Butchery is an inseparable part of hunting, and, at the same time, it’s also a separate, additional skill that requires many years to master. Today, we try to take a peek into it by talking to three professional butchers – Mark Stobbs, Matt Roberts, and Tom Davies from the UK.
If there are people who embody the forest-to-table philosophy, it’s certainly Mark Stobbs, Matt Roberts, and Tom Davies – hunters, deer managers, butchers, and Pulsar ambassadors from the UK. All being responsible for the entire process – from harvesting to packaging – they take great care in each step.
The first of them is choosing the right animal and thinking about shot placement. Matt agreed to elaborate on this: “Harvesting an animal and maximizing the yield for meat requires good shot placement with an appropriate choice of bullet head. Shot placement needs to account for the vitals, but shoulder pinning and quartering to or away chest shots can lead to lots of bruising, bullet and bone splintering, and potential contamination. My preference is the head or high neck shots. For chest shooting, I want a classic, straight-legged plumb broadside shot and tuck the bullet midline and just behind the shoulder (between the 4th and 5th rib if you can).
In terms of the meat itself, seasonal characteristics can heavily influence the quality of the meat, especially in males. The most obvious one is bucks or stags in the rut. These can look impressive as trophies but can be very tough and strong in flavor, so if you were after rare steaks and roasting joints, you might wish to reconsider. Both males and females can also find themselves getting injured and either bruised or poked full of holes which may or may not condemn some parts of the carcass.”
Once you’ve got the animal selected and harvested, you need to check it from up-close. “When I harvest my quarry, it is important to perform all the vital checks on the animal for any signs of disease or poor health,” explains Mark. This is done to “make sure it’s a healthy carcass entering the human food chain”, adds his counterpart Tom.
Now, it’s time for field dressing. “When the eye blink test confirms the animal is dead, I bleed it out and immediately expose and tie off the esophagus,” begins Matt. Then, the hunters will take the carcass to a spot that’s convenient for gralloching and is close to the truck. As Tom stresses, this must be “handled with great care to ensure there’s no contamination. Each animal is hung on a winch for a suspended gralloch to ensure we have the best, cleanest possible product.” Matt adds that “Getting the core temperature down quickly is important to maximize its eating potential.”
Then, it’s time to hang the carcass, and the aging begins. As Mark explains, the process, which typically takes around 7 days, “helps with softening and tenderizing the meat and also enhances the flavor.”
Finally, it’s time to break down the carcass and send it off to restaurants, shops, and people. Enjoying such meat is a unique experience not only because of its taste but also because of complete traceability. Hunters tell us they tag each animal to identify where it came from and could easily tell you the whole process of each animal’s care.
Of course, we couldn’t call the process sustainable if it produced lots of waste – and in the case of these Brits, it certainly doesn’t. Tom and Matt admit that it’s only the stomachs that remain unused, while many of their customers love the offal as much as they love other parts of the animal, and the bones either get boiled into stock or turned into a treat for pups. And speaking of pups – Mark’s are very lucky, as game offal is a big part of their diet. As for the fur, it can either go to someone who makes leather items or, in Mark’s case, to a local taxidermist.
As we already mentioned, the men are experienced deer population managers. Being hunters themselves, they help local landowners to ensure the population is as healthy as it is abundant. “Certain areas and certain landowners have different opinions of the wild deer on their land. So, as a part of my business, I will supply the landowners with a deer management plan for their land,” tells Tom, also adding that it’s not just about the number of deer but also about the animals’ health. Sometimes, a lower number can mean more strong, healthy deer. Matt also adds that “It’s important that venison stays a byproduct of responsible deer management – not the objective of it. The moment they start looking like pound notes in the scope instead of deer is the moment I hang up my rifle. Whether to cull an animal or not shouldn’t be determined by how many hooks you have free in the larder but by what the management plan is for the ground.”
Mark admits that thermal imaging has become a great tool in the management side of the business. “Not only does it help me spot my quarry faster, but also picks out any dangers that may be up ahead,” explains the hunter. Of course, hunters also mention thermal imaging’s ability to see beyond what’s visible to the naked eye – whether it’s the bad weather or natural flora obstructing the view. “Thermal makes it easier to plan an approach to a position where you can take a confident and well-placed shot and, from there, assist with the location of the animal afterwards. Good shot placement and prompt carcass recovery reduces stress for both the hunter and the hunted and helps produce a better end product,” explains Matt.
So, what do professionals name their thermal favorites? Well, Helion seems to be the common answer. Mark and Tom have and enjoy the trusty Helion 2 XP50 Pro, while Matt worked with the Helion XQ38 for the past 6 years, and “it has never missed a beat”. Matt and Tom have recently started employing the Pulsar Merger LRF XP50, too, while Mark opts for the compact Axion 2 XQ35 Pro.
While often romanticized, butchery is not your typical dream job, and so I wonder how these men came to it. In Mark’s case, it was a family affair. Having opened a butcher’s shop back in 1972, his grandfather later got his two sons involved and, now, his grandson Mark. “When I left school, I started my journey into hunting, where everything I harvested was used in the family business. From there, I created my own game business supplying other local butchers and restaurants with fresh, natural wild venison, rabbit, pigeon, and all other game birds. The butchery has now been passed down to me, and I’m proud to say I run the family business.”
Tom Davies also has a similar story – which we also turned into a video you can enjoy here. While he’s the first to turn butchery into business, he learned the craft as a child while “processing all animals with my dad to be eaten”.
To Matt, however, it was “an accident”. “From a young age, I’ve always enjoyed the field-to-fork process, and turning a quarry that you spent time, effort and skill in harvesting into food has always seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me. All that’s really changed is the scale I do it at now… and the amount of sleep I get,” jokes the hunter.
I can’t help but wonder if the hunters intend to pass the craft on to their children. And, if Tom’s daughter is still slightly too young to enjoy the game – let alone participate in the process, Mark has already laid the groundwork. “I have always tried to encourage my family to eat game due to it being a wild, sustainable product. Knowing my family is consuming some game meat gives me reassurance that they are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet,” says the British hunter.
Matt takes educating his children about the sources of food very seriously: “It’s important to normalize meat and game from a young age. With my kids, that includes plucking pheasants on the step and helping me skin and cut up deer. The most important thing is for them to think of the game as something normal. For me, that meant gateway foods that kids normally eat substituted with game – like venison spaghetti bolognese or Mexican chili. We also make venison sausages, meatballs and burgers, KFP (Kentucky fried pheasant) and bunny nuggets. The way the world is with processed food, and how meat has been so ignorantly labeled as bad for the environment, I think education about food systems is almost as healthy for my children as the food itself.”
Health and balance seem to be the most important topics during today’s conversation – whether it’s about the animals these men manage or the meat they eat, it all comes down to ensuring the best possible quality while remaining humble and appreciative of nature’s gifts.
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