Wild deer are wreaking environmental havoc across Victoria. But in the Otway Ranges, writes Richard Cornish, one expert marksman is taking the deer one animal at a time, butchering them and delivering lean, clean venison to homes and restaurants across the state.

What is it?
Dama dama is the scientific name for European fallow deer. Originally from the Balkans and Turkey, they’re now considered an invasive species, eating young trees, spreading blackberry seeds through their faeces, compromising waterways, damaging farm fencing and stripping crops overnight.

But Dama Dama is also the brand name of venison wild-harvested in the Otways. Butchered into ready-to-use fresh cuts such as venison burgers, steaks, osso buco, mince, and shoulder, and preserved meats such as bresaola and venison ham, the meat is lean and full flavoured without being overly gamey, and comparably priced to quality beef or lamb. Dama Dama Free-Range Venison is home-delivered around Melbourne and parts of regional Victoria.

Who produces it?
Until recently, Anthony Roe was a local Otway emergency ambulance paramedic. After 27 years attending acute medical situations and road trauma, Roe had had enough. “It’s not a healthy lifestyle,” says the softly spoken hunter. “I needed a change. I was already a keen amateur hunter, and the family loved venison. I had this idea to turn a problem into dinner.”

Where is it?
Roe works with farmers and plantation owners who want the feral deer eradicated. He heads out to properties across the Otways from the hills above Apollo Bay and west to the undulating country at Simpson. The venison is butchered by the MeatCrew, a boutique butcher and charcuterie in Colac.

Why it’s different
The 20 to 50kg deer are shot around dusk when they leave the native forest and enter private property to graze. By law, wild deer harvested for human consumption must be shot through the head: an instant death. Roe’s marksman skills are exemplary; most amateur hunters shoot the animals through the chest, causing stress and pain and affecting the meat quality. Even deer processed at abattoirs experience some anxiety which produces stress hormones that compromises meat quality. The animals are eviscerated on site and taken to a chiller by dawn.

Who’s a fan
Dean Davison is the chef-owner of The Perch at Lavers Hill, west of Apollo Bay. “We take the non-primal cuts,” he says. “In summer, we make a tartare with cured egg yolk, leek and finger lime.” In the colder months, he braises the shoulder overnight with garlic, onion, red wine and tomato to make a ragu to serve over gnocchi. “Feral deer are destroying the creek that runs through our farm and cause havoc on the roads at dusk when they leave the forest,” says Davison. “It’s good to eat the problem.”

“Anthony is part of our small community. He sometimes dines with us, and also helps tell the story of a cuisine that comes from a small envelope of environment that surrounds Brae,” says Dan Hunter from Brae at Birregurra. “Dama Dama is doing something unique – something so true to place – culling animals to destroy an environmental problem and at the same time creating a product with great culinary purpose,” says Hunter. He uses the residual heat from the bread oven to roast the venison saddle – the top section of the deer  until it reaches an internal temperature of 42 degrees. He finishes it with some more intense heat from plum wood charcoal and serves it with a sharp crab-apple puree and a sauce made from venison trim and oloroso sherry. It is a dish Roe has enjoyed in recent months. “When you spend a lot of time slopping about in the cold and wet forest hunting,” says Roe, “and you see what one of the best chefs in the world does with your venison… it’s very humbling. That dish bought me tears.”

Where can I buy it?
Birregurra General Store, Torquay and South Geelong Farmers’ Markets, and online at damadamafreerange.com.au

By Richard Cornish