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Britain Is Eating More Deer Than Ever

Sales of game meat in the UK rose by nearly 10 percent last year, something market researchers put down to the growing popularity of venison. Soz, Bambi.

Food trends can be tricky to keep a handle on. If we're not creating mutant baked goods, we're dropping bibimbap on ourselves in "street market-inspired dining areas" (read: wobbly garden benches) or mainlining goji berries.

According to new market analysis however, our latest food obsession may be a lot less Instagrammable. A new report by research agency Mintel suggests an increase in the popularity of game—animals traditionally hunted for sport, from small birds and rabbits to "big game" like boar or elk.

"The Fifty" report, which tracks 50 markets with high growth potential, showed a 9 percent rise in sales of the meat in the UK between 2013 and 2014.

While the £97 million Britain spent on game meat in 2014 has nothing on the £1.7 billion in poultry sales, Mintel says "many more UK consumers have expressed an interest in trying game" and predicts further growth in the sector.

It makes sense, traditional British cooking is becoming fashionable on the London restaurant scene and last year, James Lowe took a group of international chefs on a Scottish grouse hunt as a way to champion local produce.

"We have noticed a great interest in game recently, particularly with wild rabbit and squirrel," agrees Robert, director of the Suffolk-based Wild Meat Company. "Sometimes, however, this interest does not reflect in a huge increase in purchases or consumption. It's what I call the 'Masterchef effect'—we all watch it and lots of game is cooked over any one series, but it does not mean everyone copies it."

While cooking show contestants and their trembling plates of deconstructed partridge loin may have inspired us to eat animals usually consigned to the "woodland critters" category, Mintel's report says our recently discovered taste for venison is the real drive behind sales of game meat.

"Venison has been on the up for many years, you only have to see that the supermarkets include it on their shelves these days," says Jeannie Tomlin at Alternative Meats, an online retailer stocking specialist meats including venison. "Competition to our big four [major supermarkets] from Aldi and Lidl is interesting because they have no qualms about including game, especially exotic game, on their shelves."

According to market analysis from Kantar Worldpanel, sales of venison grew by over 400 percent between 2013 and 2014, thanks in part to the introduction of the meat in national supermarkets. Even your meat-and-two-veg uncle will have probably branched out to a home brand venison burger by now.

"There doesn't seem to be the worry attached to cooking game products that there used to be," adds Tomlin.

As with anything traditionally killed by rich people with shotguns, venison is not without its detractors. The debate between animal rights groups and shooters rages every year during Scotland's deer stalking season, with the latter arguing that controlled deer culls are needed for conservation purposes. The former need only bring up Bambi's mum.

With Mintel's report advising retailers to advertise venison as an "alternative" to red meat, the Thumpers of the UK may need to brace themselves for an influx of orphaned fawns.