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Wild Deer Management and Sustainable Food

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Robert Largan.)

Before I turn to the topic of my debate, I was lucky enough to hear the last 40 minutes of the previous debate. When I was a young Member of Parliament, I sat on what was then the Public Administration Committee, and the then Government wanted to identify what made a great Briton. I did not intervene in the last debate, because I had not listened to it all, but I have mulled over that question for many years since. I want to put on the record that one of my personal great Britons is Peter Tatchell.

May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I am chair, unpaid, of the Country Food Trust. This is relevant to this afternoon’s debate about wild deer management and sustainable food, so if the House will indulge me, I will spend a minute talking about the Country Food Trust.

The trust was founded in 2015 in memory of the philanthropist and businessman Michael Stone, who was the original driving force behind the idea. Its express purpose is to feed hungry people with nutritious, protein- based meals. As I speak here now, the trust is on the cusp of delivering its 3 millionth meal. That is a cause for celebration. I am certainly celebrating it, as the unpaid chair.

Meat and protein are important because they are an essential part of our diet; even if you are vegetarian, you need protein. But given its higher cost in the main, protein has always been harder for food banks to source. There is a relatively plentiful supply of white carbohydrates. We know what they are, but for the benefit of Hansard and the House I shall mention four of them—rice, potato, bread and pasta. Carbohydrate is relatively abundant, but there is a scarcity of meat and many food banks would like to have more of it so they can offer their clients and the people they support a more varied diet.

That is where the Country Food Trust comes in. Since its inception just about eight years ago, the trust has worked with about 1,000 charities and food banks, providing them with butchered frozen meat in 20 kg blocks that can be broken down and turned into casseroles and stews, or our own brand, long-life, pre-prepared meals. These are very important because they come in packages with a shelf life of about 1 year, they can be stored at room temperature and they only take about 30 or 40 seconds to heat up in a microwave, or maybe a minute on a stove. Given the current cost of energy, that is welcomed by a lot of people who are struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes.

You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as Chairman of the Administration Committee in this place, I take a keen interest in food, because this House has many restaurants, largely used by our staff, and flavour is the key to success. The trust has pheasant curry, a pheasant casserole and venison bolognese—we have venison, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am warming up for the task ahead. That is what people like to eat, but of course we are expanding our range to include vegetarian options and turkey.

Before turning to the substantive part of my debate, I want to thank two people. I thank Tim Woodward, the trust’s previous CEO, who set it up and was the driving force. Tim was awarded an MBE last June for all his efforts, particularly during the covid lockdown, making sure people had nutritious food. And I thank our current chief executive, SJ Hunt. We could not have had more committed, determined CEOs. They are driving the organisation forward and we are very lucky to have them.

Before you rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I know this afternoon’s debate is about, not the Country Food Trust, but the effective use and management of deer. At around 2 million animals, the UK’s deer population is estimated to stand now at its highest level for 1,000 years; there are more deer now than when William the Conqueror arrived. Our immense national herd keeps on growing. To put that in context, to keep it stable at 2 million, we would need to cull between 500,000 and 750,000 deer each year—that is just to keep things stable. At present, however, we are culling only about 350,000 animals, so each year the national herd keeps growing, and more trees and crops are nibbled away.

We always say in this place, “Something needs to be done” but clearly it does need to be done in this case. There is now almost universal agreement between conservationists, environmentalists and the farming community that a structured deer cull needs to be put in place to manage what is becoming quite a significant problem.

I do not want this House, or anybody watching this debate live or on catch-up, to think that I am alone in putting forward this argument. In 2020, the much-respected organisation the Woodland Trust, which the Minister knows well, published a position paper on the problem, stating:

“Evidence tells us that high deer numbers are leading to significant negative impacts on the structure and biodiversity of many of our most valued woodlands. Pressure from deer browsing causes declines in characteristic herbaceous plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals like the dormouse because it removes the structural complexity of woodland by limiting the growth of many shrub and tree species, and preventing their regeneration (including coppice regrowth).”

The paper also stated:

“Evidence shows voluntary approaches are not maintaining deer at sustainable levels and that better regulation and incentives focused on cooperative action between landowners could ensure lower and more natural densities… Regulated management for deer would also support the UK’s climate change targets and tree disease recovery through woodland expansion.”

