Thursday, October 23, 2008

“Life and death on the Farm, Part 2.” This is the sequel to Part 1, and even Part 1 and a half: something I’ve been thinking about for some time trying to formulate what I should write.

If animals are part of your permaculture design, and one of the desired permaculture outputs is meat, then their humane slaughter is inevitably something that you are going to have to prepare for and deal with. Whether you plan to do this yourself, get a slaughterer to come to you or take them to the abattoir, this is a huge event, especially for the first time. For us, the welfare of the animal throughout its life, and its slaughter in a calm and humane manner is both paramount and incontrovertible. That way, you get another beneficial permaculture output, a happy animal, the very least you owe it if it’s going to end up on your dinner plate.

If you want to read up on the subject, there’s no better place to start than The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) which “is the only registered charity that works, in the UK and internationally, through educational, scientific and technical advances, exclusively towards the highest worldwide standards of welfare for food animals during transport, marketing and slaughter.” Their excellent publications are sold on a not-for-profit basis. Other sources on information include, for example, The Soil Association text and, for me, a very interesting telephone conversation with Muhammad Ridha Payne of the organic halal (Muslim) meat suppliers in the UK, Abraham Natural Produce. I’m not in any sense religious but I was interested to hear him explain the correct principles of “halal” (permissible for Muslims) slaughter, which includes such elements as ensuring the animal is calm and unstressed and the slaughterer is in the correct state of mind with equipment correctly prepared.

We’ve slaughtered chickens, geese and rabbits here ourselves. For our pigs last year—the first time with a larger animal—Bernard, an itinerant slaughterer called a boucher de campagne (lit: country butcher) came to our smallholding to help us. Home slaughter is allowed under European rules, if the meat is for personal consumption only (i.e., you can’t sell it or even give it away). The local method involves suspending a live animal by a hind leg, cutting its throat, so it bleeds to death: definitely not what we wanted to do. François, a young local farmer kindly lent us his captive bolt humane killer and I used this according to HSA instructions. Once an animal is stunned unconscious, it’s suspended and stuck (bled) immediately. We’ve since slaughtered two kid goats, a hogget (lamb over a year old but not yet mutton) and the first of this year’s pigs using the same technique and with Bernard’s help.

Home slaughter obviously avoids any need to transport the animal. It’s in its own environment and our animals are used to being petted and having our hands around their heads. I can honestly tell you that they are not at all aware of what’s about to happen and, when I pull the trigger on the stunner, they drop immediately; there is no apparent distress at all to the animal. With our two remaining pigs well over 100 kg each, we decided it too great a task and that it’d be better to take them to an abattoir. Our friends, Sébastien and Jan helped in many ways, Sébastien borrowing a purpose-built animal trailer from the maire of the adjacent commune and Jan—who is coincidentally a veterinarian surgeon specialising in pigs—sorted things out with the abattoir, even trying to arrange a visit for me so I could see what went on there (politely refused). It’s a relatively small-scale abattoir who are very used to private people bringing one or two animals as well as lorries coming from farms.

With some food, we coaxed the pigs into the trailer early Thursday morning last week. We arrived at the abattoir while it was still relatively dark, and I reversed the trailer up to the loading ramp. The pigs seemed unperturbed by their 15-minute journey and were led into an individual holding pen. The slaughter would take place that morning, the pigs being electrically stunned. We returned Friday afternoon to recover the carcasses.

Taking an animal’s life is quite an event, emotionally speaking. For me, once the slaughter has taken place, there is a great sense of relief that it’s passed without causing the animal any suffering then the animal that we reared becomes a carcass to process. Gabrielle did shed a tear when we slaughtered the pigs last year but I must admit to being more affected this year, using the abattoir. I found the whole experience quite poignant, saying goodbye to the pigs and leaving them in someone else’s “care”. When I’d cleaned and returned the trailer and had a coffee with Sébastien, I walked up to the pig paddock; the emptiness overwhelmed me and I found myself with a lump in my throat and tears rolling down my cheeks. We were certainly much closer to the pigs last year, so it must have been something else. I rather think it was the stillness of the once-lively paddock, a metaphor for the cycle of life.

I’m proud of how we treat our animals and I feel, for me, it’s only right that I take full responsibility for their humane slaughter. I’m not advocating that every meat eater should kill their own meat but I do think one should understand what goes on to put meat on the plate and to undertake to buy meat from non-factory-farmed animals that have had a life outdoors and been raised with care. If that choice appears to cost too much, then think of eating better meat, but less often, and learning how to make use of every ounce of goodness out of the meat you do buy, finishing off with boiling the bones for stock. We will take delivery of two new weaners next February.