Who’d have thought raising deer would be the next step for Jonathan Gill of boy band, JLS? Jonny Beardsall meets the pop icon turned farmer. Portrait by Julian Broad
Depending on your age and gender, those buff boys from JLS would strike you as cool city dwellers. So with the band set to split after a farewell tour at the end of the year, how come one of them is fencing fields in Kent for the arrival of his foundation herd of red deer? Is Jonathan Gill – known to the fans as JB – set to become the hippest young farmer in Britain?
The competition from those in the music industry, you should know, is thin. His closest rival – Blur bassist-turned-cheese-maker Alex James – has reached the weathered age of 44. Gill, however, is only 26, is hunky, fit and healthy and also cares deeply for how his food is produced. He could make deer farming – and eating venison – super-hip. Well, much more so than making cheese.
A member of the band that was second on the 2008 series of X Factor, before going on to sell 10 million records, including five number one singles, he has genuinely rural credentials. ‘Until I was five I lived on my parent’s small holding in Antigua where they grew fruit and vegetables in two acres. It was in a place called John Hughes, close to the island’s only rainforest,’ says the teen pin-up.
Also a talented rugby player, he played for London Irish until he was 18 and was studying Theology at King’s College London, when he quit and joined the newly formed JLS in 2006 with his keen musical ear for harmonies.
But flat out until the end of the year when the Greatest Hits album is released and the tour ends, he will have scant time for getting his knees dirty in his daisy-fresh rural adventure. ‘This summer has been busy – I’m really looking forward to spending much needed time at home on the farm,’ continues Gill, who, unlike his band mates, has no plans for a solo career.
Three years ago, he moved from his parent’s home in Croydon – where his father, Keith, is a builder – and bought an equestrian property with house, barns and stables set in 11 acres near Keston. This is where three stags and around 40 hinds will arrive in the autumn.
So why does he want to farm deer? ‘I first had venison in the Oxo Tower restaurant on London’s South Bank,’ he says. ‘It was wonderful – I guess it was the incredible taste just got me thinking about where it came from and how it arrives on the table.’ So his fortuitous choice from the menu was his inspiration. ‘I did some research. I read how this most delicious and much healthier meat is farmed in this country in a welfare-friendly and environmentally-sound way,’ he says.
His first call had been to the Venison Advisory Service, which supports aspiring deer farmers. It was established in Scotland by the renowned venison pioneer, John Fletcher, who breeds red deer in Auchtermuchty where he started Britain’s first deer farm. ‘He’s taking an intelligent approach,’ says Fletcher. ‘Venison farming is the most humane form of meat production and we’re taking more and more enquiries from absolute beginners. This is hugely encouraging. There’s a shortage of farmed venison and we import 25,000 carcasses a year from New Zealand just to meet the demand from supermarkets.’
For someone new to farming, venison is relatively low-maintenance in comparison to other livestock and his small acreage – and the shelter in winter in his barns – will support his herd.
Rather than sending the deer he intends to breed to an abattoir, farmed venison can be cleanly despatched from 20 yards with a rifle while they nibble away unawares. This is super-humane and the key to the quality of the end product because the deer have no pre-slaughter stress. The meat is lean containing just two per cent fat, compared to 13 per cent in lamb and beef, which is reason enough to eat it more of it and all year round.
Since deciding to farm deer, Gill, an enthusiastic cook, often serves venison to friends at home. ‘Right now, my favourite cut is loin. I keep it dead simple – I just sear it in olive oil with a little salt and pepper. It’s delicious. You might also like to try it with blueberries, shallots and a splash of red wine,’ he continues.
Gill’s father, originally from Guyana, will also be involved with the deer. ‘Given he only lives a few miles away it is something we can get stuck into together. I don’t have a family yet but it is also something I can see my own children growing up with,’ he says. ‘In Antigua, dad also owned and trained a few racehorses so we might even have the odd horse or two about the place as we have the stables.’
His girlfriend, Chloe Tangney, looks another rural asset. A professional dancer, they met during the X Factor and have been together ever since. ‘She’s half-Irish and there’s a farm in Ireland on one side of the family, so she’s into the countryside,’ he says.
As yet, Gill doesn’t hunt, shoot or fish but has had his first invitation to shoot pheasants this winter in Hampshire. ‘I haven’t shot before but it is something I’m considering. I like the idea of eating what you shoot,’ he says.
He doesn’t believe his band mates are likely to follow his rurbanite lead and go wild in the country. ‘I don’t see any of them as potential farmers – it’s only going to be me – but I know they’ll round my place once the first venison makes it to the table,’ he laughs.
Gill is looking good for farming. In June he became an ambassador for Red Tractor – the UK’s leading food quality assurance label – and, in September, is judging a nationwide search to find the best home-made burger. And next year he hopes he will be standing in his fields explaining to groups of children from urban backgrounds how his deer are farmed.
With no plans for his own outdoor clothing range he will begin farming in a North Face jacket rather than a Barbour although he does own a pair of blue Hunter wellies. He doesn’t pretend he’s a frustrated backwoodsman or wants to commune with nature or that he knows too much about farming but in his own self-effacing, thoughtful way, he is working on it.[/wpcol_1half_end]
JLS Evolution UK Arena Tour 4-21 December 2013; jlsofficial.com