For years I've wanted to find out more about animal slaughter and have an opportunity to be more involved in the process. That might sound really sinister, but I feel that if I'm going to eat the meat, I should be willing to get my hands dirty and be prepared to do some of the work. I know that's not true for everyone, but it's how I've felt for a while.
When I came WWOOFing, I didn't think that was something I was going to get the chance to be part of (especially given that I'm only hear for a week). But chance has it that my visit to Park Mill Farm coincided with two pigs being booked in at the abattoir, and d-day for one of the cockerels.
Caution - the rest of the post goes into more detail about the animal slaughter - don't say I didn't warn you.
When I arrived on Sunday evening, my hosts Lara and Oli told me that two of their pigs were booked in at the abattoir early the next morning. They told me I didn't have to go (a bit of a leap in at the wwoofing deep end) but I was keen to go. Early the next morning we loaded the pigs (affectionately named "the escapees" due to their ability to get through even the most comprehensive electric fencing) into the trailer and drove them about half an hour to the abattoir. The one we went to is a small local abattoir (slaughtering only 80 animals a day). Lara told me she'd been to visit a couple when they started keeping pigs, and was really impressed with this one as it's so small and independent - it also happens that it's the most local to the farm, minimising the transportation required.
I was impressed by the abattoir (well, as impressed as you can be) - the person who runs it was out in the yard to greet us, and you could see he cared about the animals by his manner with them. It was really fast to unload them and they are slaughtered immediately after being unloaded. The animals weren't in any distress when they arrived or were unloaded, and the whole process was very quick. Unfortunately this kind of small local abattoir is getting increasingly rare, as most are now large operations that deal in huge numbers of animals daily, and likely involve significantly more distress and less care for the animals involved.
The pigs are then collected by a local butcher, and tomorrow we go early in the morning to collect it from him. From there, some is packaged up for the orders which are collected either tomorrow or the next, and the remainder is frozen for future orders.
I've sampled some of the meat, and it's fantastic (Good Housekeeping Award winning!) - the pigs are truly free range (the Christmas pigs are currently roaming round a couple of acres of land including an orchard) and people say they can taste the apples in the meat!
Looking after the pigs and piglets on the farm this week, it has made me realise what a big deal it is to kill and animal and eat it. But it hasn't changed the fact that I don't think there's anything wrong with it, as long as it's done well and the animals are well cared for. The animals here are loved, and every step of their life from birth to death is thought through to ensure they are cared for as well as possible. It has made more sure that I want to limit the meat I eat to free range meat from smaller producers - I can't imagine large farms take the effort to collect crates of windfall apples from an orchard, lug them across the farm, and then feed them to a couple of the pigs just because they love them...
Every morning on the farm I've been woken up by the cockerels. This year, Lara and Oli decided they wanted some more egg laying hens, and so incubated and hatched some of the eggs. However, unluckily, 9 of the hatchlings were cockerels. They kept them and raised them, but it's costly to feed them and so they've been slowly eating them over the months. When I arrived, there were 5, and feeding and letting them in/out of their house has been one of my jobs this week.
It was decided that we'd have a roast chicken this week, and so yesterday was the chosen day to do the deed. I went with Oli and Lara as they caught one of the cockerels (they are completely calm and stay still if you hold them in the right way). I stayed to watch it be killed - the kindest and quickest way is to break its neck, and so it was laid on the ground, a bar put across its neck, then by putting a foot either side of its neck and pulling upwards and forwards, it is killed instantly.
For me, the actual death was not distressing, but I was surprised by how long it carried on twitching for (the chicken is very much dead at this point - it's just the nerves twitching). We then took the bird to the shed and hung it up by its feet so we could pluck it (much easier when it's warm). I was really shocked by how tricky this was - there's a lot of different types of feathers on a chicken, and some are very hard or awkward to pluck (when this is done at factory farming scale, they dip the birds in wax and rip it off to pluck them). The bird was then left overnight for the blood to drain into its neck.
Back we went today. Here comes the gruesome bit. First we beheaded the chicken (complete with congealed blood). There are tendons running through the legs of the chicken, and so to remove them, you have to cut around the foot joint and pull. The tendons pull out of the legs and you're left with two feet with dangling tendons, and one chicken with no leg tendons. This sounds simple, but really isn't and is stupidly hard work. At one point I was pretty much dangling off the chicken foot and they were still holding on. However, this was eventually done and we got onto the gutting. I won't go into all the detail, but it was trickier than I thought - both in terms of the steps in the process, but also in terms of logistics - I have large hands and the neck and pelvis are small! However, it was really interesting too, especially to see how different a naturally raised chicken is to a supermarket one (much scrawnier in terms of muscle, but with much more fat!).
I didn't find the process upsetting at all really. If you're going to raise egg laying chickens, cockerels are going to be born, and I'd far rather they have a good life then be killed, than killed as chicks (which is what happens in the factory farming industry). The death was done efficiently and quickly, and I found the process afterwards really fascinating, but much more time consuming than I thought it'd be. One thing's to be sure, I'll never complain about paying what I used to think was a lot of money for a free range chicken...