Furthermore, a joint paper commissioned by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Forestry Commission observed that,

“the overwhelming message from studies in both North America and Europe is that the effect of sustained heavy grazing and browsing pressure is a reduction in the richness of biological communities.”

Something has to happen, but there is a major barrier to mounting a successful deer cull and that, bluntly, is a lack of a venison-eating culture in the UK. As it stands, there is only a limited domestic market for venison meat. To explain the problem briefly, the more animals shot, the greater the supply of meat. The greater the supply of venison meat, the more the price for the carcase drops. An oversupply, for the moderate size of the existing venison market, creates a negative drag on the culling effort—as I mentioned earlier, we are only culling 350,000, when we should be culling a great deal more. Why is there a drag? It is because depressed carcase prices mean stalkers can no longer cover their costs and therefore have a reduced incentive to manage deer stocks.

At this point I want to make it clear to the House that we have a duty to the deer we shoot. There is no way of sugaring the pill—we are taking the life of a large animal. The deer is a large animal and it is a noble creature. Stags are part of our heritage and have always been celebrated. Madam Deputy Speaker, you have been in Parliament longer than I have, and you know that they are celebrated in this Palace. We see them in the murals, in the paintings and in the architecture—they are everywhere. Deer are also celebrated in my county, because I am an MP from Hertfordshire and “hert” means deer. They are a prominent feature of my county’s crest and part of our heritage.

When culled, we owe these animals our respect. We need to dispatch them humanely and put as much as possible of their carcase into the human food chain. Sadly, while the culling is done with great respect, increasingly one hears of these animals’ having nowhere better to go than into dog food. Game dealers are telling me they cannot get rid of the carcases and they are now looking at putting grade A meat into dog food. I have nothing against dogs, but I would rather see deer feeding people. That is an unconscionable situation and it needs to be remedied. We are putting fantastic meat into dog food and not into the human food chain.

In seeking a remedy to this, I welcome the Government’s excellent consultation, published in early autumn last year, on their proposed deer management strategy. I must tell the Minister how much I appreciate the fact that she took time before this debate to sit with me in the Tea Room for a chat, that her officials and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Whip asked for an early copy of my speech, and that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), is well across the brief as well. I thank the Minister, the ministerial team at DEFRA and the officials for their interest in this matter.

The deer management strategy is important. The Government’s commitment to it was restated in its “Environmental Improvement Plan 2023”, published yesterday, which is an update on the comprehensive 25-year plan to make serious changes and improvements to the environment. As the Minister knows, the Government’s earlier “Consultation on the proposed deer management strategy” recognises the need—and this is probably the most important paragraph in my speech—to pump-prime the venison market to ensure that this protein-rich, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat finds its way into food banks, schools, hospitals, the bases of the armed forces, and prisons.

I want to prove to the Minister that I have read the consultation in close detail—and to prove it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know you do not like to have your time wasted by Back Benchers, particularly the Member for Broxbourne—so I will quote directly from page 6, which states:

“The sustainable management of the deer population can also support the development of the wild venison market as a carbon-positive healthy meat and a product of sustainable woodland management. Venison sales are a key part of the deer management cycle and the revenue can help landowners offset deer management costs.

We are proposing that government support the development of a financially and environmentally sustainable wild venison supply chain. We are considering making small grants to contribute to the costs of purchasing and installing the necessary facilities and equipment, where capital costs are a barrier”.

Small grants are pump-priming—and there is more good news on page 6: the Department wants to facilitate the Great Britain Venison Working Group, and to work with the Food Standards Agency and local authorities and regulatory enablers.

I see that a member of the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), is present. I know that this is a devolved matter, but I also congratulate the Scottish Government—if, as a Tory MP, I am allowed to do so—on doing a lot of good thinking about this, because it is not an isolated problem confined to England and Wales.

Let me say to the Minister that an intervention on the scale outlined on page 6 of the consultation would be welcome, because venison production is by its nature diffuse in scale, with many small organisations and businesses operating on a local level with limited procurement, marketing and distributing power. There are plenty of willing organisations that would love to do something to help, but their scale makes it difficult for them to act. Anything that the Government can do through pump-priming and bringing people together and creating collaborative alliances will be hugely appreciated, and will give a huge return on every pound spent.

