There are those who argue that anyone who is willing to eat meat should also be willing to kill it themselves, and I can certainly understand the logic of that statement. There is a huge degree of pretence in much of the food that is consumed today.
The supermarkets are filled with pre-prepared and packaged meat, to which everything possible has been done to try and disguise the fact that it originated from a living creature. But despite that, I’m quite sure that most carnivores, in the right situation, would kill rather than starve. They would just prefer not to. And I don’t blame them.
Killing an animal is not an enjoyable experience, and anyone who does enjoy it should probably not be allowed near animals in the first place. Nor is it something that should be taken lightly.
I suppose the closer an animal is, in biological terms, to humans, the more difficult it must become to harm it. Swatting a bluebottle or squashing an ant wouldn’t trouble too many people’s consciences; killing a fish to eat would also pose little difficulty for most. But as you climb the evolutionary ladder, it gets more complicated.
Croft lambs from Fair Isle are sent to mainland Shetland to be sold. From there, most will be shipped to Scotland and sent to abattoirs there. The hill lambs however, stay on the isle, and are killed and eaten by the crofters themselves.
To have a freezer full of meat that you can guarantee has had a good life, and that will also taste fantastic, is a huge privilege, and is one of the greatest benefits of crofting. Indeed, it is this self-sufficiency which is meant to be at the heart of the crofting lifestyle. It is unfortunate I suppose, that sheep don’t get themselves ready to be eaten, and that we have to intervene, but that’s just the way it is.
From the field to the freezer is a process of a few days for a lamb. Once dead, it is skinned, gutted and hung for about three days before being cut up, ready to eat or to freeze. The job of getting it ready becomes gradually less unpleasant from beginning to end.
Butchering is pretty easy. By that stage the lamb has become meat, and it is simply a case of learning how to turn a whole carcass into roasts, chops, steaks and stew. Skinning and gutting are not nice jobs. They are messy, time-consuming and not for the weak-stomached. But it is the first part – the killing – which is the difficult bit.
For those who do it as a job, or who have done it every year for many years, I suppose it must become automatic and unquestioned. For me it is neither. And though, in reality, the death itself is quick and painless for the animal, it is a moment that lingers.
In some cultures, taking an animal’s life is an act of great spiritual importance, and many rituals have grown up around it, each marking the event as something significant. In Christianity too, saying grace and giving thanks must serve, in part, as a reminder that this food, this meat, is not to be taken for granted.
For me there is no ritual to be performed, and I would not go so far as to say that it is a spiritual event. But I do recognise something significant in it. And that recognition seems to be enough to satisfy any concerns, and, most importantly, to allow me to enjoy the food that it brings.