AYRSHIRE’S FIRST RED DEER FARM
It’s not unusual to spot wild deer in Ayrshire, the iconic red deer, in particular, being perfectly at home in the county’s bountiful countryside. Drive through Mauchline, though, and you’re likely to see the native red deer in much greater numbers.
Ross Woodburn set up Woodrose Venison Farm in 2016. The first thing I do is clarify the company name.
“I’m from quite a big dairy farming background,” Ross begins, “so the family Woodburn name has been known for years and years. Because I’d left the dairy side of things and I wanted to open up my own enterprise, I used the ‘Wood’ part of my name and the ‘Rose’ part of my wife’s surname… Roseweir. We put it together as Woodrose.”
Now that’s been cleared up, I ask how the venison farm came about.
“I’ve been a farm boy all my life,” he continues, “but my wife and I moved to Prestwick to get on the property ladder. Then a farm came up for sale between my father’s and my brother’s farms, so it was a no-brainer.”
Although the decision to buy the farm was an easy one, when it came to deciding what to do with it, the answer came from an unexpected source.
“I was sitting reading a magazine one night and I read that there wasn’t a venison farm this side of Glasgow, especially in Ayrshire. At the time, there were a lot of grants so we got a thing called a New Entrants grant because we were doing something totally different.”
That was in 2016, and before he knew it, Ross had 72 red deer on his farm, but not before he’d conducted an awful lot of research.
“It was lonely research,” he recalls. “There was no-one to turn to. We went to see as many farms as we could… and a lot of things had to be changed. They’re not just fenced in a field. We’ve tried to create a normal habitat for them with woodland, ponds, and good grass parks for them to roam freely, so it feels as if they’re in a natural environment.”
Seven years later, Ross has 120 breeding females, around 100 yearlings (18-month-olds), 15 breeding stags, plus this year’s crop.
“For generations, my family has been all about showing cows and breeding cows… and I wanted to put the genetics into the red deer the same as you do with cows. The majority of our deer we sell for breeding, so they go to other farms and parks. Our stags are top, top pedigree stags… these are 30 pointers at two years old.”
He’s referring to the number of points on their antlers (also known as tines). I may not know much about stags but I do know this is a pretty impressive number.
Having secured contracts to supply venison to two major high-end supermarkets, Ross has clearly put Woodrose Venison on the map.
“Our venison is totally different from wild venison,” he says with an element of pride. “It’s not like the wild venison that you buy in most supermarkets. Our venison is 100% grass-fed. It’s very subtle, almost like beef. Grass is the key. Deer thrive on grasses. People think they thrive on heather because that’s what they see on TV, but they’re set up like dairy cows.”
When it comes to the actual handling of the animals, however, they are very different to cattle.
“You’ve got to understand how to handle them. They’re very intelligent. You can’t handle them like cows or sheep. You can’t chase after them on quad bikes and stuff like that, you’ve got be quiet and patient.”
I ask Ross to describe their characteristics and temperament.
“I’m looking for a word… they’re just so relaxing to watch. If I want to de-stress, I’ll go down to the field and watch them. There’s something unique and special about them. Majestic! That’s the word I was looking for.”
The rest of the Woodburn family also enjoy having deer on the farm. Daughter, Alex, and son, Logan, adore them, Ross tells me, as does his wife, Jo. It’s a real family affair and they all muck in when necessary.
“My wife didn’t like venison… but then we started farming venison and it’s a totally different taste so she started eating it. And the kids eat it too.”
Born into a farming family, the children are aware of the field to fork process.
“The way to look at it,” Ross says, “is the ones at 18 months old, they’re bred for what we call ‘finishing’. They don’t put a lot of fat on, they’re lean.”
Which is probably why venison is considered a superfood. Not only is it high in protein and low in fat, it has less cholesterol and more iron than any other type of meat. It’s also good for arthritic conditions and helps to reduce inflammation.
Ross goes on to tell me there are around 30 different cuts from a deer. Woodrose sells venison haggis, black pudding, burgers and sausages (to name a few) and even makes something extra special at Christmastime.
“Last Christmas we did our own pigs in blankets,” he informs me. “We cured our own venison bacon. That was very popular.”
Christmas is, of course, one of the busiest times of the year for Ross. Which is why the closure of his regular abattoir and, as a result, the unavoidable closure of the farm’s shop, is a particular concern.
“There was only one abattoir in the whole of Scotland that processed deer and it shut down, unfortunately. So we’re in the midst of trying to find something else. We’ve maybe got a new butcher team but we’ve got a lot of regulations to go through.”
The family is hopeful, though, that the shop will re-open in time to satisfy the festive demands of customers old and new.
In the meantime, Ross tells me of another sideline: “All the stags cast their antlers every year so we have 100 sets of antlers. We started selling them as decorative pieces but also we cut them up for dog chews. They’re super healthy, low in fat, and they’re not chlorine washed like the ones you get in the pet store, they’re just natural antlers. We sell quite a lot of them.”
Despite the current challenges, it’s clear that Ross is still enjoying day-to-day life on his deer farm. I ask what a typical day on the 56-acre farm involves.
“Get up in the morning, check your stock, check the fences to make sure they’re okay, make sure there’s food and water. That’s it really. You can let them be natural. They’re all just outside now. It’s breeding season so the mothers are with the stags and the calves are still there as well. That’s how easy-going the venison farm is right now.”
It sounds ideal, particularly as Ross also has a construction company to run. That said, the cold weather brings variety to his farming.
“We bring them all indoors in the winter… basically give them good shelter and good husbandry. We really get to know them through the winter months. We spend time with them. They’ll come up to you and stand at the gate.”
Ross eventually plans to open the farm up to the public. In the meantime, he has this simple advice for anyone who may be reluctant to try Ayrshire’s very own venison.
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