People have looked surprised when I said that if I would eat meat, I would eat wild meat. I have been a vegetarian for many years, so it's a hypothetical question for me. However, to me it feels more natural than keeping animals on farms. But does that mean, it's also more sustainable?
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Eating less meat is one of the most important steps when we want to eat sustainably. In our blogs and the Fork Ranger app, we often compare different meats, but recently we realized we didn’t include wild meat. So, how does wild meat compare?
Another thing we found out: is wild meat actually wild? We tend to think so when we see deer or rabbit on a menu. We were hiking through the forest a few weeks ago and stopped at a restaurant for lunch. When we asked the waiter where the deer came from he first responded ‘Well, not here from the forest, otherwise there wouldn’t be any deer left’. After asking further he said it was ‘from the wholesaler’. So, how does this work exactly?
Once researching this somewhat controversial topic, so many questions came up. We shoot animals among others for management purposes – whatever we think of that – but do we then also eat them? And if we do eat wild meat, which amounts are sustainable so we don’t empty the forests of all mammals?
This blog is way too short to highlight all perspectives on wild meat, especially ethical ones. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are few scientific, independent, or peer-reviewed numbers available.
Why we shoot wild animals
The reason for shooting wild animals varies greatly among countries and even within a country. But let’s take my backyard – the Netherlands – here. In my mind, I always pictured the hunter who went out to shoot animals for fun. However, looking into this I found out – at least by making a best-educated guess – that most of the wild animals shot in the Netherlands are shot not out of ‘sheer fun’, but because of damage control or population control. In my calculation, this amounted to about 55% to 80% of the shot wild animals.
Only 5 species are allowed to be hunted at a specific time of the year. Of course, the hunter has to comply with all kinds of regulations, so you can’t just go into the forest and shoot some animals. Almost all ducks, pheasants and hares which are killed fall under this type of hunting. They make up roughly 20% of all shot wild animals. The other two – rabbits and pigeons – are partly hunted because of damage control.
Hunting as ‘damage control’ is mentioned when wild animals destroy the crops or fields of farmers. Geese eat grass, leaving bare lands resulting in big wet pools. Boars root up pastures. Corvids peck at strawberries and pigeons like to eat berries. Deer eat young plants. And hares also eat young plants and nibble on the bark of fruit trees. If this happens, other methods to prevent damage have to be tried first. Only when those methods are tried and are not effective, it is allowed to shoot animals.
Hunting as ‘population control’ works differently. Each year animal populations are estimated. This is compared to the targeted population, and a management plan is created. This plan states how many animals are allowed to be shot. The target population takes into account traffic, flora, fauna, and animal welfare.
How about the carbon footprint of wild meat?
While we could argue that the carbon footprint doesn’t matter if we eat meat that is ‘created’ because of other reasons than our food consumption, I’m still curious.
Especially since we always use CO2 emissions as a starting point to assess the sustainability of food. For most of our food choices, we know the average carbon footprint. But for hunted animals it’s different. There are only very limited scientific studies that cover this. The best article I could find so far is a Dutch one.
In their study, the impact of wild meat is comparable with chicken and pork. It’s not significantly lower. Therefore we should treat it in the same way as other meats: as a luxury product.
Other impacts of eating wild meat: it can benefit biodiversity
Let’s look at an example in the Netherlands to understand this. The Waterleidingduinen and National Park Zuid-Kennemerland are comparable habitats. The latter has 5 times less fallow deer because of constant population control through hunting. Comparing both areas showed fewer plant, bee, and butterfly species in the overgrazed Waterleidingduinen. So in this specific case, hunting does benefit biodiversity.
While many claim that hunting benefits biodiversity, there is little scientific evidence available. This is just one example but we don’t have enough data to draw a general conclusion.
This argument also only holds because we’ve already brought nature out of balance. Because in some areas there are no large predators, grazing animals reproduce and overpopulate. Other species suffer and biodiversity declines.
