Isle of Wight Deer Farm
Their tagline ‘natural farming for all to enjoy’ sums up Juan and Begonya’s philosophy beautifully.
As we arrived at the Deer Farm in Carisbrooke we were amazed by the stunning grounds in front of us. We turned into the drive from the road and the hedge cleared, revealing green lawns and natural beauty with substantial dwellings in the backdrop. This really wasn’t what we were expecting; it seemed more like a country park or manor house than a farm.
The view of the farm as we entered the grounds
We parked up near the house and had a little look around to see if we could see Juan who we had arranged to meet on site. He had said that they would be working in the fields and would come back in time to see us. We could just about make out two figures at the top of a huge hill with a tractor and as the engine went quiet we realised it must be them. Juan and his wife Begonya walked down to meet us and welcomed us warmly into a small barn. Here Juan showed us some fully grown antlers and proceeded to educate us on ‘all things deer’. His passion and breadth of knowledge is inspirational and we found ourselves engrossed in conversation, knowing then that we were going to have a really interesting afternoon.
“Juan took over the farm business in 1998 -when his late uncle retired- and as a part time job then, as he was working as an engineer at the time after recently returning to Spain from the U.S. where he obtained his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY, USA) and his M.S. in Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA, USA).” Taken from IsleofWightdeerfarm.co.uk
Me pretending that these antlers aren’t really heavy
We walked a short way from the barn to the edge of a field. Here we could see around 30 deer and Juan pointed out a single buck among all the females. He said ‘he is the lucky guy’! He explained that the younger bucks would be watched closely and studied to establish their strengths, with the best ones picked for their perfect breeding attributes such as temperament and strength. The buck’s sole purpose would then be to breed with the some 30 doe. Deers are very hierarchical animals and as such only one stag or buck can be in with the does. If two stags of a similar age or size were to be together there would be aggression and fighting for sure. There was a younger male nearby but Juan explained that as he was only a year or so old (approximately 8 in human years), the two year old, with his huge muscular frame and giant antlers would not be threatened and so it would remain calm. He likened this to a child challenging an adult, which we thought was a great analogy!
The Deer Farm is designed to breed deer and look after their welfare. It is not a commercial meat farm, producing mass meat for the supermarkets. In fact Juan and Begonya are in the fortunate position to have a demand for the meat far greater than the supply. This means they can always sell animals for meat if they want to and it gives them room to grow their herd. If an animal is not picked out for breeding for reasons such as aggression or weakness they can be sold for meat instead. Juan and Begonya supply to a range of butchers and some restaurants directly on the Island.
It became clear as the couple were talking that this was a very different way of farming and the animal’s welfare is paramount. The soil pH level is monitored and maintained to provide optimum nutrition for the deer, with Juan and Begonya planting acorn trees to provide extra protein for them to feed on. The level of detail they have gone to with the farm is staggering as there is a lot to think about. Thick 2m metal fences line the perimeters of the fields with a hedge surrounding the fences. A herd of deer would have no problem crushing the fence alone if they were afraid and charged, no doubt injuring themselves and perhaps escaping. The hedge provides extra security but also shelter from the wind. Juan explained the huge cost involved in building the fences and the vast space that needs to be secured. We were building a picture in our minds of a large workforce on this huge farm and imagined a long period of establishment. To our amazement Juan and Begonya said that they build all the fences and do the work alone. Their two teenage sons cut the grass in the summer and they have had a few volunteer days but they mostly spend every day working with a small break for church on a Sunday. Also to our surprise Juan and Begonya only moved here in summer 2019! We couldn’t believe what they have achieved. It is truly amazing.
Alongside each field was what they called a racetrack, a sort of narrow runway between fields. This was for the deer to be quarantined when they arrive on the farm for the first time. They stay in these runways for an undefined amount of time to acclimatise to being close to other deer as well as to be monitored and studied to ensure they are healthy before being fully integrated into the herd. Across the other side of the farm we could see another herd which Juan told us were fallow deer, the ones we first saw being red deer. He explained that they were so different that they could not breed together although from the same family (Cervidae).
