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Taking a life to sustain my life. How the hell could I do that?


Yesterday, I took three lambs to a small abattoir in Combe Martin to be killed & processed into meat. Today I collected their skins. I have never done this before.

I can't believe I have written that. To write it down is to make it real, it actually happened. I was responsible for the deaths of those lambs. It shocks me to think I could do it.

The build up to this experience has been drawn out over at least 24 years & has resulted in an incredibly hard decision. One that, having seen it through to it's conclusion, I feel better placed to understand the complexities of it all. 


The three lambs were not the Shetland sheep in the previous post. These three were from the small flock of Hebridean/Suffolk crosses I bought a few months ago.


A Bit of History

I've been battling as an animal activist since I was in my early teens, my greatest passions where fighting against the battery farming of chickens & pigs, hunting with dogs/poisoning/gasing/cubbing and animal vivisection for medical/cosmetic testing. 

When I was 11 I begged my mum to let me be vegetarian. As soon as I learned that in order to have dairy, the unwanted, young male calves are slaughtered, I became vegan. 

How the hell have I ended up killing three sheep?!


How could I do it?

It started when I looked at the effect my vegan diet was having on the countries it was grown in. The devastation of precious Rain Forest, the poor diets/living conditions of the farmers producing it, the lax pesticide/herbicide controls abroad, unimaginable mono cultures of grains/soya & of course air/boat/lorry miles. The negative ecological effect was staggering.

I felt incredibly selfish at my luxurious choice not to eat meat, not all are so lucky to choose. So I turned my mind to having a local vegan diet. This became increasingly difficult to achieve the deeper into winter I went & the more I worked outdoors in the cold. So I became vegetarian again. However, I couldn't help but think about the male animals being slaughtered for meat so I could have cheese. This begged the question.. "Why don't I eat meat? If I'll eat dairy, why wont I eat meat"?  

So, was I just being emotional about eating an animal? Was it due to some spiritual reason I didn't want to eat meat? No other reason seemed logical. The taking of a life to sustain my own is a big deal. A very big deal. If I am sustained by the taking of a life then I feel a responsibility to be worthy of that death. At the very least, not to take it for granted.

Well, I don't know what's right or wrong. All I feel is that there is NOTHING more important than our environment. It must be nurtured & protected.  If that means I have to eat locally/home reared meat, at lean times of the year, then that's what I'll do. Whether I like it or not.

One thing I do know, if I'm going to eat meat, I'm going to see the process through from beginning to end. I want to feel truly connected to the fact that this animal is going to die in order that my life is sustained. That way I will be forced to respect the animal, to be humbled & to take responsibility for my actions. A full awareness that the meat on my plate was once an inquisitive, social, living, breathing animal will stop me eating meat too often. I'll only be doing this when I need to.

I recently bought a timely copy of Simon Fairlies new book, "Meat- a benign extravagance". It is full of facts, figures, respected peoples assessments of the meat issue & all the things that are missing from this blog post. The science I suppose. It did settle me that there was someone out there, way cleverer than me, that was thinking on the same lines that I am. 


Buy Simons book here: http://www.green-shopping.co.uk/meat-a-benign-extravagance.html
To get a good idea about the content of Simons book, read this article he wrote for Permaculture Magazine: http://www.permaculture-magazine.co.uk/articles/articles_65.html



Taking the three lambs to slaughter

For the past 2 weeks I've been feeding the lambs twice daily in a pen we had set up as a trap. We couldn't herd these wild hebridean sheep! A mixture of our inexperience & their suspicion of all things human.  The night before I was taking them to the abattoir we sprung the trap. 

I kept them in the pen over night where they could go in and out of the trailer. I gave them willow forage & a bucket of fresh rainwater. I felt sick, heavy & very emotional. However, I wanted to look at them, to see their personalities, the quirky nature of their faces, the different way their fleeces hung. I wanted to face them I suppose, look them in the eye. Looking away felt like cowardice.  I let them be for the night.

After a very difficult evening I woke up feeling strangely calm & centred. I wasn't doing this mindlessly, I wasn't doing this as a point of principle. I was doing this because I had reasoned over many years that this was the most sustainable I could be, here on Exmoor, here in the UK.

