Yesterday I watched as our four store lambs were slaughtered and went from bouncy vivacious sheep to hung and carved carcasses. It had a greater impact on me that I could possibly have imagined and so I wanted to write about it. When we moved from London to the countryside and decided to keep animals we thought we were being pragmatic. We hadn’t bought supermarket meat in years, preferring to purchase only free range from the local butcher with the result that we were largely vegetarian during the working week. We reasoned that we should raise our own meat so that we could safeguard the welfare of our livestock. We convinced a local farmer that we could be trusted with four of her lambs and brought them home to frolic in our paddocks and commune with our chickens. Six months later, with the weather drawing in, we decided to go ahead and slaughter them for the freezer.
The whole thing was a disaster. Well, not a complete disaster, they are dead after all, and we have enough lamb to last us for at least a year, but our management of the whole situation left a great deal to be desired. I don’t think that I realised what a steep learning curve this was. Last Friday we drove the sheep into our smaller paddock and hired a professional slaughterman to come and help us. He arrived and stood back watching in bemused amazement as we tried to get the sheep penned. He pointed out that we should have been bucket training them with sheep nuts, agreed that we could try to get them into the chicken enclosure and he’d help us pen them there, advised us to stop chasing them and rescheduled for the following Tuesday. We were left spending a weekend wooing our reluctant and frankly suspicious sheep with nuts and invectives. On Monday evening we panicked as the sheep steadfastly refused to move into the chicken enclosure and in desperation rigged up a temporary tunnel from crush bars and poured (I kid you not) an enormous path of sheep nuts from the middle of their paddock into the chicken enclosure. To our absolute astonishment, they took the literal bait (hah!) and my husband came back from the morning dog walk triumphantly bellowing that the sheep had been bribed into penning themselves. So far, so good for dispelling nervousness. Then he went off to work and I nipped out to run a couple of errands.
When I got home the slaughterman was already there setting up and our usually calm dog, who has access to the garden, was going totally mad woofing and snarling at this strange man who clearly had designs on her sheep. At 35kg and white and fluffy it’s a good bet she thinks herself one of them. It took a good twenty minutes to corral her and get her into the house which left me both shaken and worried that the sheep had been distressed. Will you think me odd when I say I found the slaughterman to be a compassionate individual? He set up the slaughter area so that there were three distinct parts: the sheep in their small pen, the space where they’d be killed (not visible to the sheep still in the pen) and then the space where they could be dressed as carcasses. The actual killing was incredibly quick, the sheep was clearly dead immediately but they did twitch quite violently whilst bleeding out (which took a couple of minutes per sheep). Then they had to be cut into a carcass and skinned. I was slightly flabbergasted at how easily the skins came off, they were tugged off light tight jumpers ready to be salted to dry before they’re tanned. I was also surprised by how easily the pluck was pulled out of the cavity. It was strange, once the sheep had been skinned they just weren’t our sheep any more, but I still found the whole process a lot more upsetting than I’d bargained for. It didn’t help that one of the heads ended up in a parts bucket staring at me. Eventually it was all over and the carcasses were ready to be butchered.
At no point did the sheep display any panic or pain. So surely this is the best kind of death a meat animal can hope for? To be killed quickly in their own field, with no scary clanky trailer, no confused wander through an abattoir smelling of blood, no stranger approaching them with a stun gun. But it’s still a death and it completely shook my “oh-so-cool-high-welfare-meat-eater” beliefs to the core. I’ve always known, logically, that animals die so we can eat them and I flatter myself I’ve looked into the process more than most people simply because research is what led us to want to farm our own livestock. But seeing it happen in front of you, an animal that’s spent six months pottering about in your garden, really brings home the fact that for us to eat, an animal dies. I don’t think it’s possible to comprehend that fully unless you’ve actually watched an animal be slaughtered and butchered. I had read about it and thought about it and thought I was prepared but it still feels like it was a disturbing and hugely momentous occurrence.
We will continue to farm our own meat but I suspect that I’m going to become even stricter with the meat I’ll eat and that eventually I’ll probably only eat meat we’ve reared, wild game and whatever we’re served at other people’s houses. I would agree wholeheartedly with the River Cottage sentiment that if you’re happy to eat meat, you should really, truly understand where it comes from because believe me that knowing lamb comes from a sheep doesn’t even scratch the surface of what that really means. It was a memorable and deeply sobering experience and one I think will always stay with me. It makes the fast food meat genocide even more appalling for me now. I think everyone should have to watch a slaughter – it might make them considerably less wasteful. I’m glad we did it this way, but I’m deeply saddened at the same time. The whole thing is both satisfying and disquieting.