Chinese Venison

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Chinese water deer on the table

It was obvious from the outset that my first chinese water deer was quite unlike anything I had ever encountered before. Even as I had gralloched her on the marsh when she had fallen, my knife ran into trouble. She was so absurdly fat that it was almost impossible to gain any purchase on her with a blade. Removing the grass bag showed me part of what I was up against – her guts were absolutely smothered in white fat, and I accidentally cut one of the kidneys in half as I dug around blindly for it. She weighed as much as a roe deer despite her diminutive frame, and even carrying her back to the barn where I was staying proved to be quite a challenge.

Once she was home and properly hung, the fat set into a thick, waxy folds. I skinned her with some difficulty to reveal that she was wearing a jacket of fat that was over an inch deep in some places. I once watched a taxidermist skinning a badger, and it was hard to avoid making direct comparisons between the two carcasses. I had to pull off a good deal of this back fat just so I could get my bearings on where the joints were hiding, and soon I had the body divided into some recognizable cuts. My shot had cracked the bone on the near side leg and damaged the far shoulder, but I was able to salvage almost 3Kg of mincing meat as well as the saddle and haunches.

Enlisting help from a friend when it came to cooking, we chose the saddle as the most straightforward cut for a roast, but we were both baffled by the meat’s pale colour – a yellow-brown lamby tone which was quite at odds with my usual experience of venison in deep burgundy and purple. Its consistency was even more bizarre – the muscle looked porky – coarse, floppy fibres coated with fat and sinew. We prepared ourselves for the worst and checked what time the chip shop would shut.

In the event, we were all pleasantly surprised. The flavour was certainly that of venison, albeit with a unique tang of something other. The saddle fed four of us easily, and there were leftovers for lunch the following day. We had feared a greasy, mutton-esque misery, but the fillets melted in the mouth, leaving a slight (and not altogether unpleasant) fatty coating in the mouth.

I would rate roe venison above all others, and having now tasted every British deer species, the status quo remains intact. I would probably place chinese water deer towards the bottom of the venison league-table, but that is only because I love the others so dearly. My doe had made for an excellent supper, and I have grand plans to build on this success with the meat from the haunches.

As with muntjac, I have a special place in my heart for chinese water deer. I can’t help but admire their tenacious occupation of foreign lands, and they bring something new and exciting to the British countryside. Dining on a “chinese” was an odd experience, but perhaps this was in keeping with the strangeness of the beast itself.

Welcome, Jacks

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Encouraging headway

Walking around the fields where the galloways are wintering this afternoon, I had a good look at the condition of the grass. I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which they have grazed the vegetation down over the last few weeks, and there is not a huge amount of grass left. They are certainly quite dependent on my hay, and if I am late to feed them in the morning, I am greeted by overtures of impatient bellowing. They were all wormed and fluked last week, and while one or two have lost some condition since Christmas, this is all within an acceptable margin. With a note of pride, I must record the fact that the riggit galloways are holding their condition much better than the belties are, and they have retained their barrel-bellies even into these dark, sparse days.

Wandering through the wetter ground, I was interested to see that the cows have been eating the rushes and poaching the ground where the old drains have collapsed. This has always been a wet hole, but it is usually thick and inaccessible. I was encouraged to see what a difference their grazing has made, and began to wonder if this is the kind of work that would suit a snipe. Even as I thought that word aloud, two jack snipe sprung up from beneath my feet and flew hesitantly away into the wind. This was a very pleasant surprise, and seemed to lend further weight to the link between cattle and waders. My father has been farming this ground since the late 1970s and can never remember having seen jack snipe in this field, although the nature of the bird is such that you could easily overlook them in their hundreds and never be any the wiser. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but I can’t resist a smile.

As always, this project is still too small for me to draw any direct conclusions or claim even the slenderest sliver of credit for this discovery, but perhaps it is the beginning of something quite interesting. There is something oddly appropriate about the first tiny signs of progress arriving on the wings of two such tiny birds.

Against the Grain

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What future for conservation and farming?

