Last December, I became something I never thought I’d be – a registered cattle keeper. Cattle had never been on the agenda of my life, even when my partner, Nathan and I bought 23 acres and started to farm them.
But we had some holes in our organic system – three fields which were too steep to grow vegetables on (our main crop). We’d been taking hay and silage off the land and selling it for a couple of years, but it didn’t make sense to lose that fertility. We wanted pigs but they are too hard on the land with their rooting. Nathan had worked with sheep and really didn’t like them. Then someone suggested getting some Highland cattle. They are hardy and can overwinter outside, while also being small(ish!) and light on the land, minimising compaction. They’re also gorgeous cows whose meat is quite high-end. We thought about it and then bought two heifers and a steer ‘at foot.’
Stewart, the steer at foot, came to us as a calf about six months old. He was furry and gentle, happy to let our young daughter comb him out. He’ll come over to you when called and is calm and good natured. We named him Stewart as a reminder of what he’s destined for – stew. In a couple of years, we’re going to slaughter and eat him.
The thought of it is hard and makes me uncomfortable. We have a small herd, so the cows are particular beings to us, not a mass of numbered animals. But we planned to eat some of the herd when we bought them, so it was always part of the deal. I was a vegetarian for 15 years, but I’ve never had a problem with eating meat. I’ve always felt we’re animals and animals eat other animals, at least if you’re a carnivore. What’s wrong to me, about eating meat, is when you effectively torture an animal for its lifetime and then eat it, as happens in industrialised meat production. It shows a profound lack of respect for what the natural world gives us. I’d stopped eating meat in my twenties, because it was just too hard to source sustainable meat with high animal welfare standards in the US. But as I got deeper into farming, I started eating meat again, because I knew the farmer and often the animal that we ate, and I knew how it had lived.
The poet Ellen Bass, in a poem called What did I love, which is about killing chickens, writes, ‘I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing: looking straight at the terrible one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.’ That ‘terrible one-sided accord’ is the pact we make with domesticated animals. We farm and eat them entirely on our terms, they get little say in the matter. So we owe them a life (and a death) that is decent – one where they can pursue their natural predilections, eat the food they were meant to eat and live the life that they were born to live. That’s our end of the pact.
Eating another living thing is inevitably fraught with moral dilemmas. Eating meat is a barbaric act – a most necessary, essential and fundamental one. Something is always sacrificed, and don’t think you’re off the hook as vegan either. Read Michael Pollan’s brilliant piece for the New Yorker, The Intelligent Plant, on the growing body of evidence that plants may have a kind of sentience – they have senses, some of which are analogues of the five human senses; their roots can identify other roots as part of them or an other; they have what appears to be ‘family’ identification and will share resources in such situations. It’s an extraordinary array of behaviours never previously associated with plants. Pollan didn’t want to even go there – what is there left to eat with a clean conscience?
And that’s the essence of it for me – there is no perfect morality in eating. It isn’t an excuse to dismiss the moral questions that it raises, but rather to invite us all to engage with them. We have to eat, or sacrifice ourselves instead of something else. So how we eat is everything. Nathan warns me to be ready for the bellowing when Stewart goes off to slaughter. He is part of a close family group and his little sister who arrived recently is often near him. The thought of it is terrible and yet, I feel, we’ve held up our end of the pact at least. He’ll have a lovely life on our fields, and though he won’t grow to be old, he’ll enjoy the life he had. We will also do our best to ease the terribleness of his death, though this can never be entirely mitigated for anyone or anything. I think we may even mourn for him. It’s all part of the terrible accord, the truth of our living and dying. I think I feel alright with that.
Featured image by Jungle Meister
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