Because I have become a bit of a policy wonk on deer and the food chain, I have looked at what is going on in other markets. There is an amazing scheme run by the United States Department of Agriculture, called Farm to Food Bank Projects. The USDA makes funds available to the projects to cover the costs associated with harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting privately donated food. Let me briefly list the scheme’s objectives. They are to reduce food waste at the agricultural production, processing, or distribution level through the donation of food; to provide food to individuals in need; and to build relationships between agricultural producers, processors and distributors and emergency feeding organisations through the donation of food. Let me add for the benefit of any officials who may look at it—and I hope they do—that the USDA’s paper was published on 24 August 2021.

We cannot, of course, read across exactly into the United Kingdom what is happening in the United States, but I think the Minister can envisage the seeds of a similar idea in what we are thinking about here with the deer management strategy. Abundance is abundance, and we have an abundance of deer. It would be fantastic if we could harvest it better, and find a way of using it to feed people who would appreciate it.

We need to bring great energy and thought to getting deer meat eaten and enjoyed by a population that, through cultural conditioning, too readily associate venison with the expensive choice on a restaurant or gastro pub menu. “Deer is not for people like me”, they might think. “That is what you eat at a posh west end restaurant.” That is creating a cultural barrier to getting it eaten more widely in this country.

I will now conclude this part—the substantive part—of my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I can assure you that I wish to refer just briefly at the end to the environmental improvement plan.

I hope that the Government can progress their deer management strategy with cross-party support. This is the Adjournment debate, and I know that most Members have gone home, but I think that there should be cross-party support for such a project. I hope that we can cull deer, and that when we do so we respect the animal and put it to good use; respect for the animal is so important. I hope and am sure that Ministers will work with interested parties such as farmers, game dealers, conservationists, food charities, the Forestry Commission, Forestry England and all the other agencies that can help bring this to life, and I hope, as I have just said, that venison becomes a sustainable and more widely accepted part of our diet in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

I will sit down in a minute, Madam Deputy Speaker, but before I do so, let me say that there is a lot of heat and light about the environment. Some of the behaviours at the margins of the debate have caused me great concern. I feel passionately about many things, but that does not give me the right to shout at anybody—be it at an MP or a colleague—or to turn up with 150 people and picket a colleague’s office in their constituency. A demonstration of 20,000 people around Parliament is a really good thing. There was a demonstration yesterday by many unions, and a member of my family was present. I think that that is fantastic; it is democracy at its best. But turning up and picketing an MP’s office—whoever that MP might be, from whatever party—is intimidation and, quite honestly, those people doing it know that it is intimidation. Sometimes it has gone beyond just turning up in large numbers. There has been antisocial behaviour, graffiti and worse.

May I urge anyone who, like me, has an interest in the environment and conservation to maintain the passion, but read the environmental improvement plan and read what the Government are doing? This is a long journey. I am a passionate fisherman and I do a lot with the Angling Trust. I would like to see our rivers cleaned up tomorrow, but it is a long journey. It will take time, whoever is in power. I ask people to please not get their news about the environment from social media and allow themselves to be wound up and made angry. They should actually read what is happening, because there is so much exciting stuff going on.

This environmental improvement plan is a 250-page report. It is fascinating. By all means people should have a constructive dialogue with their Member of Parliament. They should send them a letter, saying, “On page 197, there is a bit on restoring peatland damage. I’d like it to happen a bit faster.” I say to them, please do that, but we must treat each other with respect; we are all travelling in the same direction. But today I am here to talk about deer, so the wider conversation that I have just touched on can perhaps happen in another Adjournment debate.

I must start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) on securing this debate. In a fascinating and informative speech, he set out with clarity, sensitivity and practicality what must be done to ensure that, when we treble our tree planting in this country, we maintain healthy forests and a healthy deer population.

I commend my hon. Friend’s work with the Country Food Trust charity. This debate is a fitting tribute to Michael Stone and his inspiration to provide food, often game food, to hungry people. What we have heard today about the work of the Country Food Trust is inspirational. I would certainly like to look into that trust working in my area in Cumbria.

Last year we published our food strategy, which builds on existing work across Government and identifies new opportunities to make food systems healthier, more sustainable, more resilient and more accessible for those across England—very much what the Country Food Trust and many other organisations are already doing. It sets out how we will deliver a low-carbon, nature-positive food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and sustainable diets for all.

