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Game on: a tasty, healthy, cheap Christmas dinner

Friday 09 December 2005

Countryside commentator John Sheard extols the virtues of game for your Christmas dinner. It's good for the countryside, too, now that 170-year-old anti-poaching laws have been relaxed

THE LAW, as Dickens once said, is an ass, a statement which receives absolute agreement from this column. The connection between that sentiment and what my family will be eating for Christmas dinner in a fortnight's time takes a little explaining - but it is well worth the effort.

This week, I popped into one or my favourite butcher's shops in a small country town and bought myself a brace of pheasants, oven prepared, for the ridiculously low price of £5.50. They are in the freezer and will make the centre-piece of Christmas dinner for my wife and I, our daughter and her husband.

Game on: a tasty, healthy, cheap Christmas dinner

That, I estimate, is about half the price of a factory farmed turkey and a third of a free range one brought from a reputable supplier (you need to know your butcher for this, for there are rogues who have made a fortune by slapping "Free range" stickers on cheap imported poultry).

Now I have nothing against free range turkeys or geese, if they are what they claim to be. But they are just too big for the needs of just a couple - as we shall be when daughter and husband go home - and, in my opinion, nowhere near as tasty as the wild produce from the English countryside.

That is a value judgement, I agree, and taste buds vary in the extreme. But as people are constantly being warned about the dangers of food these days, let's look at the health issues when it comes to our festive fare.

For instance, factory-farmed turkeys could well be full of chemicals, hormones and God knows what else, pumped into them so that they put on weight quickly. They are also likely to be very high in fat, because spending their entire lives in tiny cages they never use any energy in burning it off.

It is a little known fact that most factory-bred turkeys are bred via artificial insemination because modern turkey cocks are so fat that they can no longer, eh, perform their masculine duties. Their legs are not strong enough to support them!

Compare this with my pheasants - and partridges, deer, hares and even wood pigeons - which have lived wild for virtually all their lives and, for the most part, have had to earn a living the hard way. This means that they are very low in fat and what little they carry tends to be the healthy type found in Omega 3 fish oils, which millions of Brits consume in tablet form each day.

You see game really is free range. I admit that some pheasant chicks are fed as youngsters by gamekeepers, but they spend the rest of their lives fending for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of them go wild and breed in the open countryside for generations, just like all the other game species.

So, after all that, just what has the law got to do with our growing love of game? A long story, that, and it goes back to 1831, no less, when strict laws were introduced to stop us getting hold of these bountiful foods - unless we were fully paid-up members of the landed gentry.

They were worried that poached game was being sold in butchers' shops - dearie, dearie me - and even townies were getting the taste for it. So from then on, anyone wishing to sell game had to apply for a special licence - and face regular inspections to ensure their stock had come from reputable sources.

The new laws also restricted the sale of game to roughly the times of the year when that particular species was "in season" - i.e. able to be shot legally. And although that again was a measure signed to stop out-of-season poaching, it did have an important conservationist side-effect.

Since the invention of the deep freeze, however, such laws have become obsolete and - amazingly - someone at Defra spotted this ancient hangover and the game-sale laws were abandoned about a year ago.

Now, various other bodies have joined with Defra to promote game sales all the year round. And this is very good news indeed for remote areas in places like North Yorkshire, where shooting can be a saviour for the local economy. There are many estates which could not survive financially without shooting income, and they employ local villagers in areas where there are virtually no other jobs.

So, for once, the law has taken off it's ass's head and, pantomime like, has become a (fairly) handsome princeling for the rural economy - and good food. So why not say, "Game on" this Christmas. It's tasty, healthy and cheap. And neighbourly, too, as it puts some much-needed cash into rural pockets. Enjoy!

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