Mike Robinson says if deer numbers have to be controlled, let's make the most of them
Do I still cry when I watch Bambi on TV? Does a deer shit in the woods? I have no qualms about ordering a sizzling beef steak in a restaurant but point me in the direction of venison and I’ve always gone a bit "doe-eyed".
You can't leave growing numbers of deer unchecked because they have no predators - except cars.
“We need to eat more deer,” says chef and restaurateur Mike Robinson, quite bluntly.
I’m at Mike’s new restaurant - The Forge in Chester - tucking into grilled loin of wild fallow deer, with roast bone marrow, “dirty mash” and deer gravy. It’s all very, very tasty.
Fifteen years ago, Mike started managing deer on land, and he’s now one of Britain’s leading authorities on wild food and game.
The Forge is his fourth restaurant following on from success at The Harwood Arms in Fulham (the only pub in London with a Michelin star), the Woodsman in Stratford upon Avon, and the Elder in Bath.
As owner of Robinson Wild Foods, he’s also a specialist supplier of venison to 15 of London’s finest restaurants.
“Reality and Watership Down are two very different places,” says Mike.
“The reality is if we allow deer to go unchecked, not only will the biodiversity and woodland disappear, but bee numbers will crash because the flowers and the plants they rely on will be eaten.
“There's almost deer Armageddon going on in this country, the sheer numbers of wild deer in this country are so great. You can forget woodland regeneration, you can forget biodiversity and native woodlands.
"I went through a piece of woodland this morning with a landowner advising him, and it was just bare underneath. There were no young trees growing. The deer are just taking it all.
“You can't leave growing numbers unchecked because they have no predators, except cars. They have to be controlled. My attitude is, if they have to be controlled, let's make the most use out of them as we can.”
Climate warnings have been ringing out for years and we all want to eat more sustainably. Mike believes that eating deer meat is both sustainable and humane, and with his passion for wild food, it’s no surprise to learn that he has converted more than one vegetarian.
“It's an animal that's never had human influence in its whole life, until the microsecond when it suddenly isn't alive anymore, because it never even sees the hunter, it never sees us. It’s an animal that has had no stress. No one gives them antibiotics or puts them into pens or sends them to an abattoir, they just have a great life.”
Mike says that the problem with deer numbers has been exacerbated by the effects of Brexit and restaurant closures caused by COVID-19, resulting in a 40% increase in deer numbers in Britain in a single year.
“If you're a farmer in an area with loads of herds of fallow deer, you can just give up or it will bankrupt you. If you're a forester if you're DEFRA and the Forestry Commission trying to plant 100 million trees in the next 10 years. You can forget it. The deer will eat them as quickly as you put them in the ground.”
As well as destroying vegetation, too many deer can disrupt wildlife communities and cause frequent car collisions. Like a blind Bambi, I had no-eye-deer that these loveable creatures could cause so much damage.
“People get very judgmental without information,” says Mike.
“What you ate tonight is the right meat to eat. In every single moral, ethical way, that's the most justifiable thing you can ever eat. It’s no good shouting about Argentinian beef. You should be supporting grass-fed British meat from farmers who really care about what they do - they're the ones who do a good job.”
Mike’s philosophy on food is simple – don’t overcomplicate, always over-deliver, use the best sustainable ingredients, be totally delicious, and make sure it's memorable. He’s worked with head chef Curtis Tonge to create a menu that is hearty but seasonal.
The Forge has an open kitchen that cooks over wood and charcoal, using wild and locally reared meat that’s all aged on the premises. Oak, ash and beech from local forests provide the fuel, imparting fantastic flavour into the beef, lamb, game and venison.
The a la carte menu includes Menai rock oysters, hand-dived Orkney scallop, whole Lavington lamb, Cornish cod and dry-aged sirloin and T-bone of rare breed beef. The slow-cooked shoulder of roe deer sharer for two (pictured top) must be the pièce de résistance at £24 per person.
If you’re still not convinced about Mike’s enthusiasm for eating deer, The Forge has separate vegetarian and vegan menus.
Mike is a patron of the Country Food Trust with a focus on the charity’s Wild Venison Project, and worked with The Felix Project during lockdown, donating venison mince to the London food charity to provide for disadvantaged families.
The “Bambi effect” against eating cute animals is still prevalent, but Mike Robinson certainly puts forward a persuasive argument for deer to become more commonplace on British menus.
Until more restaurants join the movement, The Forge will deer to be different.