When I went to check on the sheep they were all sleeping in the trailer. I let out a sob. No. I was NOT going to indulge my emotions now. I owed it to these three sheep to be as calm as possible. I again spent time with them. I took in their personalities, sheep do have them you know, Fattie, 2 Horn & Runty (its impossible not to tag animals with a name, no matter how hard I tried). Runty was the most inquisitive, the most easily confused by the world, Fattie just wanted food & 2 Horn was pushy to be first all the time.

Some of you will think I'm daft but I also meditated while I was stood with them. I recited the Avalokiteshvara mantra, Buddha of compassion, "Om Mani Padme Hum". I created a warm, light, loving space in my mind & held them there. It was all very calm. One of the sheep sniffed my hand. It was the calmest, closest we had ever been around each other. Tears fell freely. Tears are falling freely now. I seriously questioned what I was doing. I nearly didn't go.


The Abattoir

We arrived at the abattoir 20 minutes after loading the sheep. Well, they loaded themselves actually. I admit that I felt sick, my entire body shook & I was finding it hard to focus my eyes. I took a moment to compose myself & went into the office.

A lovely scottish woman greeted me & said "Oh, you caught them then?! Martin, this is the lady that couldn't catch her sheep last week!" Yes, I had been booked to take the sheep to the abattoir the week before but didn't manage to catch them! I'll admit, I probably could've tried a bit harder...

Again, I felt calm & centred. I was here now, it was happening. I stopped worrying for myself & stepped up to face the reality of eating meat.

In the office we sorted out the forms. They were a bit surprised when I asked if I could see the sheep being dispatched (killed).  "Oh my god! you're the first person to ask us that"! They wouldn't let me though, saying that when they allowed a burly, new farmer in to see, he fainted. They did agree to let me go in to the leirage, the pens that they wait in before going into the dispatching pen.

While I waited with the sheep in the leirage, (they were totally relaxed by the way), I chatted to the abattoir owner. An organic farmer called Martin. He told me about his disgust for large scale animal farming, about how he invested a lot of money in upgrading his abattoir a few years ago but that at least 4 others in North Devon had closed as they couldn't afford to upgrade. He connected the pieces for me by pointing out that if all the small abattoirs close there wont be anywhere for small scale farmers/self sufficiency farmers to bring their animals. The supermarkets, he pointed out, were mostly to blame. This small family run abattoir has the same charges as the industrial, supermarket funded abattoirs.

As all this chatting was going on there was no noise at all from the dispatching room. No gruesome sounds of death & no bad smells.  All my worries about welfare were appeased.  A vet came through to check all the sheep were ok.  

Finally the sheep went through. I left.


Collecting & preparing the Skins

So, as I want to make the most out of all parts of the sheep I asked to have the skins returned to me. They told me to bring some bin bags. I had to buy the bin bags from the local shop.  As I paid for them the lady behind the counter was chatting about the weather & all I could think about was that I was buying bin bags to collect the skin of the lambs I had killed yesterday. I felt dirty somehow. If she knew, what would she say? I had to stop myself from telling her. You all know how much I love to share.. 

I got home with three bin bags, each containing a lamb skin. It took me a while before I could take out the first one. I had no idea what to expect. I unrolled it, fleece down, on to the table. The skin still had the ears & tail attached. I knew this was 2 Horn as soon as I saw the fleece. I broke down. It was just too much. What the fuck had I done? I'd taken the life of this sheep. Who the hell did I think I was?

This was truly facing up to eating meat.

I steadied myself & cut off the tail, ears, bloody bit where the neck would have been & the bit of the sheep where the leg joins the belly, as it had lumps of fat on. I also cut off the tuft of fleece from the top of her head. Carefully I covered the skin with salt. 

Next was Fattie. I knew what to expect & so I just got on with the job. I decided to let my mind remember Fattie the sheep. To see how I reacted. I was sad but ok. Whatever that means.

Finally I took out Runty's skin. It was sodden in blood stained water. Just horrible. Absolutely horrible. The others hadn't been like that, I don't really know how I'm going to dry it. I went through the process of trimming her, like I had the others. Much quicker this time.  It's amazing how the human mind adapts & gets on with processes that would otherwise horrify them.


Conclusions

Well, next week I collect the sheep in little packages of cuts that probably wont make me react emotively. I've been conditioned to see my food packaged in this way, without associating it with the animal.

Killing these three sheep for food has taught me infinite things. One big thing is that I will not be selling animals for meat. However, I will be feeding myself, my friends & my family with sheep that I can't breed from or sell. These sheep will only be killed in the cold months. I wont be eating any other meat other than meat I have taken through the process myself.


