Deer are now found across all temperate regions of the world. Hunted since prehistory, from the Middle Ages they became prized game on noble dining tables. Nowadays, deer hunting is controlled, in order to maintain a harmonious balance between population density and preservation of the host environment. The main methods used to hunt deer are driving, hunting from lookouts and stalk hunting. Venison can be cooked in a variety of ways.
Deer are originally from Kyrgyzstan and North India, but are now found in all temperate regions of Europe, North Africa, North America and Asia. Humans introduced deer to South America, New Zealand and Australia. Although their original habitat consisted of wide open spaces, nowadays deer are often obliged to seek shelter in forests.
In Europe, deer are the second biggest wild animals after bears. They shed their antlers every February or March; regrowth begins immediately and is completed around one hundred and thirty days later, prior to the rutting season. Hunters prized antlers preserved on the frontal bone or the whole skull, called ‘massacres’, as trophies or ornaments.
Venison is very nourishing hence deer have been hunted since prehistory, as testified by cave paintings from the Upper Palaeolithic period, such as those in Lascaux (15 000 BCE). Since the 2nd century, Christianity has associated deer with Christ and made the stag, the male deer, a symbol of resurrection due to its antlers.
From the 12th century, deer were seen as noble beasts in Europe and deemed the meat of kings. As hunting deer with hounds required large spaces, only kings and princes had enough land to hunt them. Reserved for nobility, deer hunting was practised only on horseback, whereas with boar hunting, huntsmen would start on horseback and dismount at the end to kill the wild boar.
Hunting deer today
Excessive hunting in the 19th century endangered deer populations in Europe. Hunting legislation in the 20th century and the reintroduction of deer into depopulated regions resulted in a spectacular recovery of their numbers. However, if too many deer live together, they become aggressive, are prone to migrating and cause serious damage to forests and crops. Hence, it is essential that the population density remains compatible with the capacity of the host environment.
Deer are hunted mainly in autumn. Hunting in droves is carried out in a group, in areas with a high density of game. Drovers, sometimes accompanied by dogs, drive the animals towards strategically positioned shooters.
Stand hunting is practised from a somewhat comfortable raised lookout, a platform built in the trees to prevent the animals from seeing or smelling the hunter. With this method of hunting, animals can be observed while they are unthreatened and calm, giving the hunter enough time to identify the deer and judge its condition. Stalk hunting is more physical and more difficult as it consists in seeking out the animal alone, as quietly as possible.
Once killed, deer must be gutted in the field, as fermentation of the food in the intestines may cause the abdomen to swell and affect the quality of the meat. Apart from the meat, only the liver, kidneys and heart are kept to be eaten.
Young venison (the meat of a deer) is the most flavoursome. The meat of older animals may be marinated to offset its strong taste, or it may be transformed into dried meat or salami. As venison is lean, it is important not to overcook it, otherwise it can become hard and dry. When cooked in the oven, it is often barded with bacon to prevent it from becoming too tough.
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