Being a relative newcomer to farming, it has been interesting to follow the uproar following last year’s Brexit vote and the impact that this could have on British agriculture. I am pretty jaded by the existing nature of the Common Agricultural Policy, particularly in Galloway where it simply seems to be a system of providing farmers with new Range Rovers. Now that subsidies are up in the air and the future looks uncertain, I can’t resist a twitch of excitement at new opportunities.

Having chewed over the subject amongst friends for the past few weeks, sirens went off in my head to hear Against the Grain on Radio 4 at lunchtime, which discussed the future of subsidies and the value of food security. It’s a really good little programme (only 15 minutes long) and stirs up some exciting food for thought.

It’s a fair generalisation to say that the intensification of agriculture has come at a cost to wildlife. Declines in wildlife may have been steeper than they are today, but we can now look back on almost two hundred years of steady loss. The immediate response to these declines is to be more intelligent with the way that we farm the land, and some of the most exciting modern research is exploring ways to knit wildlife back in to intensively farmed environments. But at the same time, it’s hard to ignore questions about why we are so determined to guarantee our own food security.

As Against the Grain explains, Britain has not been capable of feeding itself since 1780. Even at full stretch, we currently supply just over half our food requirements, with the rest being made up of imports from across the world. Follow the thread which this statistic represents, and consider the balance between agriculture and conservation – we have all the downsides of intensification and yet we still lack food security.

There is absolutely a place for agriculture in the British countryside. As much as my heart tends towards wilderness, my head understands that farming is the financial and cultural lynchpin of the countryside – there will always be a strong demand for British food, but the forthcoming demise of the CAP allows us to reassess our priorities. We will never be able to compete for quantity on a global stage, but perhaps we can stand out on quality; quality produce from a functioning countryside, rich in natural resources, thriving communities and biodiversity.

Having blundered into farming eighteen months ago for a wealth of disparate, diaphanous reasons, I suddenly begin to wonder if my galloway cows and I have accidentally landed in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the future could lie in a slightly less intensive age that is more focussed on quality output with local provenance. British produce could cater for a new market – not necessarily in a bourgeois “farm shop” mentality, but as part of a wider reassessment of what we eat and why. Maybe my little project has genuine significance.

As always, part of the pleasure of having a blog is to think aloud and invite comment.

 

Birthday Note

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Seven years old!

And just like that, Working for Grouse was seven years old. This blog began in 2010 when my work on the Chayne had just taken off, and it has meandered into some strange and unexpected corners since then. I doubt if many readers still survive from my first tentative posts, but I understand that there are one or two die-hards who have stuck with me as I have ranged to and fro. Thank you to these, and thanks equally to those who come and go, sifting through the mounds of chaff for the occasional small reward.

I periodically write rather inadequate “thank you” notes on occasions like these, but suffice it to say for now that as much as this blog is a labour of love and would be written even if it was never published or read, feedback and support from my readers has helped get this project (and me!) where I am today.

Norfolk Pilgrimage

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In a rush – a wild grey from the north Norfolk coast

Having just returned from Norfolk for my annual pilgrimage, it’s hard to gather my thoughts. Every time I head to this part of the east coast to shoot on a keeper’s day in the dying moments of the season, my mind is blown by the sheer quantity and variety of birds which pass overhead or lurk beneath the hedges. From a writer’s perspective, it provides such an explosion of material that it may be several weeks before I can reasonably make sense of all that took place over three days on the marshes, but putting sport aside, close encounters with black-tailed godwits, ruff and chinese water deer have conspired to make 2017’s trip one of the finest yet.

This part of Norfolk is literally packed with waders and wildfowl; wigeon and geese are forever on the edge of hearing, made all the more jolly by the periodic chuckle of shelduck. The wide-open skies were festooned with glorious marsh harriers as always, and the hedges were creaking to the twilight calls of grey partridges.

Perhaps there will be more to come in due course once the magnitude of this most recent trip has had time to sink in, but for now there are photos to edit, notes to make and plenty of plucking, butchering and skinning to do.

