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
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.
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?