Food for Thought
Slaughtering, by Tim Tyne
Let us get one thing straight: eating one’s own livestock is a perfectly normal thing to do. It is the principal reason why animals were domesticated in the first place. Other considerations — such as milk and fibre — came later. It is also perfectly natural that you develop a sentimental attachment to the animals that you keep and feel a touch of emotion when they are slaughtered. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.
The early domestication of livestock, which happened about 8,000 years ago, is what enabled humans, as a species, to give up the old hunter-gatherer way of life, settle down and become ‘civilised’. Whether this is altogether a good thing is a debate for another day, but it does rather seem as though, deprived of the need to hunt, we spend an awful lot of time doing nasty things to each other. Such is progress, I suppose.
Producing meat from domestic livestock has, of course, swung the balance of power heavily in our favour. No longer do we have to pursue our quarry in its own environment just for the sake of a square meal. A negative spin-off from this is the very real risk that animals become mere commodities, to be churned out with production-line like sameness to
satisfy a growing population of consumers who really don’t care. There is also the issue of respect, particularly at the time of slaughter, for the life that the animal has lived and the sacrifice it is making in death. These sentiments are very much in evidence still among those races that adhere to the old ways, and also among the hunting fraternity in Europe, Scandinavia and other parts of the ‘developed’ world.
Certain religions, too, have strict guidelines about this. However, the average westerner tucking into a juicy steak or a slice of chicken breast has mentally distanced himself from the reality of what he is eating, which to my mind is wrong.
The ultimate respect we can show to our animals is to make sure that, when the time comes, their death is as quick, humane and stress-free as possible, and then to keep wastage to an absolute minimum. As smallholders, producing relatively low numbers of animals for slaughter each year, we are well placed to ensure that this happens.
Considering the options
There are really only two options available to you if you want to get an animal slaughtered for domestic consumption: you either take it to an abattoir or kill it yourself. The third (and, to my mind, most sensible) option — that of getting an experienced slaughterer to come to your holding and kill and cut up the animal for you — is, unfortunately, illegal in the UK. Of course, in rural areas where livestock are kept, this traditional practice does still occur and experienced smallholder readers are probably nodding knowingly by this stage, but I can’t say any more about it here for obvious reasons.
The challenge here is to find an abattoir that is a) within reasonable travelling distance, and b) does private slaughter. Sadly, small local abattoirs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as excessive bureaucracy has forced them out of business and the larger operators aren’t very keen on undertaking private slaughtering. To them the smallholder is just a fly in their ointment, a nuisance that disrupts the smooth running of a fairly complex operation which depends upon efficiency and consistency to satisfy the demands of the supermarkets. However, be assured that however impersonal these places feel, the people who work there are generally good stockmen who will handle your animals sympathetically.
Having located a suitable facility, it is quite a good idea to pay a visit in advance of the day you are planning to take your animals. Familiarise yourself with the layout of the place, so you know exactly where you will have to unload your trailer. Go home and practice reversing — if necessary. Find out what day of the week is set aside for doing private kills and what time your animals will need to be there. Double check the paperwork requirements. Some abattoirs will have their own ‘food chain declaration’ forms that you will need to fill in in addition to the official documents.
Also find out whether the abattoir is able to cut up the carcasses for you, as some don’t provide this service. If they do, you will need to write out a detailed cutting list and also note whether you wish to get back any of the ‘extras’, such as offal and hides (although don’t be too surprised if you find, when you return to collect them, that they went in the bin). If your chosen abattoir doesn’t offer a cutting service then you will need to make alternative arrangements for the carcasses to be butchered, or just take them home as they are and cut them up on the kitchen table.
Finally, make sure that your animals are fit to go. Lambs may need to be belly-clipped (it’s quite a good idea to do this anyway) and crutched, and cattle may also need clipping if they are encrusted with mud or dung. Obviously don’t submit any animal
that is injured or unwell (unless you have a veterinary certificate allowing for it to be transported directly to slaughter, and the abattoir has agreed in advance to accept it) and don’t take any animal that is unfit to travel. Also make sure that your animals are correctly identified and that the ID matches the paperwork.
