Guilty Con­science?

Hav­ing sec­ond thoughts about send­ing your home-grown an­i­mals to slaugh­ter? In the first part of a new mini se­ries on scru­ples, Jack Smel­lie asks small­hold­ers how they jus­tify killing and eat­ing the an­i­mals they so lov­ingly reared

Country Smallholding - - Contents - By Jack Smel­lie

Sec­ond thoughts on eat­ing meat?

Your lamb is so tasty it doesn’t need the mint sauce.” This was a com­ment made about our home-grown lamb by two very food-ori­en­tated Ox­ford-based friends back in 2011. We — my other half David and I — were just two years into our small­hold­ing jour­ney at that stage and were more than a lit­tle de­lighted with the ac­co­lade. Then, of course, came the in­evitable, “but how can you eat this hav­ing seen the lamb in ques­tion hap­pily gam­bolling around your fields look­ing all cute and in­no­cent”? To which the only sen­si­ble re­ply had to be, “yes, but how can you eat lamb when you have no idea whether it has hap­pily gam­bolled around a field, what it has been fed, or how it was slaugh­tered”?

It is a fa­mil­iar small­hold­ing mantra, of­ten quoted as one of the main rea­sons small­hold­ers take up this way of life. Fa­mil­iar com­ments are: “I want to know where my food comes from.” “I want to know I have given the an­i­mal the best pos­si­ble life — and death.”

Fast for­ward to 2018, and in over eight years David and I haven’t eaten any meat that we haven’t raised our­selves. This au­tumn our first steer goes to the abat­toir and, on its re­turn, all neatly butchered and pack­aged, we will have the op­por­tu­nity to eat beef for the first time since tak­ing up the ‘happy meat’ mantra.

Are we look­ing for­ward to this? Well, therein lies the ques­tion be­cause we are feel­ing am­biva­lent. We stand in our field look­ing at the steer as he calmly wan­ders over for a head scratch and won­der at the whole idea of rais­ing an an­i­mal to kill and eat it. It seems that those good in­ten­tions all those years ago have been turned on their heads and we now have a case of small­hold­ing scru­ples. The is­sue now is what, if any­thing, are we go­ing to do about it.

Go­ing off meat?

The western world eats a lot of meat, although some re­cent sur­veys and re­search sug­gest that in the UK meat con­sump­tion is ac­tu­ally fall­ing slightly. Re­tail an­a­lyst Kan­tar World­panel pub­lished find­ings this Fe­bru­ary show­ing that in 2017 29% of evening meals con­tained no meat or fish at all, up 1% from 2016 and 2% from 2015.

Mar­ket in­tel­li­gence agency Min­tel re­ported in Au­gust 2017 that 28% of peo­ple in the UK cut back on their meat con­sump­tion in the first half of that year, cit­ing health, weight, an­i­mal wel­fare and the en­vi­ron­ment as their mo­ti­va­tions.

There are many meat re­duc­tion cam­paigns: Meat-free Mon­day, Na­tional Vege­tar­ian Week and Ve­gan­uary to name but three. Ve­gan­uary, launched in 2014, saw 167,000 peo­ple sign up and com­mit them­selves to not eat­ing any an­i­mal byprod­ucts in Jan­uary 2018, com­pared to 60,000 the pre­vi­ous year. How­ever, an Ip­sos MORI poll con­ducted in 2016 con­cluded that just 3% of the UK pop­u­la­tion con­sider them­selves vege­tar­ian, with less than 1% iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as ve­g­ans. The same sur­vey found that 95% of peo­ple eat meat at least once a week, with over half of them con­sum­ing some ev­ery night. Fur­ther­more, the Agri­cul­tural and Hor­ti­cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Board (AHDB) cur­rently es­ti­mates that meat con­sump­tion is pretty sta­ble.

Con­sumers are bom­barded with op­pos­ing news head­lines about the value — or oth­er­wise — of hav­ing meat in their diet. They hear that red meat is the best source of min­eral rich pro­tein avail­able, or that

red meat causes cancer. Chicken is low in fat and choles­terol, ver­sus chicken con­tains more harm­ful bac­te­ria than other meat.

