Tender truth about my sheep

After the past fortnight of heavy-duty TV food terrorism, even more of us will worry about where our

According to the philosopher of the animal liberation movement Peter Singer, and many a blogger on the Channel 4 Big Food Fight message board, eating meat is wrong and that's all there is to it. It is, Singer argues, the exaltation of one species over all others, which no egalitarian should tolerate.

Less philosophical vegetarians point out that rearing animals for meat distorts land use, pollutes watercourses and is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, not least because of the heavy use of chemical fertilisers to grow grain to feed them with. I have been thinking about all this, not because of the assault of the Channel 4 celebrity chefs and a supporting cast of hundreds of fluffy yellow chicks, but because this week I took my lambs to the abattoir.

A few years ago, we decided to use our bit of hillside, good for little else, to graze sheep. The first year there were two lambs. But, in the way of things, the numbers have mounted until we reached saturation. Time to start the harvest.

I told my sceptical daughters that if we weren't prepared to rear animals and oversee their slaughter ourselves, it was unacceptable to eat meat at all. We were growing food in as natural and stress-free an environment as we could create. If that was unpalatable, we would have to become vegetarians. You cannot shrug off the history of the meal on your plate any more than you would, if you were the diamond-buying type, support warlords by buying conflict diamonds.

In the final 24 hours of the lambs' lives last weekend, this seemed an absurdly ascetic doctrine. I found myself pacing around in the middle of the night reciting the animal liberationists' arguments.

Yet I also contemplated the nature of sheep, and their unreasoning hostility to my attempts to make their lives safer or more comfortable (although one with an infected foot showed some learning skills as she became adept at dodging my kind of judo trick for tipping her up for treatment). To me, they betray no perceptible understanding of selfhood. The one lamb we bottle-fed appeared to recognise his brother and sister when they were reunited, and briefly showed a preference for their company, though earlier he had definitely thought he was a dog.

On the other hand, sheep are plainly aware of the frailty of their existence. The timidity of creatures that have been nature's victims for millennia is not overcome even by lust. Only greed incites them to take a risk. (Where do predators come in the Singer scale of equality?) Of course it is true that no one has bred sheep to be, say, responsive to people, like dogs, or selected them for their wit. All they have been designed for is to live frugally and to breed easily. And to taste good.

Sitting at my laptop in the dark small hours while a fierce southwesterly threw the rain at my window, I found these arguments perhaps more comfortable than they seemed in the morning, confronted by the pale face and emotionless eyes of the slaughterman, head to toe in white, a single splatter of crimson blood worn across his shoulder, like a military decoration.

Meanwhile, Hugh and Jamie and Gordon have been rousing us all to the real cost of food production. Ethically produced food, they remind us, is expensive (as I spend £15 a week on sheep nuts, I didn't need telling). Local food can be both more expensive and less green than imported food. A whole lamb from New Zealand probably costs less to produce and ship than a single cutlet from my small flock. Even a perfectly formed organic cut of Welsh spring lamb would sell for less than it cost me to produce my undersized (but oh, how sweet and how tender) bit of home-grown shoulder.

Weirdly, the government, which has a controlling say in all of this, is happy to demand standards here that it cannot or will not impose on imported food. So British farmers are outpriced by foreign competition. Already, more than two-thirds of imported pork is reared in conditions that are unlawful here. Soon battery cages will be banned and chicken and egg production will be outsourced, too.

After the past fortnight of heavy-duty TV food terrorism, even more of us will worry about where our next meal is coming from, and how it's getting here, and how we're going to pay for it. Perhaps the answer is, like sheep, to be frugal. Eat less meat. Or none at all.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism