The inhabitants of Woodrose Venison are literally stopping the traffic in the Ayrshire area, as drivers stop their cars at the farm fence to stare at the sight of hundreds of red deer contentedly grazing on the county's famous grass fields.

This deer farm is the result of four years of hard work by Ross and Jo Woodburn, near Mauchline, after they took the plunge into red deer farming when they decided that their future lay with venison.

Ross grew up on Killoch Farm, just along the road from where they now live and a life in dairying with pedigree Ayrshires was on the cards, but he decided to take a few years away from the farm and go into construction. That made it clear to him that he loved farming, but maybe not the dedication and unpredictability of dairying.

If not dairying like his father before him, then what? Jo took up the story: “Ross had lots of idea of what we should be doing, we thought about beef, and then one night as I was heading out to night shift (Jo is an advanced nurse practitioner), he said ‘we are going to do venison’ – I thought it was one of his pipe dreams, but before I knew it, we were putting lots of fencing in.”

With the help of a new entrant’s grant, they managed to buy a portion of their herd, and some fencing, but have used their life savings to get the project off the ground. They are a young couple with a young family and Ross is very excited about this project, he talks about it with great enthusiasm, and is clearly proud of what they have built so far.

“The set-up costs of a venison farm are astronomical – fencing alone costs so much and you have to build up a modern-day handling system. It has taken from 2016 when our first deer arrived on site, for us to build up the herd and be confident handling them,” said Ross.

Neither had experience of handling deer and realised pretty quickly it’s not like managing dairy cows. If deer want to get past you, they just jump over you, all fences need to be six-foot high – they are wary and they are clever.

However, they are generally quiet and are really relaxing to sit and watch, with both of them finding them fascinating.

Now that the herd has been built up, the farm is at fully operational at 125 breeding hinds. They have also produced their own stags as breeding males and they have 80 yearlings they will be selling as breeding females this year, around June/July. The market in Scotland is good, as it is at present TB free and breeders from the south regularly buy from Scotland.

They have received invaluable advice from both the Venison Advisory Service, based in Edinburgh, and also Bob Prentice, who runs Stagison, at Downfield Farm, who has the first licensed deer abattoir in Scotland, at Cupar, in Fife.

There is a big difference between a deer park and a deer farm. Deer within a park are classed as wild, you don’t handle them. A deer farm, like Woodrose, offers the couple the chance to keep a close eye on their deer.

They handle them, co-ordinate feeding and have full traceability, very much like any other farmed animal. They also have to be vet checked before going to slaughter unlike those from a deer park, which are not required to have a vet's ante-mortem inspection prior to slaughter.

There are deer farms in Scotland, but none in Ayrshire, so Ross realised there was potential in the market and he wanted to be involved. “I am really interested in the genetics of the red deer. When I’m looking at animals I’m looking for really good bloodlines. Like my dad with his pedigree Ayrshires, I want to have the best animals here.

“Down south they are exporting genetics to Europe and New Zealand, that’s what really interests me. I want to breed superdeer,” he laughed, but seriously. He reads and reads about deer and their management as he is determined that this is his family’s future.

Now that the herd has been established, they have branched out into their own line of venison. And just last Christmas opened their own little venison farm shop.

“People around here like to shop local. We knew that the shop would do well, and we let people know through facebook and twitter when it will be open, and the customers come along. They love to see the deer here, hear the story and they love the taste of farmed deer.”

Ross continued: “We are trying to break down the idea that venison is a ‘posh’ meat, and it’s expensive. It’s not, we have made it affordable and as it is farmed rather than wild, the flavour is so much more subtle.”

It’s a very healthy meat, with more protein than beef, it is packed with iron, omega 3 and high in vitamin B2, with a similar fat content to skinless chicken and is the healthiest of all red meat.

In the first week of opening the shop, Ross and Jo were interested to find out what people were buying, and were surprised to find they were buying all types of cuts, sausages, burgers etc.

Prior to ‘lockdown’, they loved opening their doors to let their customers see the deer, to show the deer calving naturally, and they plan to get a viewing trailer organised to take people around the farm to show them what they are doing.

It’s not just the meat that people love but also the antlers, which are naturally shed each year. These are sold as dog chews, and for crafting – making keyrings and walking stick heads.

Ross continued: “It’s great to see our families interest grow in what we are doing. We have two young children who adore the deer, they love being out helping bed them and feed them.

“My dad has been down looking at them, showing interest. Jo’s dad, Alan, has links with the University Strathclyde and is keen to work with Woodrose Venison in a range of areas including nutrition. It’s great they are involved.”

As he learns, Ross finds deer genetics are increasingly important to him. AI is becoming popular – you can buy straws from NZ and down south – which he hopes to do this year, but he already knows he has great stags and wants people to buy from him to build their own genetic diversity.

Then the plan is also to start supplying farm shops as well as his own. It’s a good, honest Ayrshire product and they are proud of what they are producing.

“We have had to work our backsides off for four years, up to this stage we have had to keep all our calves as hinds, but now we are at the stage that our herd is fully operational, so it’s a great feeling to know that this is us up and running. We are promoting the farm on facebook, telling the story and what it means to our family, and we have had great feedback,” concluded Ross.

Covid-19 update:

“We have had a lot of people contacting us for meat as there appears to be very little in the supermarkets. We want to stay within the government guideline so we have introduced two options,” said Jo.

1) Click and collect – to collect at an allocated time at the farm end.

2) Home delivery to Mauchline and surrounding areas.