHRC-funded project Dama International generated the missing narrative to contextualise fallow deer management and present it in an engaging and palatable way. It demonstrated that modern fallow deer descend from populations established ~1000 AD as part of a medieval hunting culture. The species was hunted primarily by women and deer carcasses were ritually butchered, or 'unmade', and venison redistributed throughout society to facilitate community cohesion. To protect venison supplies, fallow deer were managed in parks and top predators (bears and wolves) were eradicated. Gradually, hunting and venison fell out of fashion, fallow deer escaped from parks and, in the absence of top predators their populations burgeoned. In essence the modern fallow deer problem is a legacy of the medieval period.

Fair Game will use Sussex as a proof-of-concept region to demonstrate how Dama International's research can provide solutions to the intractable problems of deer management. We will do this by resuscitating medieval-style approaches to fallow deer hunting, carcass processing and venison redistribution by:

Fostering a more diverse demographic for deer stalkers by providing deer management and game hygiene courses, aimed at younger people and women.
Establishing communal infrastructure for the storage and supply of venison carcasses
Creating a new 'Virtuous Venison' brand for redistribution via the food charity FareShare.
Providing an engaging communication strategy (animated film and pop-up exhibitions) that explains the history of fallow deer, the need to cull them and the societal benefits of their venison.
Fair Game is not only timely given the biodiversity crisis, cost of living crisis and rising demand for food banks but is justifiable on ethical and environmental grounds. We believe Fair Game will transform public understanding and ultimately the sector's approach to deer management.


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