Another issue that arises is food shortages for these populations of grazing animals. Naturally animals would migrate in search of food or starve, but we as humans have intervened. Their habitat is limited because of fences and roads. Also, we don’t want to let them starve, so we shoot them. This happens for example in the Oostvaardersplassen.
So, in short, the real solution is to ensure more connected natural habitats and natural predators. This restores the balance so population control is not needed anymore.
Most meat which you would expect to be wild meat, isn’t
If you do look for real wild meat, it’s hard to find. In the supermarket, most wild meat is not from actual free-running animals, but is from farmed animals, which we as consumers view as ‘wild’. Only when you read the small print on the packaging you might find out.
This 2015 study had a look at the situation in Dutch mainstream supermarkets and found that 60% of the products had a clear indication of whether it was actual wild meat or not. For 40% it wasn’t clear at all. So, again, the supermarket can be this cave of consumer traps.
The interesting part of the study was that it differed a lot per animal. I made an overview showing which animal was most likely to be actual wild meat or not:
Fallow deer is probably the most famous one for often not being wild, despite people thinking it is. People place it in the same category as roe deer or see it all as venison, but fallow deer is more often farmed than not.
Wild meat cannot substitute our meat consumption
In the Netherlands, each YEAR about 1 million wild animals are shot. That’s less than the amount of farmed broilers (baby chickens) that are killed each DAY.
We should take into account that much of the latter is exported, as the Netherlands is one of the biggest exporters of farmed meat in the EU. But still: on average, Dutch people eat about 39 kg of meat per person per year. That’s a total of 663 million kg of meat for the whole country. This is way more than the meat that results from the 1 million animals we shoot because you can’t tell me each wild animal we shoot results in 663 kg (!) of meat.
So how much can we eat? A goose gives around 2 kg of meat, while a roe deer gives around 6 kg of meat. As a lot more small animals are shot, the average will be closer to 2 kg than to 6 kg. Assuming the level of shot animals stays the same, and an average of 2 kg of meat comes from each shot animal, we have about 2 million kg of wild meat for 17 million people. That’s about 120 g – one steak – per person per year. So no, wild meat can and never should substitute our meat consumption.
Obviously eating vegetables and plant-based protein sources like nuts and legumes are most sustainable. But eating wild meat can be a good idea if all of the following points are applicable:
a) you eat wild meat instead of factory-farmed meat
→ make sure to avoid duck, hare, and fallow deer in the general Dutch supermarket as they are almost always farmed wild meat: they are associated with wild meat but are most often farmed for consumption
→ if you are looking for truly wild meat from these animals have a look at specialty shops, but be prepared to make an extra effort to check if it’s real wild meat (a nice place is https://depredetarier.com, this is not sponsored but we’re fans)
b) you eat wild meat that would otherwise also be shot for management practices (population and damage control), but used for less valuable end goals
→ for the Netherlands: focus on animals that aren’t allowed to be generally shot (so you are sure they are not shot specifically for consumption): geese, roe deer, boar.
c) you know where it comes from, preferably as local as possible
d) it helps you to treat meat as a luxury and therefore helps you to reduce your overall meat consumption
Besides these points, there is also the case of the animals that are shot specifically for consumption: the five species mentioned at the beginning of this blog. There are lots of factors that determine whether this is sustainable or not and even your ethical perspective on hunting weighs in, so we didn’t include a piece of advice on that here. We wouldn’t recommend it before doing a lot more research on it – as you can expect from us 😉
We can sum it up as follows: treat meat – regardless of whether it’s wild or not – as a luxury and if you do eat wild meat, preferably eat wild meat that’s shot anyway and would be otherwise used for less valuable end goals than human consumption.
At the same time, the fact that we shoot animals for management practices (population and damage control) teaches us that we’ve brought nature out of balance and haven’t learned how we can farm and live in harmony with the wild.