Someone arrived to see Juan and so Begonya took us to see the garage building and the bucks on the other side of the farmhouse. The garage is a barn type building that has been done up as a seating area for shelter on wet days. Begonya said that they plan to hold some events here and suchlike when restrictions are lifted. Future plans include wine pairings and butchery master classes, showing the Spanish way to butcher the meat.
The stable, cottage and garage where Juan and Begonya live
The bucks were on the far side of the farmhouse. We then went looking for the other deer and walked quite a way to the other side of the farm. From there, at the top of the hill we could see the full expanse of the farm, some 334 acres! It really put into perspective the amount of fencing and maintenance needed and the cost involved.
The couple also put on photography days in which a professional photographer will come in and help people get the best out of their camera, and offer full tours which are as non-intrusive as possible. A big focus on the farm is to have the deer as undisturbed as they can be, keeping them calm, happy and healthy. We met back up with Juan and he explained that the only thing they do there which is not completely natural is give the deer mineral licks. These are large ‘blocks’ composed of copper, magnesium, and other minerals with vitamins which the animals can lick as a sort of supplement. Juan said that in the wild deer would travel across the Island in search of different minerals not present in the farm. As they are contained on the farm they need a helping hand to get these nutrients but they are so intelligent that they will know which nutrients they are deficient in. They will seek out these particular blocks and will supplement their own diet to compensate. Even human’s are not so intelligent they can recognise what their diet is lacking so easily. It was probably my favourite fact of the day.
As we were walking back towards the house and our car, Juan pointed out how relaxed the deer were in the field. One was lying with it’s head resting on the ground and Juan explained that this was a great sign that they were calm which was good for the deer and the position it was in would help with digestion and aid good health.
The relaxed deer in the field
Juan and Begonya talked of people spending daytimes on the grounds, eating picnics and enjoying the views and spoke of many plans for the future at the Deer Farm. Begonya gave us some of her homemade venison pate and we bought some mince. It is very dark in colour and low in fat. Compared to the equivalent weight in beef there are less calories, more protein and less fat content. Because of the higher protein level a smaller portion will fill you up more than most other meats, perhaps justifying the higher price point. Most importantly, it tastes amazing!
As Begonya said she makes a sausage roll with the mince for the neighbours it gave me the idea to make some picnic food which seemed fitting to go with the stunning grounds. I added some Spanish flavour in the form of smoked paprika in homage to Juan and Begonya and we had a lunchtime feast of pate, sausage rolls and scotch eggs! You can find the recipes at the bottom of this page.
I asked Juan a few more specific questions:
How many deer do you have on the farm – how many females/stags?
We have around 270 deer at the farm. Mostly hinds and calves, a few knobbers/prickets (red deer and fallow deer first year males, respectively) as well as 8 stags.
What do you find most fascinating about deer?
Difficult to pick only one thing… the fact that their pedicle is the fastest growing part of any mammal (1/4″ a day), the fact that venison is the highest protein-to-fat ratio in the world with ostrich meat, the fact that deer take care of themselves 365 days a year and veterinary costs are almost always zero, the fact that deer can determine which plants/food is unhealthy to them and neglect it, the fact that they know which minerals they are low in and will strive to eat anything that contains it but at the same time neglect any food that contains an element of which they are saturated of … the list is really very long, and I could go on.
Since moving to the IOW what are the biggest challenges you have faced?
Adapting to the wind and opening the market for venison in a location that wasn’t used to it in its regular diet.
Have you seen any big changes in the venison market over recent years?
Yes, a considerable year to year increase in the consumption of it, as more and more people turn to a healthy diet.
What is the most important thing for you about your way of farming?
Peace and tranquillity. Deer need privacy as it is paramount to them: it reduces their stress and that in turn optimizes their digestion, making for a high absorption of nutrients, minerals, and energy.
What is next for the deer farm?
Finish fencing and hedging it.
What are your long term hopes for the deer farm and your life here?
Building a proper farm shop and seeing it busy every day. A peaceful and happy life is what we came looking for to the IoW.
What is your favourite way to eat venison?
To download this recipe – download here.