Although I had the day off today I still managed to do my bit for nature conservation and a very tasty contribution it was too. My task for the day was to eat a mutton casserole, not perhaps the most exacting, but valuable all the same. Mutton is sheep meat, which is meat from sheep that are too old to be lambs, most sheep meat these days is eaten as lamb and mutton has fallen ou tof favour, although, as I found, not out of flavour.
Ok, so I did not employ a food stylist and this was actually my second helping, but that just proves it was good eating! So why was my meal such a contribution to nature conservation? The sheep had been grazing on St Catherine’s Hill, Winchester and was one of the herd of Shetlands that maintain the downland flora there. They are hardy, but slower growing and useful to the Wildlife trust as they will eat scrub regrowth as well as grass, ideal conservation grazing animals. Many of the Trust’s reserves are grasslands and maintaining them often means using old breeds that are prepared to eat a wider range of plant growth than modern breeds designed for monoculture grasslands. This is sometimes just a case of using animals as grazing machines, but it is much better if they can be sold for meat so making the grazing more cost efficient. In fact the slower growth and wider diet can make for a much tastier meat at the end of the day, but the fuller flavour and sometimes different look of the meat can put off a market used to a blander, modern farmed product.
In the case of mutton it is something many people have never tasted, the standard product is now lamb, but I have to say this mutton was excellent, with a really good flavour and I will certainly get more if I can. With an increase in the Trust owning animals it is hoped to develop a market for the specialist meats they produce. The same is true for the deer that are culled from some of our woodlands where high numbers are a threat to the native flora, woodland structure and ultimately mush of the wildlife, especially undergrowth specialists like willow tit, nightingale and dormouse.
It is always good to find enjoyable ways to help conservation and eating my way to a better countryside gets my vote. Now, there are number of moths with larvae that feed on hops, I think their conservation could be promoted further, perhaps the Trust could consider a conservationist’s beer…..