One of the largest deer breeding farms in Latvia opened its doors to EU farm ministers this week as part of a drive to promote organic farming.
Latvia holds the rotating EU presidency until the end of June and it has made organic farming one its priorities.
As its six-month tenure nears an end, the country hosted a programme of activities to enable delegates to discover Latvian agriculture and the special characteristics of organic farming.
Delegates were invited to organic deer farm Buku audzetava in Valgundes parish on Monday (1 June), where they learned about the specifics of breeding red deer, fallow deer and mouflon (wild sheep) in enclosed territories.
Ministers, including Latvian farm minister Jānis Dūklavs and Defra farm minister George Eustice, fed deer and later tried their hand at archery and the quirky Latvian game of antler throwing, which is similar to welly-wanging in the UK.
Forty-four EU journalists, including Farmers Weekly deputy news editor Philip Case, were also invited on the tour.
Latvia is a relative newcomer to deer farming and the country’s oldest deer farm is about 20 years old.
Buku audzetava began its activities in 2003 and it has expanded to more than 400ha, housing more than 1,000 red deer, which are divided into more than 40 enclosures to make it possible for farmers to engage in selection.
The animals in the park are imported from some of the best deer farms in Europe, including the UK, Austria, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Sweden and Denmark.
Farm director Gatis Berzins explained that only about 2% of deer are killed for their meat and the farm deals mainly in breeding.
“Every year, we only choose about 2% of deer for their venison. These are animals that have broken a leg or similar problem. Our main business is breeding at this farm,” said Mr Berzins.
The farm has five different bloodlines, the first of which were Ceausescu deer from Romania, considered one of the best breeds in Europe.
Mr Berzins said deer were selected based on the size of their antlers and those with the biggest horns were most in demand.
“For each customer, when they come and see the biggest horns they always want these deer,” he added. “It’s the most important physical feature above everything else.”
Male deer naturally drop their antlers every year around February before new ones grow back in March/April, Mr Berzins said. This is due to a drop in testosterone following the rut.
Every year, the horns grow back bigger and bigger.
The farm has assembled a large collection of fallen antlers, which are stored on site.
EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan, who took part in the farm tour, was impressed by what he saw and he said the UK could learn a lot from the Latvian experience.
“Venison is a niche product right around the world and there are a lot of countries now, who through organic farming practices, are looking very carefully at these niche markets,” said Mr Hogan.
“This farm is a perfect example of how you can harvest this potential in a remote area.
“There is growing interest in forestry in the UK. We have the potential now to use forestry not only for timber based products, but also for a proper habitat and environment for deer farming and for venison production for niche markets, particularly in the US.”