Last month’s warning about the dangers of lead shot in pheasants is scaremongering. It’s tantamount to saying don’t eat the skewer, just the kebab, writes Barry Hook.
The pheasant season is underway and from now until the end of January, these delicious game birds will be plentiful in butchers and farm shops.
But what are we to understand of the warning last month from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that eating lead-shot game on a frequent basis can expose us to potentially harmful levels of lead?
The FSA’s advice is that frequent consumers of lead-shot game should eat less of this type of meat.
Dr Alison Gleadle of the FSA says the advice is targeted specifically at the small number of people who eat lead-shot game on a frequent basis. That means me.
Every year between October and January, I take my two spaniels and, along with a small group of other hunter gatherers, we go in search of pheasants for the pot. Don’t misunderstand me. This is not an organised driven shoot of the type you will see on Downton Abbey where hoards of easy-to-shoot pheasants will be driven over the heads of the guns.
This is rough shooting, a sort of seek and find hunt where once a fortnight we tramp the woods, coverts and spinneys in search of game birds. We spread out in a long line and cast the dogs before us.
If we don’t find the birds well, we’ve enjoyed the exercise and fresh air and we resort to calling at the butchers on the way home for some beef or pork.
If the dogs put up any birds we consider ourselves lucky. If any of us are quick enough to get a shot off we feel luckier still. And if we should actually hit a bird – not an easy task when it is full flight through the branches – that is really good fortune. At the end of the shoot, however, we have usually managed to bag a brace of pheasants each. If we have been really fortunate, then on the odd day, the bag will contain the bonus of a woodcock or a snipe.
So, after a good season – which only lasts 4-months – I can usually expect to enjoy fresh pheasant on a dozen occasions. Does that mean I am eating lead-shot game frequently? Who knows? It certainly won’t deter me.
According to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), pound-for-pound there is more lead in chocolate than game and the European Food Safety Authority says the greatest source of lead in food is from cereals and potatoes.
BASC’s director of communications, Christopher Graffius, told me there is lead in all food stuffs and we should see the purported risk of lead in game meat in a sensible perspective.
Personally, I view this warning as one of those ‘scares’ which crop-up from time to time and which generate more confusion than enlightenment. One day I read that a daily glass of red wine is good for you; the next day there will be a report contradicting that. Then it is tomatoes or coffee or tea.
Being cynical I must mention that the FSA’s warning was based on a report by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, a body which is anti shooting. Make of that, and the timing of the report to coincide with the pheasant shooting season, what you will. Compared with other meats, wild game is low in fats and entirely natural, representing a healthy option to intensively reared products and I will continue to enjoy my pheasants whether or not they have been shot by lead, steel or bismuth pellets.
As for eating the pellets I cannot remember it ever having happened to me. When I pluck and dress the birds, the shot is easy to spot and remove. If some pellets should appear on the plate they will stand-out conspicuously. If they do penetrate all these checks, the pellets are not something you will crunch liked a boiled sweet. At that stage, it is not considered rude to manoeuvre it onto the tongue and onto the side of plate.
For those of you who can’t or won’t cook, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of this tastiest of meats which the Cheshire countryside has to offer. Search out a local restaurant over the coming months which serve pheasant. For what it is worth, I once enjoyed some of the tastiest pheasant ever at the Edge Hotel in Alderley Edge. And when I sent my approval to the chef he came to the table and explained how he had cooked it.
Make no mistake my dear friends. When it comes to pheasant, I am game for it.
You will find plenty of recipes at basctasteofgame.org.uk.