From Estate to Your Plate
Nicky Cahill explores Finnebrogue Estate's venison farm
The majestic Red Deer is the largest mammal in Northern Ireland and the only one of three species found here that can be called indigenous. Cervus elaphus has been here in one form or another since Ireland was part of mainland Europe, with the earliest record coming from 26000 years ago. At that time, Red deer roamed freely through the island.
The species ‘Fallow’ and ‘Red Sika’ can also be found in the province, with evidence of their presence dating back to as early as 1244 and the 1800's respectively.
Owing to deforestation, over hunting and the Great Famine (1845 - 1847) numbers have been in decline but wild deer populations, unchecked by natural predators like bears, wolves or the lynx, have risen to what is thought to be the highest levels in the past 1,000 years.
This is great news for lovers of natural fauna but not for certain ecosystems, which can be devastated by these hungry herbivores. The good news for venison lovers is that for the protection of both the herds and the environment, deer must be managed in accordance with legally designated seasons.
Virtually all deer control and culling in Northern Ireland is carried out by highly trained specialists, either wildlife wardens within the Northern Ireland Forest Service, stalkers on private estates, or by abattoirs for farmed deer.
The majority of culled deer in Northern Ireland is sold locally within season for venison. The remainder is sold to game dealers in Scotland.
Demand in Northern Ireland for wild venison is high and in accordance deer farms have appeared throughout the province.
Finnebrogue Estate in Co Down, owned by Christine and Dennis Lynn, is one of the province’s better-known farms. Exclusively farming Red deer for Ireland and Britain, the Lynns have pioneered a new way to produce venison.
A certain attention to detail that sets Finnebrogue apart from other deer farms in Northern Ireland. Finnebrogue Deer are raised as if wild, free to roam in the rolling drumlins of the estate with a minimum of human interference. This freedom, combined with a natural diet, ensures that the deer maintain a high state of health whilst thriving in their environment.
In a process unique to Finnebrogue, the deer are slaughtered, hung, butchered, packaged and despatched from one location. This practice produces consistently high-quality venison which can be found on the menus of some of Britain and Ireland's finest restaurants.
Seen as a healthy alternative to other meat produce, venison is low in fat and high in protein, virtually cholesterol free with lots of vitamin B, omega-3 and phosphorus – all factors that have seen the meat become recognised as a health food. Minced venison makes good burgers and sausages; and the finest cuts can be cooked as steaks. Finnebrogue are exclusive suppliers to Marks & Spencer’s.
All Finnebrogue deer are slaughtered young. Stress at slaughter results in a higher pH value which in turn means tougher meat. The slaughtering process devised at Finnebrogue keeps stress to a minimum. The animals are brought to a lairage (covered barn) 24 hours prior to slaughter and allowed to settle.
On the day of slaughter each deer goes into a pen, then down an escape route – where they are killed instantly by captive bolt. Then the carcasses are hung on a hanging rack conveyor system, prior to butchery by hand.
‘Oisin’, the Gaelic word for young deer, is the brand name trademarked by Finnebrogue for their spring venison. Oisin comes from deer slaughtered between 9 and 21 months old, making meat that is mild, tender, moist and full of flavour.
Venison is perhaps one of Northern Ireland’s oldest native foods and can be historically traced in the diet of the populace. In the heavily wooded, post-glacial Northern Ireland, the need for food increased as the human population expanded and Red deer became a favoured quarry.
The province offers a great selection of venison, wild or farmed, both with a distinctive taste. Northern Irish venison – from an animal native to this island - is definitely meat that should be celebrated.
What was once considered a game meat for rural country folk has become popular meat with urbanites and people from all sections of society, whether it is eaten within the traditional season or from a farmed source. There is great heritage and cultural significance in the history of venison in Northern Ireland. It is a part of our food culture that is being revived in exciting and innovative ways.