The hunt is on for more wild rabbits to meet a growing demand for the delicacy on the dining table.
Demand for the healthy food resource on restaurant menus is outstripping supply despite rabbits being hunted as a damaging pest.
Premium Game, a Blenheim-based wild meat business, is exploring what it will take to get more rabbit on the table.
Director Nick Clifford would like to see more active work on the compliance end by the government to allow wild rabbit to end up on plates more often.
“Our biggest challenge is getting enough of it at a cost-effective rate,” Clifford said.
“At the moment it’s sought after as a delicacy but it ends up being one of the most expensive meat proteins given its weight to bone ratio.”
Eating one of New Zealand’s most damaging pests is, because of its menu value, currently pretty much restricted to diners in higher-end restaurants in big cities, Clifford said.
So, what does it take to get rabbit on the table and why should more of us be serving it?
Most countries hunt their endemic species, but Aotearoa New Zealand hunts its pest species.
This philosophy underpins Premium Game, a peak to plate food business offering a range of wild game meat including rabbit, venison, tahr, goat, pork, wallaby and hare.
It has been estimated by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) that rabbits cost NZ more than $50 million in lost production and another $25m in direct pest control a year.
That’s effectively $75m a year of tasty, nutritious meat running around at a time when access to nutritious food is at an all-time low, Clifford points out.
Rabbits compete with livestock by eating the best grass and they also cause extensive land damage from burrowing, causing erosion.
Pest control focuses on biocontrol and poisoning and there is no support in the way of subsidies for a company like Premium Game to shoot and process rabbits for food.
It’s a tough business shooting rabbits, Clifford said, with significant regulations making it difficult for hunters and wild game processors, including a reduced timeframe to get rabbits to processing facilities compared to larger animals.
To make it worthwhile, a hunter needs to shoot 120-150 rabbits a night, so securing ideal hunting ground is key to making it a financially viable operation.
Central Otago and the Dunedin Peninsula are currently the key viable hunting grounds.
“Access to land is our biggest challenge,” said Clifford. “We are in Blenheim and that’s logistically a nightmare, there’s not enough in Marlborough.”
Clifford is looking for farms that are on reasonably flat country and preferably grazed.
“We have to work within the bounds of a lot of regulation and while there are other areas where rabbits are a pest in significant numbers, we also need to be working with landowners’ understanding of the regulation and close enough to meet the tight timeframe of shooting to processing.”
It takes three minutes to skin a rabbit and nine minutes to skin a deer, much bigger than three times a rabbit, and an animal that also must be hunted at night.
For all these reasons rabbits end up at about $26 a kilogram, bone-in weight, almost twice the cost of venison, depending on the cut.
Premium Game sells about 1000kg of processed wild rabbit a month, the equivalent of about 1200 rabbits, mostly to restaurants.
“We do sell some retail to the home cook but mostly higher-end restaurants in the big cities.
“There’s also a certain amount goes into pet food so there’s no wastage.”
Eat NZ chief executive Angela Clifford (no relation) said it is important to support wild food businesses that are solving multiple problems.
“They are getting rid of pests, sourcing high-quality wild meat and contributing to our unique food story,” she said.
Wild game animals lead a free-roaming, high-welfare life. They eat a varied and natural diet resulting in meat that is healthy, nutrient dense, full of flavour and naturally free from added hormones and antibiotics.
“I think there is conversation to be had around the food safety regulations to make it easier for companies such as Premium Game to get rabbit on our plates,” she said.
“It would be good in respect to NZ’s food culture to see more wild game on restaurant menus.
“It’s a double whammy: controlling the pest and feeding a lot of mouths.”
Meanwhile Nick Clifford would like to hear from people who have rabbit problems, and is also keen to hear from licensed hunters who want to join the team. He can be contacted at email@example.com