It makes me uncomfortable that we will allow someone to take the life of an animal, on our behalf, when we don't need to. That we have allowed ourselves to have the messy, painful, difficult part of the process to be done behind closed doors, with only the shiny packet of chops on show. I don't expect everyone to do what I have but I do expect everyone, you & me, to show respect to the animal that was killed to make your burger. Be mindful.

Whether we eat meat, are vegan, vegetarian or fruitarian.. it's intention that's important. I will never expect others to agree with me & this time next year I may have changed my mind completely. My intention is to do the least harm to the most things as possible. That is my intention. That is all I'm working towards.  The Worlds quite complicated though, so it takes time to understand. Hopefully one day I will.

I never want to lose that awareness, of the life taken to sustain my life. 



hen xx

29 comments:

  1. I think it's perfectly natural for animals to take what they require from nature to survive... I think it's highly commendable that you took the time to do what you did the way you did it. You honored those animals.

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  2. Thank you for sharing what has clearly been an emotive time. I don't know if I could have done it. But, like you, I would want to see it through every moment. Animals killed for food deserve that respect from us as we convert there lives into fuel for our own.
    (It made me cry too.)

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  3. Hen, even for us carnivores this is a difficult and emotive process, and I do this regularly and DO sell my meat. But I think it's right to confront head on the consequences of our decisions and actions and a large part of me doesn't want anyone to eat chicken (or whatever) without being prepared to slaughter one, once, for themselves, or at least to stand by and watch it done with eyes and heart open, taking in the reality. And then, of course, really enjoying the meat, feasting and relishing a well looked after animal, raised to be meat, being thankful that we have these options. And never buying intensively reared anything again, no matter how cheaply bought.
    I wrote about my experience of seeing life to death at the abattoir here

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  4. Hen, I follow you on twitter (gwenoldy) and have not read your blog before. This should be required reading. It is such a challenge to decide how to eat and to balance the environmental, ethical and economic concerns. I try to grow as much as possible. I have never been a vegetarian but I object passionately to factory farming of animals and your blog is the expression of the idea of honouring an animal you are prepared to eat. I am focussing on local food as much as possible (buy olive oil though!), supporting my local butcher who uses a local abattoir like the one you describe. Am I doing well enough? No.

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  5. Hello I am mermaid_muse on Twitter...
    I was with you every step reading this beautifully honest and well composed and moving post..
    What struck me is how conscious you were of what you were doing all the way through, the deep questioning and the responsibility and integrity of your actions shines through ..
    Think how many animals never experience that every single day on this planet.
    You gave those wee sheep a gift, you truly did, you honoured and respected them in life and death.
    To me that is what counts . to be grateful and you have shown your gratitude to them also..
    I don't eat much meat but when I do, I eat it with true awareness and I look for someone like you in terms of what I can buy when it comes to milk and eggs..
    we are being forced to eat food that does not resonate with life ..as they diminish the life force in nature, in crops, in all that we eat.. its people like you that are needed more and more.
    Reading this after being so upset about the great stag being shot today, made me think about the vast difference between that kill and what my ancestors ( crofters ) would have done to survive the winter at this time of year .. They would have been like you fully conscious respectful and using all of the animal.
    I send you many blessing in light and love to your family and home and animals..may you have abundance in al you do
    I also love your baskets by the way :)

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  6. Hen, you are eloquent, even about the hard stuff. Do you mind if I share this post? It was brilliant.

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  7. I don't have enough laptop battery left to reply the way I want to tonight, I will be back tomorrow.

    I am deeply moved by your comments, in fact you've brought me to tears. In a good way :)

    Thank you for caring.

    All my love,
    hen
    x

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  8. of course you can Sarah :)

    Long time no gibber by the way, hope you're all well and happy! Was on your blog the other day, blimey them kids of yours have GROWN! Beautiful little beans!

    xxx

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  9. Hen, I for one am so grateful that you have taken the time to write this blog. You know, if we had something just like this as part of the national curriculum, it would give young adults a better knowledge of how to respect the very means of human survival. Lessons in respect go a very long way towards teaching us the principles of respect for each other (another life-form).
    One only has to watch a recording of the awful ways in which some livestock is treated, to know that you gave your lambs a gift, a good life. They are giving you a gift in return for being the kind soul that you are. And that gift is your life, so that you can continue to be and give your gift of a good life again to future lambs. That my dear Hen is far, far better than anything the larger food chains can give. :)

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  10. Great post Hen.

