Winding down the stunning mile-long drive, passing ancient woods and fields containing grazing lambs and their mothers (it was back in March), it is easy to see why the O’Haras have kept Coopershill in the family since the 1700s. Surrounded by the luscious hills and lakes of County Sligo, it’s also less than 14km from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s peaceful verging on utopic, located in a beautiful region on the north-west coast of Ireland.
The Georgian mansion that is central to the 500-acre estate has been in the family since 1774, when it was built. With luxury in mind—even in the 1700s—the O’Haras’ ancestors, Arthur and Sarah Cooper, commissioned local architects to create the country house.
On an environmental level, the Cooper family were way ahead of their time when the property was built. Designed with large windows to allow the light to flood in, heated with bio-fuels and utilising the rain that falls on the roof, Coopershill has remained eco-friendly over the years and today boasts the Green Ireland Hospitality Award. In 2009 Coopershill became the first luxury property in the UK and Ireland to achieve the EU ‘flower’ label; the only environmental award recognised throughout Europe and one with tough criteria.
Eight generations later and Simon O’Hara and his partner Christina—Coopershill’s resident chef—run the house as a country house hotel. Simon’s parents, Lindy and Brian, took over the house and its grounds in 1987, and although they retired in 2007, they still run the estate’s fallow deer farm.
The house works in harmony with the land. The fertile garden is peppered with growing vegetables, fruits and herbs, used by Christina in the kitchen. When in season, most vegetables served for guests are grown in the garden—most likely picked by Simon or Christina the same day.
While the house is grand, adorned with centuries old maps, art and mounted stag heads, it is Lindy’s pride—the 250 grass-fed fallow deer—that I’m here to see.
The O’Haras first became interested in fallow deer farming in the 1980s, after spotting a fellow deer farmer’s herd. Brian says: “When we used to travel to Dublin, just north of Mullingar, there were herds of beautiful fallow deer behind fences, but easily visible from the road. We always stopped to watch and admire them. On one trip we allowed sufficient time to call in to see the farmer. His name was Gunter von Brunau.”
The O’Haras got to know Gunter, who encouraged Lindy and Brian to set up a deer farm at Coopershill in 1995. “Of course, we bought the initial breeding stock from Gunter, and we have gone on and persevered since then.”
Ireland, much like the majority of northern Europe, experienced a late winter in 2012/13 season and although it’s now late March, the deer are spending a large amount of time inside, where they are left to graze on hay until the signs of spring allow them to graze outdoors again. The farm consists of two large parallel barns—the herd divided between the two.
As Lindy gives a tour of the farm and takes me to meet the deer, she explains the benefits of deer farming over stalking. “The advantage of farmed over wild venison is that we know the exact age of each animal and can therefore guarantee flavour and tenderness of the meat.”
On a nutritional level, venison is known as one of the healthiest red meats—a point that Lindy is also keen to stress. “The deer tends to be high in iron and lots of vitamins, very lean and low in saturated fat. On a healthy eating level, it is very good meat for anyone who cares about their cholesterol levels, but still want to enjoy premium red meat.”
Christina prepares a delicious smoked haunch of venison salad, served with raspberry vinaigrette, to sample after the farm tour. The venison is bursting with flavour and the raspberry vinaigrette is a good, strong accompaniment for the rich, smoky flavour of the meat.
The venison at Coopershill is some of the best I have ever tasted and satisfying to know that venison is low in fat. As Lindy informs me: “It actually has less fat than salmon. It’s high in iron and low in cholesterol —the only red meat that a doctor can prescribe for someone on a low fat diet.” Amazing, when you consider how often red meats are associated with poor health, with attention-grabbing headlines such as the Telegraph’s ‘Red meat can increase chances of diabetes’, [19 June 2013] and the Los Angeles Times’ ‘Bad news on red meat…’[17 June 2013]. These sensationalist stories often forget to mention that venison, also a red meat, actually has strong nutritional benefits. The haunch of venison served for lunch is just one variety available at Coopershill. From boned and rolled shoulder joints to topside roasts and diced venison. It’s found on local restaurant menus, such as that of Source Sligo, an award-winning local restaurant, which also offer cookery classes and regular demonstrations.
What set fallow deer apart—other than their outstanding flavour—are their physical attributes—distinctive antlers on the male of the species, which grace the buck’s head. The colour of fallow deer can vary—black and white; white; ginger and a light brown with white spots.
To make Christina’s smoked haunch of venison salad with raspberry vinaigrette, you’ll need 100g smoked venison, 2 handfuls of fresh mixed organic salad leaves, 1oz Coopershill raspberry vinegar, 2oz extra virgin olive oil, 1tsp honey, 1tsp wholegrain mustard and salt and black pepper, to taste. Put the vinaigrette ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Arrange two plates with the smoked venison atop. Toss the salad with a little vinaigrette, just enough to make them glisten, not drown, and place in the centre of the plate. Drizzle the dressing around the venison and serve immediately.
The O’Haras actively encourage farm visits, so guests can see first hand the importance with which they value the deer’s welfare. Since 2007, approximately seventy of Lindy and Brian’s herd have been slaughtered annually, in Sligo. The venison is sold to local restaurants and online via their own website and at a local farmers market.
Images © Coopershill