GAME meat is always a bit of a contentious issue.

The idea of killing Bambi horrifies children, while the image of the landed gentry striding across moorland estates and blasting birds from the sky doesn’t really strike Joe Public as particularly 21st century.

However we should revisit our preconceptions and look at why game meats are great to eat, and are also good for the conservation of our countryside.

Food writer NICK MOSLEY dives into the topic of game and weighs up the pros and cons of continuing to cook the controversial meat.

SO, WHAT is game? It’s obviously deer and rabbit, but also a variety of bird species such as grouse, duck, goose, wood pigeon, partridge and pheasant, and lesser known birds including snipe and ptarmigan.

“Game is a healthier, leaner meat,” said Linda Whitfield of Semolina in Baker Street, Brighton.

“It’s sustainable and very seasonal. If people ate more game it could help the environment so they don’t have to rely on farming methods that may impact the environment.”

BBC Masterchef the Professionals winner Steven Edwards of Etch in Church Road, Hove, agrees.

In the recently published AA Guide 2020, Etch retained three rosettes making the restaurant – along with The Little Fish Market – one of only two in the city to hold the acclaim.

“I think sustainability and variety is the biggest factor for us,” Steve said.

“While here at Etch we aren’t ultimately about healthy dining, I still think it’s important to use a variety of ingredients when they are in season to reduce the impact of overfarming and fishing.”

Many of the grand estates of England and Scotland continue to manage semi-wild populations of deer, and also breed game birds that are then released into the wild for the shooting season.

Knepp Estate near West Grinstead is an internationally celebrated example of a managed environment.

Spread over 3,500 acres, the Burrell family have been undertaking a process of rewilding their land; turning over the land to the native animals and wildlife ecosystems that were prevalent before the introduction of mechanised farming.

Wild boar, deer and longhorn cattle all now roam freely within the boundaries of the estate.

That said, vast numbers of game animals live in the wild throughout the British countryside, enjoying the lack of natural predators – and that includes us – that would historically have kept their numbers down.

With the UK’s deer population now standing at about two million , it is believed to be at its highest level in the last 1,000 years, with only two of the six species – Red and Roe deer – actually truly native to the British isles.

While most of the main game species have a limited season – when they can be shot in

the wild –there are some that are available throughout the year, including Muntjac deer.

“We have always had an abundance of choice from mallard duck, fallow and roe deer, partridge and pigeon,” said Jimmy Gray, head chef at Jeremy’s Restaurant in Borde Hill.

“There is so much bang right here on our doorstep in the beautiful Mid Sussex countryside, nestled between the Downs and the Weald.”

Wild deer cause a lot of damage to arable crops, tree plantations – they love eating bark

– and are detrimental to protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest where they strip out the undergrowth which then undermines the shrub layer for increasingly threatened ground nesting birds.

It’s suggested by major academic and environmental studies that localised culling of deer should take place to reduce the populations to more eco-system friendly levels.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for looking at reducing deer populations is the surprisingly high number of road accidents they cause annually.

The Deer Initiative organisation says up to 74,000 vehicle collisions are registered each year, causing about 450 human injuries and 10-20 human deaths.

So when you see a road sign that reads “Caution: Deer” then slow down and pay attention to the sides of the road and not just what is in front of you.

Some people are squeamish about game,

because of the intensity of the flavours. Ultimately these animals and birds have been eating a wild diet so their meat is more intense and earthier than domesticated farm animals that eat a diet exclusively of grass and grain.

But obviously how you cook the meat will impact on the flavour. As game is a lot leaner than farmed meat, most cuts don’t require as much cooking.

“It’s nice to use something that you know hasn’t been mass farmed,” said patron-chef Michael Bremner of 64 Degrees in Meeting House Lane and Murmur in the King’s Road Arches, Brighton

“If you’re uncomfortable with anything when cooking, my advice would always be start easy. With game you can quite easily braise a venison shoulder or make a game pie, which will keep the meat moist and retain that lovely gamey flavour.”

“My biggest tip would be to seal the meat and cook for less time,” said Steve from Etch.

“Make sure you rest the meat, and remember game can be eaten medium rare.”

Certainly from a health perspective, wild game meats are a lot healthier than farmed meats. By the nature of how the animal lives in the wild, it’s moving around more and eating a natural diet which converts into lower fat, higher protein and a range of vitamins.

Wild game also does not have any growth hormones or antibiotics in its food chain which is an increasing concern for many consumers who are thinking about what they are putting into their bodies.

If you’re interested in reducing food miles, then game is usually supplied by local gamekeepers to local butchers. This means not only are you eating an animal that has not been intensively farmed and has lived wild until the last second of its life, but also the carbon footprint is incredibly low – as opposed to that leg of New Zealand lamb or steak from Argentina.

To source game locally, visit a quality butcher such as Bramptons in Kemp Town village or Barfields at Fiveways. Even if the butcher does not have game in, they can certainly order it for you, and will be happy to advise on exactly where it has come from and how to cook it.

“Ask your butcher for advice on preparing and cooking the meat,” said Michael from 64 Degrees.

“They will be more than happy to help give you some pointers. And – as with so much cookery – it’s all about trial and error, but with game it’s definitely worth it.”

At a time where most of the meat that we consume, and the process by which it reaches our tables, is abstract and hidden from us, there is something raw and visceral about game meats. But, for many reasons, it’s time we reconsider that and enjoy this quality, healthy and local meat.