The Depart­ment of Health ad­vises eat­ing no more than 70g of meat a day. In 2016, the AHDB es­ti­mated that the av­er­age daily con­sump­tion was 79g.

A per­sonal wob­bly

It ap­pears, there­fore, that Bri­tain is still a nation of meat eaters, even if many peo­ple now eat a bit less. De­spite our own per­sonal wob­bly about our steer, David and I are not about to give up eat­ing meat any time soon. The scru­ples we are suf­fer­ing are a lit­tle more sub­tle than sim­ply look­ing at the choice be­tween eat­ing meat or not eat­ing it. Some­how, as the years have pro­gressed, we have found our­selves ques­tion­ing our at­ti­tude to meat more: why we are do­ing it; do we en­joy it; is it fair; are we eat­ing too much (def­i­nitely); should we be shar­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence?

The im­mi­nent de­par­ture of our steer has brought all this to the fore for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, in­clud­ing the length of time we keep cows be­fore they be­come beef and the fact that we won’t be able to eat the whole cow any­way.

If we are suf­fer­ing with scru­ples then other small­hold­ers will have been through sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences.

Rob Lowe from Fife ad­mits that one of the rea­sons he wanted a farm was be­cause he wanted to eat his own meat.

“I find meat in the su­per­mar­kets to be ex­pen­sive and bland, so I aim to raise as many dif­fer­ent types of an­i­mal as I want and butcher them all for the ta­ble. I want to make sure that they have a happy, con­tented life be­fore just one bad day. I want my chil­dren and fam­ily to be able to eat beau­ti­ful, healthy food and un­der­stand where it comes from,” he ex­plains.

Trudie Thomas from Kent goes one stage fur­ther: “If we didn’t eat an­i­mals when the time is right that to me would feel like a waste and an abuse of their lives,” she says. “Much as it seems hard to make the fi­nal de­ci­sion, it would not be sus­tain­able to keep fields of pets. As long as they have good lives I think we are all on the right track.”

Karen Mil­ner from Lin­colnshire ad­mits to feel­ing a huge sense of ac­count­abil­ity. “Know­ing that my an­i­mals have had a good life makes me feel re­spon­si­ble for their demise, which is a huge bur­den. So I com­mit to eat­ing ev­ery bit that I can.”

Small­hold­ers clearly don’t take their meat-eat­ing lightly, many con­fess­ing that they of­ten cry on abat­toir day. Some cope with the whole process by not nam­ing the an­i­mals, while oth­ers do name them in or­der to make the ex­pe­ri­ence of then eat­ing them even more per­sonal and re­spect­ful.

Fail­ing mis­er­ably

It is un­de­ni­able that many small­hold­ers do have qualms, of­ten ex­ac­er­bated by the length of time they have been farm­ing.

Sascha De Lisle But­ler from West Wales de­scribes how her re­solve was un­done when she bred her own stock for the first time.

“It was def­i­nitely an in­ter­nal bat­tle,” she says. “I sent two bought in lambs off to the abat­toir and didn’t even think of them hav­ing any pur­pose other than for con­sump­tion. How­ever, this year was the first that I raised my own home-bred lamb and I have failed mis­er­ably be­cause the cas­trated male is now a ‘pet’ com­pan­ion and has not ended up in the freezer.”

One ma­jor con­cern among small­hold­ers is the amount of meat they find them­selves eat­ing sim­ply be­cause it is there. Many, in­clud­ing Dawn Pearce from Ox­ford­shire, ac­tively cut down on their con­sump­tion be­cause it felt as though they were tak­ing it for granted. Dawn hasn’t raised any an­i­mals for three years and is still con­sum­ing meat from pre­vi­ous sup­plies.

David and I were par­tic­u­larly struck by meat over­load when, on a cold, damp Oc­to­ber evening in 2014, we served up roast pork and our own veg and pota­toes to my brother and his wife. “This is amaz­ing,” said my brother be­fore he had even taken the first mouth­ful. “And to think that you eat like this ev­ery night.” There was an em­bar­rassed pause be­fore we mum­bled, “well yes, we guess we do…”

Mary­line Leese from Powys found that she was car­ried along by the mo­ment when she be­gan breed­ing for meat.

