Something to get their teeth into

It is not often pupils are able to see the 'heart' of learning, as Jean McLeish finds out
31st October 2008, 12:00am


Something to get their teeth into

There are murmured yuks - but after a couple of seconds the Highland primary school pupils are reaching up to touch the deer's heart and liver hanging in the chill room.

The purpose of this day out at Kinveachy Estate near Carrbridge is for the children to get to know about deer and venison. And it would be fair to say they now know the animal inside out.

Around 50 pupils from Abernethy and Deshar primaries at Boat of Garten are attending a day of workshops on deer, and picnicking on venison sausages in the sunshine. Their outing has been organised by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the Deer Commission for Scotland, Highland Council and Seafield Estates.

"Venison is a good, high-quality, really healthy product and we need to get schools eating it and we need to get folk understanding what it's about," explains Alistair MacGugan, director of stakeholder relations at Deer Commission Scotland. "We also wanted to let them understand what they are and how exciting they are as animals. After all, the red deer we have is the largest land mammal in the UK," he points out.

"Some of these children will have eaten venison before. We are quite lucky in Highland, in that the council does have the meat on the menu in schools."

He will be promoting venison for school menus to authorities across Scotland. When he does this, he should take along 10-year-old Lewis Taylor from Abernethy Primary, who is a walking venison commercial: "I have eaten venison. I've had it here today and I have had it at home. It's very, very, very tasty," Lewis pronounces with conviction.

Mr MacGugan may have a tougher job winning over some of the grown-ups. "There has been a slight perception that because deer are wild animals, the hygiene levels are not the same as for beef or sheep. What we are doing is showing them and giving them confidence that it is as healthy and that kids will love it. We're showing them the process and how well it is prepared."

They certainly seem to be enjoying it today, and the strategy of serving it as sausages in buns seems to have done the trick. In a few weeks, these children will get the chance to prepare and taste venison when chef Fiona Bird visits their schools.

Frank Law, the sporting manager at this estate, is handing out the lunch. He's also showing children round larders where the deer used to be stored 50 and 100 years ago, to highlight the huge improvements in food hygiene standards over the years.

He ends his tour by taking the children into the state-of-the-art modern larder: "The whole deer comes in here and then the stalkers cut its head and legs off and take off its bits and pieces inside that we don't need. Then we clean out the whole carcass," Mr Law tells them.

Then he asks them if they are happy to go into the chill room and see the carcasses - none decline. Inside, the temperature drops and a selection of animals and parts are hanging, including a recently-killed stag carcass, a deerskin and entrails.

There's a brief initial reaction, but the children's curiosity overwhelms them - and when they're invited, some of them are inquisitive enough to touch the carcasses and put their fingers to the chilly, hanging entrails.

"As soon as the deer has been shot out on the hill, it's a foodstuff, so it's important that we get it into the larder as quickly as we can and down to the right temperature," Mr Law explains.

But not all the children are enthusiastic about visiting the chill room and seeing the dead animals hanging. Freyja Dorren in P6 at Abernethy Primary wouldn't be rushing back: "We went into the sheds where all the deer were, where they got all cut up once they were dead and everything. I went in, but I don't really like it. I didn't like seeing them all dead. But I still like eating it," she said, with typical 10-year-old frankness.

Back out in the fresh air, Kinveachy Estate's headkeeper, Wayne Whitcher, is showing children the tools of the stalker's trade - rifles, binoculars and telescopes. "We've been introducing them to the lives of deer and how to identify them, to the habitats where you might find them and to our job as game keepers and stalkers and how we go about managing deer on the estate," he says.

"This is to educate them about how necessary deer are in the environment where they live, and point out the end-product of the deer is venison, which is a nutritious food, which is what we aim to produce at the end of the day.

"It's an iconic animal, the red deer especially. And we're explaining that so they don't over-populate, we have to manage them - they have no natural predators."

His young daughter Amy is taking part in the visit and he's delighted by the interest the pupils have shown: "It's a tremendous reaction. It's something they need to be shown, so that when they're grown up, they understand how food is produced."

Frank Law is also encouraged by the children's response: "Some of the groups weren't as keen. That last one was really enthusiastic, and they seemed to enjoy touching the entrails as much as looking at the carcasses. And they could see where the bullet had gone through the heart and relate it to the carcass hanging there - they were absolutely fascinated."

In a nearby workshop, Ian Hope, a deer officer with the Deer Commission, is describing deer lifestyle - the sense of smell, its vision and hearing. He asks the pupils what they've learnt about deer today and the pitfalls of working with children and animals become apparent.

"They're cool and they're fluffy, but just don't eat them," a voice pipes up from the back.

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