I confess that I am a strong advocate of domestic home slaughtering and I wish it was more widely practised among smallscale livestock keepers. However, I must point out that home-killed meat can only be consumed by yourself and by those people who are normally resident in your household. If you wish to sell, swap, barter or give away any part of it, or share it with your guests, the animal must have been slaughtered professionally in a licensed abattoir.
From an animal welfare point of view, I feel that home slaughtering has the edge over the more conventional process, as it avoids the stress of a journey and of being handled by unknown people in an unfamiliar environment. This is particularly the case now that abattoirs are so few and far between.
Slaughtering livestock at home is best carried out using a small bore shotgun, such as a .410, as it both stuns and kills in one operation. Death is instantaneous. This is the method recommended by the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) which also produces some useful guidance on the subject. Visit www.hsa.org.uk. In its own words, the HSA is ‘an independent charity that works through scientific and technical advances, education and training towards achieving the highest worldwide standards in food animal welfare during transport, marketing and slaughter’.
In order to acquire a suitable firearm, you will first need to apply to your regional police force for a shotgun certificate. Provided that you don’t have a criminal past then this is a relatively straightforward procedure. In addition to slaughtering and the humane destruction of casualty animals, a .410 shotgun is ideal for carrying out pest control and for putting small game on the dinner table, so in my opinion it is an essential bit of kit for smallholders. I have been using one for the home slaughter of domestic livestock since I was in my mid teens and it has proved itself perfectly suitable for sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.
If, for whatever reason, you are unable or unwilling to acquire a shotgun, then it is possible to obtain a captive bolt pistol without any kind of license. However, a lot more experience and skill is required to slaughter animals using a captive bolt as it is a stunner and not a killer. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it.
The act of slaughter
I have lost count of the number of times people have said to me: “Ooh, isn’t it difficult to kill your own animals?” Therefore I would like to point out that, in my opinion, the killing is the easy bit. Frighteningly so. It is all over and done with in an instant. The difficult bit — the skinning, the gutting, the butchery, etc — comes later.
Lack of space prevents me from going into any great detail here, but the following points should guide you in the right direction:
Ideally, pen up the animal overnight first so that its gut is empty. Don’t deprive it of fresh water, though.
Avoid stress. Handle the animal and talk to it, just as you would on any other day.
Get all of your equipment laid out before you start and brief your helpers (if any). Safety is paramount, particularly when firearms are involved.
After being penned overnight, the animal will be hungry, so it should be easy enough to entice it into the killing area. Persuade it to stand still with the offer of food. Alternatively, in the case of sheep, goats and cattle, restrain it using a halter.
Using your .410, shoot the animal in the middle of the forehead at a range of about 6in. The exact position and angle of the shot varies between species, so please do appropriate research beforehand. In the case of heavily horned sheep and goats, it might be necessary to shoot them in the back of the head instead.
Don’t dilly-dally. Be firm and decisive in your actions. If you hesitate and miss the moment then the animal will become suspicious of your behaviour and things will begin to go wrong.
As soon as you have shot the animal, you should bleed it. If you have used a shotgun then this isn’t strictly an essential part of the slaughtering process, but meat from an animal that has been bled will remain fresh for longer.
Detailed step-by-step guidelines for the home slaughter of different types of domestic livestock and poultry can be found in Tim Tyne’s book Viable Self-Sufficiency (ISBN number 978-1-904871-92-7).
NEXT MONTH: How to transform the carcass into an edible end product.
Eating one’s own animals is a normal thing to do
Piglets sold for fattening may be unsuitable for breeding
Not all abattoirs have a cutting facility
Pay a visit to your local abattoir to familiarise yourself with the layout of the place
Young children do not need to be shielded from reality
Home-killed lamb carcasses hanging in our store room
A .410 shotgun is the ideal tool for slaughtering all types of domestic livestock