My hon. Friend raised a very important point about the need for protein. There is an abundance of carbohydrates and starchy carbohydrates in rice, pasta, bread and potatoes, but it is also essential to have low-fat protein, and that is exactly what venison provides. The food strategy sets out our vision for a sustainable proteins sector, including alternative protein research and innovation, British-grown beans and pulses, and proteins from non-traditional livestock sectors. I know from my own experience just how tasty venison is. It is versatile and sustainable. Whether minced or diced, steaked or in sausages, stroganoffed or stewed, it is very, very tasty meat.

We recognise that England’s wild deer are an important part of the nation’s biodiversity. They are beautiful and iconic; a wonderful feature of our countryside. As my hon. Friend set out, they are deeply cherished in our cultural heritage, with significant historic significance. Deer encounters can also be valuable in connecting people with nature.

It is more likely than ever that people will have that encounter, because there have probably never been more deer in England as there are today. The distribution of deer has dramatically increased over the last century. At these levels, deer pose a significant risk to our woodlands and the other animals that rely on them. An unsustainable deer population can also result in poor welfare for the deer themselves, leading to malnourishment and the prevalence and spread of disease.

Trees are at the forefront of the Government’s plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but more than sequestering and storing carbon, trees are vital for forestry, construction, furniture and flood resilience. Trees and hedgerows are vital for habitat and for food for so many species, great and small. They will be especially vital for halting the decline of nature and increasing its abundance after 2030. That is set out in our environmental improvement plan, which my hon. Friend raves about with jolly good reason, all 260 pages of it, and which we published earlier this week. We recently set a stretching target to increase tree canopy and woodland cover across England to 16.5% by 2050. Trees will play a critical role in supporting the delivery of our 10 goals in the environmental improvement plan and in meeting our statutory environmental targets. It goes without saying that healthy trees are vital for the productive timber sector, which supports thousands of jobs right across the country.

Our England trees action plan sets out the Government’s long-term vision for trees and woodland, but recognises that without a reduction in deer impacts, much of that ambition will be seriously compromised. A growing deer population, which is likely to be higher than at any time in the last 1,000 years, is putting more browsing pressure on woodlands and ground flora. Deer are damaging trees and inhibiting the natural regeneration of existing woodlands and the use of natural colonisation to establish new ones. I wholeheartedly welcome the support of my hon. Friend for the proposal in our deer strategy consultation that the Government should support the development of the wild venison supply chain. We recognise that sustainable management of the deer population supports the market for wild venison, and that the sale of venison can offset some of the costs of culling.

Income generated by the sale of venison may also help to offset the economic losses to land managers caused by the effect of deer on trees and crops. We have been working with Grown in Britain, game dealers and shooting and conservation associations to develop new markets and promote British wild venison. This group will be launching a quality assurance and branding scheme during the spring to raise awareness of venison with the public and to increase the supply of venison into supermarkets. That is with good reason, because as well as being tasty, low in fat and high in protein, venison has extensive nutritional value and bring nutrition that is important for a varied natural diet. Like all red meats, it is high in iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Being lean, venison is an easily digestible protein source. Hospitals in this country are already recognising that and adding venison to their menus.

Our England trees action plan committed to the development of a deer management strategy, led by the Forestry Commission. Last summer we ran a public consultation on our proposals, and following a high level of responses we are now completing our analysis and continuing stakeholder engagement. Ahead of launching our strategy in 2022, we launched our first deer management incentive payments as a supplement to woodland improvement grants. These supplements will increase deer management effort and reduce impacts. That option was taken up by half of applicants to the grant, providing £1.4 million of additional funding a year on more than 16,000 hectares of woodland. We continue to work closely with the sector and the Forestry Commission, and we are due to publish the Government response to our consultation on the deer strategy in the summer.

As has been set out, it is important to ensure not only the health and wellbeing of our forestry and the deer themselves, but that this versatile, sustainable, increasingly available, nutritious and tasty meat is brought to our plates while our native and iconic deer species thrive. Our woodland organisations—including the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust—the game and food sector and all other organisations that have an interest in ensuring that we meet our environmental targets and bring healthy, nutritious food to our plates can play a part in achieving that.

I once again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on his work with the Country Food Trust and on sparking this debate today. I very much look forward to supporting him. As he recognises, I have already been speaking with the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), who agrees entirely that this is a fantastic initiative, and it will be supported across our Department. I also pay tribute to the officials who are working hard on this programme.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.