Herds of bison roaming the countryside is a sight more commonly associated with the Great Plains of North America than the green fields of England.
But one Leicestershire farmer – and electricity grantor – has maintained a herd of these magnificent beasts for the past 12 years on 200 acres land at Bouverie Lodge Farm, in Nether Broughton, near Melton Mowbray.
George and Ruth Wakeling decided to move out of conventional beef production when BSE first emerged. “At the time the government was encouraging farmers to diversify and explore niche markets, and there was a lot of publicity about red meat being bad for you,” said George.
“I was attracted by the idea of getting back to an animal that nature intended, rather than one bred primarily for yield. Bison has less fat and cholesterol than both fish and chicken, and 30 per cent more protein than beef. It is full-flavoured, with a slightly sweet taste, and is not at all gamey.”
Today there are nearly 100 bison, as well as 300 deer, on the farm in large fields surrounded by six-foot high fences and sturdy gates. North America’s largest native land mammals live on a diet of grass and can consume up to 30lbs of grass a day. Bulls, which can be up to 6ft tall and weigh 1.5 tonnes, can outrun most horses – hoofing it up to 35 miles an hour.
The Wakelings retail their meat from a small farm shop and at farmer’s markets. George said there is strong demand at agricultural shows, food festivals and game fairs for bison burgers. Prime steak cuts and roasts are also popular.
On the less positive side have been George’s constant battles against officialdom. Under EU and UK rules bison are treated as normal bovines despite the fact that they are not classed as a domesticated species and require a Dangerous Wild Animal Licence.
It’s an issue that has caused problems for the couple, now waiting to see whether the decision to leave the EU may mean a disentangling of EU regulations.
George used to kill his animals on the farm and then send them to a local butcher, but a plethora of testing regimes and regulations for ‘bovine casualties’ introduced since BSE means that the butcher is no longer prepared to handle the carcasses.
“The sensible way forward is to classify bison as Farmed Game like deer and to kill them on the farm, which is much better from an animal welfare point of view,” said George. “The authorities say they must be transported to a slaughterhouse, but they are wild animals and become very stressed. In fact the adrenaline and the corticosteroids which are released can literally ruin the meat.”
Meanwhile, he is pressing ahead with building his own butchering and dressing facility at the farm and is hopeful that the authorities will grant him a special licence to begin operations later this year.
To begin with George thought that handling bison would be similar to keeping suckler cows, but soon changed his mind.
“They have an instinct for self-preservation, and if sufficiently frightened, they can be seriously lethal”
“Handling is very different. Unlike cattle, which have been domesticated over many hundreds of years, bison will not be driven. An American farmer said to me that if you want to move bison you need a kettle. Leave the gate open and have a cup of tea – they’ll be where you want them when you get back.
“They’re generally docile creatures, but if their tails go up that means they’re in a bad mood. They have a highly developed instinct for self-preservation, and if sufficiently frightened, they can be seriously lethal.”
On the whole bison are hardy animals but George moves them into huge barns in winter to protect the ground from being churned up. When indoors, they need four times as much space as domesticated cattle because they have a strict pecking order and can be quite rough with each other.
Bison can be badly hit by even a low worm count that would not bother cattle. It’s also necessary to add trace minerals to the soil like copper and selenium, which the animals need in their diet. They are ingested during grazing, and are the only supplements given.
The animals enter a four-month semi-shutdown in winter when their metabolism slows – a process related to their former life in the wild. “If you don’t have the weight on in the autumn they may not survive,” George said.
Despite the battles with officialdom he is still enthusiastic about his bison project. “I know people who have given up because of the red tape, but it’s not an option as far as I’m concerned,” he said.