The Hare’s Hedge

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Revisiting my first hedging project after thirteen years

Having recently mentioned hedges, I was inspired to revisit my first “hands-on” conservation project yesterday afternoon to assess its progress after thirteen years. Footloose and relatively unfocused after leaving school in 2003, I took a job as an underkeeper on a local estate. Finding my weekends more or less empty, I began to cut back a leggy old section of hawthorn hedge on my family’s farm with a view to regenerating the old stock. I had never done anything like it before, and in retrospect it seems like an odd project for a totally ignorant teenager to attempt without any experience or help. In the event, government funding was available for this kind of regeneration work, and it was one of the few times in my life when I’ve actually been able to make money out of my own sweat and tears.

I cut down the entire hedge by hand, working a bow saw until my hands were smeared with blisters. Progress took place in fits and starts, and I would often arrive on site with half an hour of daylight to spare in the short winter days, cutting down two or three of the tall, leggy trees before woodcock would start to flight past and I would return home again. I had shoulder-length curly hair at the time (an attempt to be more like Robert Plant), and this would often prove to be my undoing in the deep thorns. In due course, I built a stock-proof fence along the entire three hundred yards of the hedge, and then became distracted and thought no more of the project for the next ten years.

A visit to the hedge during the deep frost yesterday was extremely revealing. The hedge has sprung back to life with real enthusiasm and vigour, and with help from the fence, it now provides  the kind of thick-bottomed cover that is so crucial for birds and wildlife. For reasons known only to themselves, brown hares have returned to the glen over the last ten years – they are now a relatively common sight when they were absolutely unheard of before. There are all kinds of intriguing explanations for this, but thick hedgerow cover for leverets is surely a contributing factor. In fact, hares have begun to crop up in some extremely un-hare-like places in this parish, and their return has been one of the most surprising and heartening reversals of any wild animal I’ve worked with. I wouldn’t claim that this upsurge in hares is as a result of my work, but it can only have helped.

Perhaps sixty percent of the old hawthorns have recovered from their cutting. This is pretty good, since I remember that many were ancient and had rotted away horribly inside. Given their condition and antiquity, the trees were quite sparsely distributed anyway, so the high mortality after cutting has produced a gappy, sparse effect. This wouldn’t be ideal if this was going to serve as an agricultural boundary, but given that it simply has to serve as a corridor for birds and wildlife to use as they move across green, heavily improved sheep pastures, the effect is more than satisfactory. It would have been good to have bolstered the dead stumps with new plants, and perhaps drawing on new blood (or sap?) will help to develop the hedge’s potential in the future. Ideally, I’d love to lay this hedge one day – watch this space.

Dark Night

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It was impossible to tell when the sound started. I might have been dreaming it for hours, but now I was suddenly awake beneath deep layers of down and wool – feathers and hair. The darkness was apocalyptic, backed only by the gentlest purr of rain on the window.

And then he barked again; three seamless coughs. Hairs rose on the back of my neck and a chill made my skin prickle against warm, cotton sheets. The dog fox could not have been more than forty yards away from my bedside. I pictured him walking between rushes and fallen bracken as if they were the frayed edges of my blanket.

I was out of bed before I really knew what I was doing, walking quietly across the unlit house to the front door. Idle dogs lounged in their pits beside the embers of the stove, and I stepped out barefooted into a smirr of rain, soaked almost immediately through my pyjamas.

Nights have been hung with that same coughing burr since the oldest times. I sat in the grass in the treacle-blackness and listened to him move – the gorgeous three-note phrase passed in a semi-circle around me. At times he was so close that I half expected to feel him brush against me. Seconds later, his yaps would fade into a loose, roomy echo which implied that he was on open ground beneath the oak trees fifty yards away. The rain swirled and glued my shirt to my back from a different angle.

He never stopped moving, and if he knew of me, he never showed his hand. My hair was soon heavy with rain, and the experience drifted into new and abstract lines. Perhaps there was no beast; perhaps it was only a sound. I warmed myself on its spark.

By the time I returned to the house, it was 4:15. It would soon be time to get up, and this deep, wondrous night would then shrink down into something I could grasp. I felt sure that the most important business of the day had already been transacted.