As a young American woman spending a weekend in the Welsh countryside and drinking earl grey with men and women who, in their wool sweaters and Wellies, look like they had stepped out of the pages of Town and Country, I felt like I was in the middle of an authentic British experience. Except that the woman sitting across the table was waving a heavy, steely cold stun gun. “Being hit with this is like being hit on the head with a hammer very, very hard,” she said.
The woman with the gun was Ruth Tudor, a farmer, therapist, and creator of Trealy Farm’s Meat Course, and she was explaining to the six of us course attendees the process of a humane animal slaughter. The gun was passed around and my hand wobbled under its weight. Luckily for everyone involved, I would not be doing the killing that evening. In fact, I had not eaten or cooked meat in seven years, had never killed an animal, nor seen one killed. Yet here I was about to watch the slaughtering of a lamb.
What sparked my motivation to learn more about humane practices of raising animals for food? As a student at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, I had visited many farms in Europe (some civilized, some not), and fully supported educated consumerism, especially when it came to eating meat.
Our class ate together often, and my food choices had never been so under a microscope as they were during my studies. In my diverse class of 27, I was the sole vegetarian. Though my classmates were accepting of my alternative choice, they were also curious; so were the farmers and producers who wanted to feed me mutton and goose salami.
“Why don’t you eat meat?” They would ask me.
“So you can eat more!” I learned to say in Italian.
But, in many ways, I started to feel like my decision was a copout. I realised that I was unsatisfactorily able to describe the motivation behind my choice. In theory, I don’t think that it is wrong to eat meat. But I strongly identified with being a vegetarian, and had too many questions about the way I would feel – both psychologically and physically – if I abandoned my post.
I attended Trealy Farm’s Meat Course to see if, in the best scenario where animals are raised and killed compassionately and humanely, I could again eat meat with certainty and gusto; or, to gain more insight into the reasons why I couldn’t. After talking with Ruth about my concerns, she enthusiastically welcomed me to stay the weekend in Monmouthshire.
One of the first things we did was to observe the goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs – all native breeds – that lived on the farm. We were encouraged to look at how they walked, looked at us and each other, stood alone or together, slept, drank, ate, and blinked. In sustainable animal rearing, details are everything. Ruth explained how meticulous observation was imperative for her to know when an animal was ill, excited, or otherwise.
Next, we climbed into the pens (where the animals were temporarily being held for our class; they are usually outside roaming the hills), and physically interacted with the animals by touching and holding them. I stood, wide-eyed, as Ruth encouraged us to grab a lamb, hold it between our legs, and flip it over onto its back (a comfortable position for the animal). After a few failed attempts, I was kneeling in the muddy hay with a soft, black lamb in my arms.
This weekend, a 5-month-old, male, Welsh Mountain lamb was to be slaughtered in order for our group to learn about a humane death, and to progress to the next steps of butchery and production. The job of slaughtering animals has grown to be seen as shameful, dirty, and unspeakable in modern food production. For these reasons working in a slaughter house is a job that few people want and, because of the commonly used dangerous and unsympathetic methods used to kill animals, for good reason.
At Trealy, slaughtering animals couldn’t be dealt with more differently. Our group was shown to a holding pen with two lambs stood inside – one to be slaughtered and one charged with keeping it company so that it felt not distress and didn’t release the hormone cortisol, which would make its meat less safe and tasty to eat. I was mentally preparing myself for what was about to take place when I heard the precise thud of the stun gun. I didn’t have time to blink before Ruth ran her knife across the lamb’s neck, severing the main blood vessels. Bright red blood squirted onto the clean cement, and I couldn’t help but be surprised at how much it looked like paint; it was collected in a large stainless steel bowl, and Ruth’s husband, James, immediately began to stir it, preventing coagulation so that it could be used to make black pudding.
The lamb continued to move – a normal occurrence – as Ruth pulled back its head, snapping its neck. She was adamant about ensuring that the animal was dead before the next steps of skinning and removing the innards. Ruth was fairly new at slaughtering, and she went about the job with reverence and with a bit of self-consciousness.
When it sunk in what had just happened, my eyes filled up with tears but I didn’t cry. I took in the light, the land, and the respectful silence. The moment immediately following death was palpable. I believe that the physical environment had a lot to do with the calm I felt; the lamb died where it lived, outside in the crisp air, protected by the hills of clover and doting valleys. For this reason, life and death blended together quite seamlessly.
Ruth and James worked quickly and expertly. They laid the headless lamb on its back, like a huge stuffed animal, in what looked like a cradle. Ruth invited us to help in the skinning process, and two volunteered, blood quickly and lightly staining their bare hands. They worked under encouraging supervision and instructions, eventually hanging the sheep by its hind legs on a shiny metal chain so that the blood could drain and the innards be removed. Ruth ran her knife from the neck to the hole of the sheep, and its stomach tumbled out with such force that I jumped back and let out a yell.
One of my course mates, a well-read caterer, looked at me inquisitively. “Are you vegetarian?” she asked.
“I don’t eat meat,” I said for the first time that weekend, as six pairs of eyes stared at me, and Ruth smiled.
We discussed the slaughter over dinner that night. I had to ask the question I most wanted to know: what do we gain, besides pleasures of the palate, by killing an animal? Ruth suggested something that I never considered:
“Animals help us to realise our humanness,” she said.
The relationship Ruth and James have with their animals and the land they live on is very symbiotic. Understanding how everything and everyone works together shines a spotlight on how industrial farming is leaving out key elements of life. If you take the time to understand the animals you eat, you may be able to consume with less guilt and more pride in the craftsmanship and intelligence it takes to bring this food to your plate. You might even learn something new about yourself.
I spent the last few hours of the weekend with my hands in a stainless steel bowl of ground pork, mixing it, and stuffing it into intestines to produce spicy chorizo. I noted the pride I felt as I looked down at the twisted links; I knew exactly what I was going to do with them.
In the office on Monday, after describing my weekend at Trealy Farm, I distributed small portions of the chorizo to my three colleagues. They were genuinely appreciative, and later shared with me how special eating the meat was for them having known the story behind it.
Even with this new awareness, I did not want to eat the sausage, nor any other meat. As much as I would like to be able to explain my choice in one sentence, I cannot. It’s a deeply personal and complex choice, influenced by past experiences and highlighted by a visceral feeling. If I would have taken this course seven years ago, before I made the choice to stop eating meat, perhaps I would have ended up a different kind of eater. Now armed with the information, I will tuck it away for a time when I might want or need to use it.
Trealy Farms offers four distinct meat courses, including a children’s course, ranging in price from £50 to £270 pounds. Get more information by visiting www.meatcourse.co.uk or email Ruth Tudor at email@example.com.
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