“Hav­ing sheep was a sim­ple way to help us man­age the land when we first ar­rived at our small­hold­ing,” she notes. “Then I got sucked in to the lamb­ing thing, which dis­tracted me away from our pur­pose. Now, three years on, it’s time to get back on track. Keep­ing sheep ac­tu­ally pre­vented us from grow­ing more of the foods we eat a lot of.”

Robin MacKay from the Lake District says she and her hus­band still eat the same amount of meat as they have al­ways done.

“How­ever, what has changed is the way I feel about the meat we eat now. Noth­ing is wasted. We don’t pile too much on our plates, so that we don’t stop ap­pre­ci­at­ing both it and the sac­ri­fice the an­i­mal has

made for us. The fi­nal de­ci­sion is still an ex­tremely hard one. I get very up­set ev­ery time I drive them on their fi­nal jour­ney, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we stop car­ing about the fi­nal de­ci­sion then it’s time to stop rais­ing an­i­mals for the ta­ble.”

There is a con­sen­sus that emo­tion­ally it is eas­ier to dis­patch some an­i­mals than oth­ers.

Sascha De Lisle But­ler says: “I raised meat chick­ens this year and it didn’t cross my mind to keep them out of the freezer as they are not ge­net­i­cally geared for longevity, so it felt right to dis­patch them at the end.”

If the de­ci­sion about the an­i­mal’s fate is made be­fore they are even born, that can make the fi­nal jour­ney eas­ier too. Small­hold­ers who breed rare and/or pedi­gree an­i­mals, for ex­am­ple, know that they have to get rid of some stock be­cause they may not be up to breed stan­dard.

Rais­ing meat is not an ac­tiv­ity un­der­taken in iso­la­tion ei­ther, as Tessa Steven­son points out: “Rais­ing meat an­i­mals also pro­vides ma­nure for the veg­etable gar­den. The sad­ness of killing your own an­i­mals can be off­set against the sad­ness of think­ing of the agri-busi­ness food that oth­ers would have to eat if they weren’t able to buy/barter for yours.”

Stephen Probst from Lon­don re­marks that in hav­ing enough land to raise his own meat, he ought to be shar­ing that meat any­way. “I love the idea of be­ing self sus­tain­ing, but there isn’t enough for ev­ery­one to have their four acres and feed them­selves only.”

The next stage

But after that ini­tial de­light of tast­ing the first home­grown meat, what then? Is the emo­tional con­nec­tion go­ing to con­tinue? For many the next ob­vi­ous stage is to be­gin to share the ex­pe­ri­ence and start to sell some meat. At first it may be a case of just sell­ing off the ex­cess, but as word spreads a small­holder may be­gin to think about rais­ing more an­i­mals to sell the meat. Then comes meat boxes, pre-or­ders and won­der­ing whether more breed­ing stock are re­quired.

Some ven­tures may then be­come too big and so do you start to re-ex­am­ine the prin­ci­ples of what you are do­ing and won­der why and how it all got so com­mer­cial?

Ul­ti­mately, it ap­pears that peo­ple do what their con­sciences tell them is right. And, as long as an­i­mal wel­fare needs are met, how much and how of­ten they eat meat is down to them.

“I think it is very easy to for­get that man­age­ment of life and death is never easy,” says Ka­t­rina Gow­ing from Nor­folk. “In this bizarre world of an­i­mal rear­ing for meat, we want to in­crease the chances of life so that we may ul­ti­mately in­crease the amount of death. It’s a very odd con­cept.”

I think it is very easy to for­get that man­age­ment of life and death is never easy. In this bizarre world of an­i­mal rear­ing for meat, we want to in­crease the chances of life so that we may ul­ti­mately in­crease the amount of death. It’s a very odd con­cept

From calf to beef is a long jour­ney, so there is no need to think about the meat part for a good cou­ple of years

Goat kids stay cute up un­til dis­patch, so does this make it harder?

It is im­por­tant that an­i­mals en­joy the best pos­si­ble wel­fare, even if they are des­tined for the ta­ble

Ba­con may be ev­ery­one’s favourite, but how easy was it to send the pig to slaugh­ter?

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