“The sheep are here to do a job,” says Tracy “Bill” Betteridge, self-confessed eccentric and owner of Chiltern Lamb, a farm in Medmenham, a rural idyll in South Oxfordshire. Those words define her approach. Matter-of-fact, insightful, brimming with passion. We’re sitting in her log cabin, drinking coffee 15 metres from her “girls”.
Beyond the kitchen window lies ambition fulfilled: a rare-breed flock producing “proper” food and giving back to the land from which it takes. A virtuous circle of consumption and renewal. Bill is no stranger to restorative agriculture; her Cotswold-farmer father taught her how symbiotic relationships in nature thrive. Back then, they weren’t complicated by scientific processes and terms; they were innate, responsible ways of working: In sync with the seasons; fit for their surroundings; born of connectedness and common sense. “What we wanted to eat, we grew.”
Chiltern Lamb’s fold is a rag-tag gang of “woollies”; a 600-strong mix of 11 conservation breeds. Each has distinct traits that bring balance and personality to their pasture. Some graze high-protein, carb-rich grass; others browse the hedgerows, weeding out blackthorn and clematis. Together, they promote bio- diversity and manage invasive vegetation. Their efforts have earned Bill’s ground SSSI status, marking it as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Last year, Hornet robberflies came to visit – one of only 39 places they’re found in Britain. Proof positive of her commitment to age-old farming methods.
Bill’s flock includes Jacob, Black Welsh, Balwen, Torrdu-Badger Face, Portland, Herdwick, Devon and Cornwall Longwool, Soay and Dutch Spotted.
There’s progress in regression, I venture. She nods with a far-flung stare, as if mentally moving mountains of carnal conformity. I read aloud an observation by American philosopher and environmentalist Aldo Leopold from Sand County Almanac, his seminal, prophetic book of 1949: ‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’
She sighs, goes misty-eyed. “You have to look at nature as a whole, and work with it – not against it,” before trailing off: “The world’s gone out of kilter…” Indeed, it has – particularly in hers. Some supermarket lamb skips to slaughter 16 weeks from birth; pumped out at Christmas, plumped up for Easter. Reared indoors with little light and a diet of hard nuts. “Flavour takes time,” explains Bill – not to mention low-input processes and stellar standards of welfare. Her newborn lambs will spend less than 36 hours indoors, after which they’ll fend for themselves. Mineral blocks and liquid molasses bolster those that need it; nearby food banks supply fodder for variety, and fertiliser is “what poops out”.
Paradoxically, her meat is not certified organic because Bill keeps at bay chemicals the Soil Association sanctions. Flystrike treatments, like Clik and Clovect, are lethal to aphids and bees. So, she shears her sheep twice a year instead, leaving the flies nowhere to hide. Similarly, she shuns the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin. Once it passes through the animals’ digestive system, it kills the dung beetles and earthworms that recycle what they forage. Every decision affects the ecology’s equilibrium: the more you introduce, the more you correct.
Rare breeds like Bill’s flock average 1.5 lambs per ewe rather than the two or occasionally three that modern commercial ewes produce.
I glance at my watch. Bill cuts to a nugget: “Slow grows best”, referencing the two years required to mature hogget, a speciality at Chiltern Lamb. She hands me a rack to “roast naked” at home. Her friend Geoff Wickett, who’s just arrived, volunteers, “If you can cook lamb, you’ll be fine.” Geoff is the founder of Chiltern Venison – professional deerstalker juggling a career on the side. Calm, confident, considered, precise; a man of military bearing who shoots the way he walks. He’s dropping off stock for Henley farmers’ market, an outlet he and Bill share. Neck and shoulder and haunch and loin; all butchered and vac-packed to put “end users” at ease. Quite a contrast to the gralloched fallow in the boot of his 4×4. It’s an important reminder of the realities of eating meat: something living somewhere died to produce food. Perhaps that’s why wild venison has proved a hard sell in the past; it’s hunted in the open, not slain behind closed doors. He thinks, weighing a response: “Neat presentation helps counter the ‘blood’ thing, but there’s long been a ‘Disneyfication’ of deer.”
It wasn’t always thus. Historically, this meat was staple fare; until 11th-century Norman laws carved a culinary and class divide. Urbanisation simply widened it further: “When we physically moved away from agriculture and the countryside, venison became part of venary.” Preserve of the royal, prize for the rich.
In 2022, Geoff Wickett spent hundreds of hours tracking quarry, bagging 137 beasts from 132 outings.
That was then, this is now: tastes change. For Geoff, the cloud of Covid had a silver lining. Lockdowns closed restaurants and forced people to shop locally. It also freed him swathes of day. Skills met needs in a confluence of opportunity. Pre-pandemic, Britain’s deer numbers sat at around one million – their highest since the Ice Age. The figure doubled for 2023. “In places, we’re at pest-proportions, and have to cull 20 to 30 percent of the population annually, just to stand still.” A medium-sized specimen has no natural predators, leaps two-metre fences and decimates four kilograms of shrub layer within 24 hours. Geoff continues: “Left unchecked, deer strip the habitat that birds, mammals and insects depend on to survive.” In a wheat field, they’ll rob farmers of profits and crops with equal efficiency. Multiply such destruction across herds of 100 or 200 nationwide; the losses add up.” Scotland’s Caledonian Forest is a vanishing example.
Geoff is clear in his role: “The aim is to balance numbers with what the landscape can support.” The same applies to male/female ratios – currently disproportionate at seven fallow to one buck – which create genetic bottlenecks and problems of their own.
An average-sized deer eats daily between 2.5 to 7kg of plant material taken from shrubs and trees.
All this business has kept him busy. In 2022, Geoff spent hundreds of hours tracking quarry, bagging 137 beasts from 132 outings. Each entered the food chain as 1.9 tons of healthy, sustainable meat – with minimal miles and zero waste. Bill’s “boys” gnaw leftover bits and bones. The irony’s palpable. Much of the available venison in the UK is farmed. Or worse: farmed in New Zealand and shipped 14,000 miles on boats belching pollution, from a country with wild deer worries too. Go figure.
Provenance and proximity set Chiltern Venison apart: “I can tell customers every detail,” says Geoff. “Exactly what deer it was; when, why and where it was shot.” À table, those stories play out in fine food that’s unprocessed, unstressed and unexposed to steroids or antibiotics. It might cost a fraction more than “manufactured” alternatives, but its value exceeds the price. High in protein and zinc; low in fat and guilty conscience. And so to lunch.
Left: Bill’s hogget with salsa verde and roasted vegetables. Right: Geoff’s venison with duck-fat fries.
Bill’s hogget rack is pan-fried first. A sprinkle of seasoning, and into the oven for 20 minutes at 160°C. Rosemary-roasted root vegetables; piquant salsa verde to lift the lot up. Take a bite: tender, juicy, deep. Rich and earthy with none of the cloying mouthfeel that fatty, young lamb can leave. Next, Geoff’s “Friday-night treat”: venison chump seared hot and fast. Duck-fat fries; Dijon mustard; robust red: they’re all the accompaniments it needs. Cooked rare, it’s a savoury delight. Fresh and melting and wholesome and sweet. Just two or three days of hanging tastes like the difference between rose veal and aged beef. True products of their environment each, and testament to those who provision them with such care.
Words: Richard Lieberman
Opening picture: © Richard Lieberman