Killing animals was entertainment, at a time when cats were still nailed to boards and skinned alive because it was thought the fur would be of better quality. Life was shorter, harder and more violent for more people and if death and cruelty were nearer the surface for humans, why care about the brutes?
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We like to think we have moved on in Britain in two or three centuries – although illegal badger baiting and dog fighting, illegal hare coursing, yet another possible vote on fox hunting and the annual slaughter of pheasants make me wonder how far.
I don’t wonder as much as some animal welfare organisations who point out that the above activities are unpleasant, even horrifying, and unacceptable, but that the welfare of tens of millions of farm animals is more important. Farmers and the meat trade can reply that British animal welfare standards are among the most stringent in the world.
They can also point out that there is less wanton cruelty to animals now, but we remain a carnivorous species. All evidence indicates that people in developing countries eat more meat and dairy products as living standards improve.
But if we eat meat we have to accept that means slaughtering animals. That can be done quickly and efficiently, we may use more humane methods than our predecessors, but blood, guts and smells are still with us. Few of those eating bits of the more than two million chickens we eat daily in the UK would care to see how the birds live or see them slaughtered. No slaughter line is a pretty sight.
Louise Gray, a farmer’s daughter from the south of England with farming relatives in East Lothian who is now a freelance environmental writer, tackled her own conflicted thoughts about meat eating head-on. She took the argument to its logical, if extreme, conclusion, deciding she would only eat meat from animals she had killed.
She describes what happened in The Ethical Carnivore, published a few months ago, noting: “I was… only too aware of the impact factory farming was having on the planet and the need to cut down on meat.”
But she didn’t want to become wholly vegetarian or rely on offers of meat from wild animals or of known provenance from farms. Killing and butchering her own supply seemed logical, although she wondered how that would feel.
Over a year she found out, starting with shooting lessons and a rabbit and eventually stalking and shooting, cleanly, a wild stag. A pig, lamb and bullock were slaughtered too. Slaughterhouses of differing quality were visited. Fish, squirrels, road kill and insects also provided meals.
Quite a journey, which she details unflinchingly.
She accepts that we can’t all start killing our own dinner. Nor does she advocate the hypocrisy of vegetarians and vegans replacing meat in favour of imported tofu, soya spreads and almond milk.
She makes a strong case that animals should have a life worth living, although many beef and sheep farmers in Scotland could argue their animals have that already until the slaughterhouse gate clangs shut on them.
She now eats far less meat and uses fewer animal products and thinks more of us are thinking the same way: “As a society I believe we have hit a philosophical wall in terms of accepting factory farming and we crave connection with the meat we eat.”
That may be true. But, thought-provoking as one woman’s journey is towards enlightenment, the big problem for much of the population is how much they are willing to pay for their meat and in how convenient a form, not how ethically it is produced and slaughtered.