One of the skills I’m most proud of acquiring since we moved here is being able to prepare meat for the table. I can pluck or skin, gut, joint if need be and cook a bird with confidence now. I can trap and kill a rabbit for the pot and have butchered a deer, shot less than a mile from my house. I’m happy to let my hens free range through the garden and when the time comes, wring their neck and make the family favourite, Coq au vin. Not bad for a former vegetarian, who hadn’t even cooked a sausage before to the countryside.
If you let your chickens run free with a cockerel, like we do, your eggs will be fertile and when a hen is feeling particularly maternal she sit on her eggs and chicks will hatch, about half of which inevitable will be male. After a few months these young cockerels often start fighting, sometimes to the agonising slow death of one – and its time to step in.
I will never forget the first time I culled a cockerel. Sneaking out in the dark, I plucked the warm feathered bundle while peacefully roosting and tucked him under my arm. In the barn away from the others I broke his neck by trapping it under a broom handle while I pulled up sharply on his legs and started plucking at his still warm breast while his wings flapped in violent convulsions sending white feathers spiralling into the night sky. You can only appreciate the enormity of our power at the top of the food chain. Wielding this authority is not something I do lightly. I give eating meat a lot of thought.
As a tie-dye clad teenager claiming meat is murder, I stopped eating animals because I loved them and didn’t want to see my pal on a plate. These views seems a little naive now, but I would still consider myself an animal lover. The thrill of seeing a deer prance through the woods that surround my home, the appreciation of its athleticism and natural beauty, does not conflict with the satisfaction of carving one up to fill the freezer. Deer herds if left to reproduce unfettered will eventually overpopulate an area leading to overgrazing, which affects the natural regrowth of the woodland and in turn would have a detrimental effect on other wildlife. The hunter here works with nature keeping the balance and supporting a robust and healthy herd.
But back as a student in Glasgow fending for myself for the first time, I felt the logical step to loving animals was to remove myself completely from the meat industry. I became Vegan, removing from my diet eggs and dairy as well as meat and fish. In the bohemian Westend where I lived there was a health food shop on every corner, fast food veggie burghers were as easily available as fish and chips. It was easy to be Vegan and it made me feel I was doing my bit.
First travel then work and starting a family saw a gradual erosion of these ideals. I taught English in Japan for a few years and started eating fish out of respect for the family I boarded with, because mealtimes were a great source of tradition and pride and my place was not to offend. Dairy slipped back into my diet when I returned to England.
But it wasn’t until we moved here that I considered eating meat. Living out in the woods, growingly my own fruit and vegetables has brought me closer to the countryside and the natural rhythms and cycles of the seasons. It is a great privilege to be able to experience a life like this and it has been a steep and fascinating learning curve.
Considering the impact on the environment its more important to eat locally produced food, animal and vegetable, than buying in exotic produce flown across the world in a polluting market.
And the animals we keep are to serve a purpose, well looked with the space to live and behave naturally then respectfully dispatched as required.
In summer when the bounty from the garden is plentiful we are able to live almost entirely on our own produce but in winter why would we resort to the supermarket to buy imported food when we can supplement our diet with the animals we see all around us. Game is plentiful: deer, rabbits, grouse and pheasants all find their way to our table. We do not shoot ourselves but are the happy recipients of this natural bounty and I made it my job to know how to prepare these gifts left hanging on the garden gate.
Old fashioned cook books are now bloodstained as I struggled to paunch my first rabbit with one finger holding open the page with ambiguous instructions on how to go about the task. I sought out farmers wives and gamekeepers who gave me practical tips, but these skills are dying out as more and more of us are forced to rely on the supermarkets and their plastic clad offerings.
Once meat was on the menu buying it from the supermarket was a natural step. Living here has given me an insight into farming and with it a confidence in eating British meat. I have seen inside abattoirs and experienced sheep farming at first hand. I can buy bacon from farm shops with their own pigs snuffling in the straw as you leave. Beef cows graze the fields I pass everyday, reared by neighbours who are also my friends. As a nation we probably eat too much, but I am satisfied with the welfare standards and feel happy buying a modest quantity from reputable sources.
And all this is theory of course. The ideals by which I live my life, rather than the actual way I stumble through it. I may sometimes grab a pre-pack sandwich with ham from an unknown source because I’m hungry and its there. But I have principles and work towards them. I think very carefully about the food we eat. Producing and preparing food for the table is a major part of what I do. I am fortunate to have the space to be able to do this but there is only so much time in a day and preparing food from scratch takes up a huge part of it.
The other day my eldest asked me if he could turn vegetarian, I think they’d be talking about it at school. After some consideration I told him a firm ‘no’. Living here it isn’t the right thing to do.
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