The Ethical Carnivore
Louise Gray (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
It wasn’t long ago that a country person knew exactly where their meat had come from because if they weren’t capable of wringing a bird’s neck, taking the family pig to slaughter or skinning a rabbit, their family would go without. Now, such self-sufficiency is all but obsolete—butchers’ shops no longer hang carcasses in the window in case a realistic animal shape offends squeamish customers—and the conscientious consumer relies on the foodie buzzword ‘provenance’.
Louise Gray takes the idea of knowing provenance to its literal extreme: she spends a year only eating animals she has killed, an aim she soon realises is impractical for most people.
She’s a farmer’s daughter, but initially finds the project upsetting. there are tears as she searches the undergrowth for a rabbit she has shot and her legs tremble as a calf is about to be killed in a Jarvis stun box. She sees two unsuspecting pigs humanely dispatched—killed in pairs because they are gregarious—but then gives a horrible, graphic description of burning, boiling, evisceration, ‘cloven hooves flying around’, oceans of ‘maroon foaming blood’ and the sense that the slaughterhouse boss is testing her nerves.
When the nightmare of the ‘stuck pigs’ subsides, however, Miss Gray begins to dispel preconceptions. She finds a ‘sense of industry and pride’ at an abattoir that supplies Mcdonald’s and admires the diligent RSPCA officers who care about animals but accept that people eat meat; she describes the gentle treatment of a bullock that is to be shot, concluding that it was not afraid and that death was instant. She realises that the people who fight hardest for healthy rivers are the fishermen and that true shooting people are embarrassed by excessive bags.
She accepts that intensive chicken farming done well isn’t cruel, but can’t help feeling, as most of us do, that it’s joyless— if given the choice, chickens will always venture outside, whatever the weather, especially if they can sunbathe—and freerange meat is far tastier. She discovers that, despite the dreamy atmosphere of a troutfishing expedition, her true instinct is to stop messing around and catch a fish. She culls (shoots) a Soay lamb and even her vegan friends eat the meat because it hasn’t been farmed intensively. She feels momentary sadness at shooting a pheasant, but is pleased with herself for being accurate and able to feed friends.
the book does have its ‘Bridget Jones goes shooting’ breathy tone at times, but it’s well paced, well researched and politically even-handed. At the end of her carnivorous year, Miss Gray has formed a greater respect for farmers and slaughtermen, yet predicts that her own meat-eating will be more discriminatory. Most of all, it seems, she relishes the release of her inner hunter-gatherer. Kate Green
Happy hen: intensive chicken farming can be done well