    Modern people in modern worlds are so detached from this that they fail to see the downside of the industrial process they're supporting (well, they don't fail to see it, they usually don't realise there is one, it's that well hidden).

    It's lovely to hear about people who care and make thoughtful choices. What an incredible journey. Thanks for sharing it!

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  11. Amazing post; I'll be sharing a link to this far & wide.

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  12. I think we get to eat meat, just as a tiger does. I'm backed up in this by knowing a boy with an enzyme deficiency who can't actually digest fructose, so has to live almost exclusively on protein. But unlike a tiger we are capable of making choices, showing restraint and respect, and caring for the animals we eat, and for the environment which nurtures us all. I am delighted to read such a thoughtful honest post about the question. Thank you hen

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  13. we all often choose to be blinkered from the realitiy of where our foods come from and here you are facing it head on. i appreciate just how much of a difficult decision this was for you and i find the honesty in your post inspiring. i agree with your commentor that this awareness would be beneficial in the school curriculum, as it represents real life choices and responsibility. you have a connection with your food and when you eat the meat you can once again give thanks and celebrate the animals who have provided it. i know that if there was another way for you to feed and nourish yourself in winter then you would not have done it and in that light it is apparent that this was a massive step for you. i applaud you for your bravery idealism and honesty hen x

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  14. WOW... that was quite an emotional post.

    I was vegetarian for over half of my life and although now I am a carnivore again I still battle immensely with the ethics of eating animals but firmly believe that if I am to eat meat then it should have had the best life possible.

    Your sheep had the best life possible and you were responsible for that, you also spent time making sure they were happy and settled even at the very end and that is much more than I can say about most animals.

    I admire your bravery and your strength to face your ideals and worries head-on.

    Life is all about, birth, life and death and ALL should be experienced for without one of the three elements of life you have no balance.

    BIG love, SkyBlue1971 (Twitter follower)

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  15. Hen, (gwynsmummy on twitter) I'm utterly moved and speechless at the courage and dignity you've shown in this blog. I have to admit that I've not read your blog before, but I will be reading it again.

    I decided, for the same reason as you, that I would stop eating meat a few months ago, as I have been racked with guilt over it all my life. I took the decision after a not massive amount of time that I would start eating meat agoin, because, I realised that I couldn't stop these animals being killed, so the least I could do was to honour and respect them that have been killed.

    I could simply never have done what you did and I wholeheartedly applaud and what you stand for. I simply couldn't, and there's not much in life that I say that about.

    Bethan xxx

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  16. The distinction between non-human animals and humans is one of those things that keeps changing. At one time it was held that animals had no power of thought, they merely reacted on instinct - but then problem solving behaviour was observed. Then it was that humans were the only animals to use tools - but then the use of tools was observed. Of course animals couldn't develop culture and they certainly weren't capable of self recognition were they - yes they can recognise themselves and they do form cultures.

    With this in mind I'm loathe to suggest that animals can make moral choices. While I think it unlikely, I have no way of knowing and to claim that they could would be like invoking Russell's Teapot. However, regardless of their ability to make moral choices there are animals that have to kill other animals to survive.

    Maybe we are the only species that thinks about our intentions in killing another animal, or which can be mindful during the process - and maybe this is our curse. Functionally we have clearly evolved from an omnivore ancestry, we have both plant grinding teeth and meat piercing and cutting teeth so our challenge is not in the morality of our killing another animal for food, but in the way and extent to which we do it.

    I think you might have watched the Cree Hunters of Mistassini (spelling?) video that Nick tweeted about. Their very existence was based on seasonal food sources and they were careful not to take too much. But they also showed great respect for the animals that they killed, both before and after killing them. There are other species that are obligate carnivores that show none of this respect - everyone loves whales don't they ... don't they? I have seen footage of a pod of orcas hounding another whale (can't remember the species) and her calf - the mother was only able to protect the calf while it could stay close to her, but eventually after many hours the calf tired and was isolated by the orcas ... they ate only its lower jaw.

    If our species is cursed with anything (and it's not really a curse!) it is not that we can choose ethical actions but that we can have compassion for others, whether they be of the same species or not. You could teach those lovable orcas a thing or two!

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  17. And, I totally agree with Simon. Well said, well put indeed.

