Eight years ago, John and Nichola Fletcher, then in their twenties, decided to try country living, self-sufficiency, wooden stoves and all that accompanies such a life style. They scraped together money for a stone cottage and 80 acres of hilly land in this lovely corner of western Scotland and started Britain's first deer farm. They called it Reediehill.
The choice of doer, instead of cows, pigs, chickens or sheep, came naturally to John Fletcher who had just finished his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge on the reproductive Physiology of red deer.
The Fletchers' pioneer sentiments started something, or at least helped revive a medieval British practice of raising deer exclusively for venison instead of as prey for hunters. Today there are 70 deer farms around the country, according to Fletcher. There is even a Bristish deer farmers' association. And lately, the Fletchers have gon up-front commercial with glossy brochures for their "veniburgers," which are turning up in butcher shops and supermarkets.
Actually, the veniburgers are not what deer farming is really about. As Fletcher explained it in the cozy comfort of his kitchen one cool, overcast morning recently, most venison sold in restaurants around the world comes from old, tough wild deer, the ones unable to escape hunters.
"Stalkers," he said with derision, "shoot the rubbish."
The meat tends to be tough and bitter, he went on, and may have survived such unattractive features as shattered bits of bone and maggots picked up on a long haul in from the woodlands before being pummelled into edibility. This poor quality, Fletcher contends, accounts for venison's limited popularity.
By contrast, farm-raised deer meat comes from animals killed between the ages of 18 months and 2 1/2 years. All are males. The females, known as hinds, are sold for breeding.
After Fletcher decides which deer he wants to market, he shoots them himself in the field at close range, which limits the damage caused by the bullets. The carcass is then immediately prepared for butchering and sold as saddles, chops, steaks and other familiar-sounding cuts.
Fletcher resists the demand of some agricultural bureaucrats that the deer be taken off to a slaughterhouse: a business judgment, he said, as well as a means of maintaining constistently high standards. The debate over abattoir killing versus the hillside variety is apparently a current hot topic in deer farmer confabs, along with the price of fencing, and marketing, which is still highly personalized.
The Fletchers sell all their own meat. There is a substantial demand in Europe, especially West Germany, which gets 80 percent of Scottish vension, he said. The retail price for steaks runs as high as about $7 a pound, with chops just under $5 a pound and boned shoulder at about $3.75. Fresh venison is plainly not cheap. But then, Fletcher points out, neither is beef, a comparable red meat.
The test is in the eating, of course, and the truth is that roasted saddle is delicious. Its taste is similar to good beef, but a little richer.
The trick to raising deer, Fletcher said, is breeding them to be as tame as possible. To demonstrate, he strode toward the hillside bellowing a resounding "c'mon" and the herd swept toward him to be rewarded with pellets of sugar beet pulp. That sight alone makes a visit to the farm worthwhile,
Fencing is an equally important factor in a successful farm. It runs about $4.50 a yard. The Fletchers bought about 6,000 yards when they started out, for which they received a 50 percent farm capital grant from the government. Each kind costs about $450. The Fletchers have 250, plus six stags and their "growing stock."
Notwithstanding their commitment to self-sufficiency -- they still provide their own milk, butter, cheese and vegetables but have supplemented the wood stove with more modern conveniences -- the Fletchers run a business. They have three or four helpers on the land and in their butcher shop and a host of other expenses.
The Fletchers have two little girls, the second born at home, who cavort barefoot in the family's rambling stone farmhouse. They like their country life, they say, find the shops and company in the nearby village of Auchtermuchty agreeable and go off to Edinburgh, about 90 minutes drive away, when they need a dose of urban virtures.
To preserve that way of living and help underwrite their fresh venison trade, the Fletchers decided last winter to try the veniburger line. They asked a city friend to help with the marketing and bought a patty maker with a loan from the Scottish Development Agency.
For the meat, they buy wild vension from among the 40,000 or 50,000 deer killed in Scotland each year. It is ground up like hamburger and mixed with onions, eggs, fresh herbs, spices and breadcrumbs and sold in packages of four, four-ounce burgers for about $3 a pound.
Sales are brisk, Fletcher said, enough so that he is considering taking on a more elaborate patty pounder. Next, he hopes to get the trademark registered and, who knows, after that people all over Britain may be trying veniburgers.
In a way though, the veniburgers are just a lure to tame the buying public, just like Fletcher's haunting "c'mon" is meant to attract the deer. Eventually he hopes people will enjoy what they sample enough to move on to fresh venison. Meantime, he's come up with a slogan for his future advertising drive: "They're not just any burgers, they're veniburgers!"