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  18. Hen, this post has been one of the most amazing reads I've encountered in a blog. For me being a vegetarian is probably the easy option whereas you have taken the route of considered meat eater. This takes an incredible amount of compassion, understanding and respect for life and I feel honoured that you have chosen to share the journey so openly with us. You have reasoned your decision through compassion and wisdom and your writing delivers the essence of your conscious thought. I could never have done what you have however I respect you greatly for it.
    The process you describe reminds me of the way in which Inuit Indians believed that animals have a soul and therefore it was vital to offer respect and supplication and to kill animals only at specific times of the year. They had an ethical awareness of their enviornment and place within it and I believe that your passionate post has demonstrated your own understanding and 'oneness'.
    Thank you x

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  19. I'm so grateful to you all for your amazing comments. I've been drinking them all in & I'm afraid I've become a bit overwhelmed by it all.

    There's so much to say & discuss about this but I need a day or so to settle my mind a little & then I can respond to you all properly.

    I can't thank you enough for sharing your thoughts here.

    Offered with all my love,
    hen
    x

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  20. i was wandering around the web for info on peg weaving and found you. sharing the story of your decision to eat meat and subsequent dispatching of your lambs was so courageous. it made me weep. I love your site and so admire the commitment you've made to sustainable farming is wonderful.
    I'm going to be a regular reader of your blog.
    Sincerely,
    Mayree Lowman
    Sequim, Washington USA

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  21. Hen

    Please don't beat yourself up over this. As a Buddhist, you must realise that all of ones actions result in further actions. And as long as your actions are accomplished with awareness, and an open heart, you will never stray far from the dharma.

    Remember too that even the Buddha ate pigs meat from time to time. A good rule of thumb if eating meat, is only to eat meat from an animal of lesser consciousness, that is from sheep or hens.

    All that is born will die, enjoy the meat

    Love John x

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  22. Well done on your thoughtful post, your thoughtful care & attention to your sheep, and to your actions & beliefs. It did bring tears to my eyes.
    I think the lambs will nourish you the way you nourished them- with compassion.

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  23. Wow! I would love to think that I would do the same thing in your position Hen. I am in awe of what you have done and hope that you have educated and made people think before they eat!
    I do hope you can enjoy the meat and feel proud of your actions, we are proud!
    Emx

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  24. Beautiful emotional post hen, very well written. You're very strong, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

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  25. Oh Hen, I've just read this - with difficulty. I think you are brave with great integrity and the courage of your convictions. Its the nearest I will ever come to doing what you did and I greatly admire you for it. And given that we are carnivorous predators it would be so commendable if we all took responsibility like you and only took what we needed. Unfortunately progress tells a different story - and I am reminded we are not the only wasteful predator -
    I've rambled enough - with great respect
    Jill x (@bloominggardens)

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  26. Hen - I sat a week long silent Vipassana retreat last year and on the last sit of the last day had a vision that changed forever how I feel about eating meat. I was a vegetarian for many years and eat meat now but rarely. My vision was of looking a pig in the eyes, seeing it's pig-self, the sacred, the universal in it, then slitting it's throat with respect, without regret. I believe deeply now that our seeing an animal in all its glory elevates its life somehow, gives it an additional level of meaning, and helps it on to a more beneficial rebirth. I've just discovered your blog and what a post to read for the first one! I second all the comments above and thank you for sharing your deep experience.

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  27. Hi Hen. This is a sad but beautiful post. I'm really impressed that you had the strength to go through with this process. I wish everyone could take this kind of responsibility for the food they eat. Thank you for sharing your experience! This is an enchanting blog. Best of luck x

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  28. Hen,

    (Twitter follower DesignDarlingUK)

    I've been a vegetarian for all of my life and I deeply loved your response to those lambs. I keep two ewes purely as lawnmowers (and three ducks, a rabbit and two dogs! Me and my partner are hatching ourselves a baby (black runner) in Spring!). I wish more carnivores were like this. No-one respects what the eat anymore. I know many people that can't touch raw meat but eat it cooked without a second thought.
    What's struck me here is how you've brought up question on my own ethics, I'm vegetarian, and attempted vegan, but I still wear leather (I'm sat in a leather chair, second hand) I buy from my local supermarkets as it's what I afford... Thank you for making me re-evaluate myself.
    You're a beautiful person. I really love what you did and long may you continue,
    River x

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