Kids should have to watch their dinner being killed. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

June 10, 2020   8 mins

Katabasis was the Greek term for a descent into the underworld and I had mine that day. The ditch was about eight feet deep — you get a lot of rain on the hills of the Welsh borders — a shadow world of ferns, moss, slime, serpent ivy, slinking water. And at the bottom was an ewe, broken, puppet-sprawled. She needed killing, humanely. I did it myself, rather than wait hours for the vet. I put the 12 bore against the back of her head, pulled the trigger. The blast detached her head. Blood, strangely scarlet and fluorescent, seeped slowly into the water. 

I believed I had distracted the rest of the flock with a bucket of sheep nuts. Not so. In the moment of execution, I realised that curious, they were on the edge of the ditch looking at me. 

They then ran in fear to the far end of the field.

Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to acknowledge reality. I had not exactly been a hard-hearted, inorganic farmer before that moment but, upon clambering out of the ditch, I was obliged to drop my cognitive dissonance, my objectification of sheep. In a kaleidoscopic moment, I saw that the flock was not a monolithic unit but composed of sub-groups based on friendship and family bonds. One old ewe, Sooty, had movingly gathered her daughter and grand-daughter about her. 

The flock did not come near me for weeks. But then sheep have excellent memories, and remember faces — ovine and human — for years. Do they feel pain? They do. I know because I look into their golden eyes as they die. And I have seen a lot of sheep die. 

For the avoidance of doubt, it is certainly the case that farm animals possess the capability of intelligence, and the capacity of emotion. You do not have to take my word for it. Sheep, as well as being one of the most farmed animals on the globe, are one of the most researched. A recent academic study of ‘Intelligence, complexity, and individuality in sheep’ concluded:

“Sheep show competence in many cognitive domains including memory and discrimination capacity. They excel especially in executive function and face perception, performing on par with some primates. These are both high-level abilities based on a number of different neocortical functions, the prefrontal cortex for executive function and the temporal cortex for face perception within and across species.”

Maybe I should file that incident in the Black Mountains as my Damascene moment, rather than my trip into Hellenic underworld. Because of that day, and my sheep’s reaction, I realised that I wanted a relationship of compassionate companionship with my flock. My views have since evolved into principles of meat-rearing that can be briefly stated under these three principles. 

  1. We should eat less meat;
  2. The meat we do eat should be sustainable and organic, and nothing less;
  3. Farm livestock are not Descartian flesh-robots but sentient creatures deserving of a good life and a good death — which should come only near the end of a natural lifespan

Yes, I hold attitudes one would expect from a shrub-drinking hipster outta East London, rather than a 50-something farmer from the West of England, with a wind-worked face, who has raised livestock for 25 years, and whose family have farmed for 800. I even occasionally wear tweed. 

And yes, I have a beef with the intensive end of my industry, with its beak-clipping, tail-docking, permanent ‘in-housing’, zero-grazing, nitrogen-spewing, Frankenstein cattle-making, prophylactic antibiotic-dosing ways. Raising of livestock in this fashion is not farming, because it abjures any sense of husbandry. It is senseless, inhumane Fordian food-production of ‘units’. Also, the produce from such factory systems, be it milk, meat or eggs, is tasteless, in every sense. I do, however, have sympathy for the managers — not farmers — of  these agri-factories. There is little money, and they are desperate. 

But if intensive, industrialised farming gets my goat, I have no sympathy for #MeatFreeMonday, vegetarianism, veganism or variants thereof. I tore my remaining hair out when I read that the London School of Economics and Political Science voted to implement a beef ban across campus — joining Cambridge, Goldsmiths and Portugal’s University of Coimbra. The LSE student activist who proposed the ban, pronounced: “More students than ever are looking to limit their environmental footprint – and cutting out meat, eggs and dairy is the best and easiest way to do that.”

This is literally pig-ignorant. The meat-free/vegan ethical/ecological objections to meat-eating are familiar, and religiously rehearsed :

  • Increasing global population increasingly demands animal protein. The consequence is increased pressure on our natural resources, notably in South America, where the Amazon rainforest is being hacked down to create beef farms and ranches or grow soy for livestock feed. Removing the Amazon’s trees removes carbon sinks and traps, aggravates global warming. 
  • Ruminants are claimed to be the biggest human-induced source of methane.
  • In Britain itself, according to Guardian columnist George Monbiot: Overwhelmingly the reason [for ecological holocaust] is farming: grazing which prevents woods from regenerating and destroys the places where animals and plants might live. The British countryside is ‘sheep-wrecked.’ 

I could go on. 

It is not just university bien pensants who are turning away from meat. A Mintel consumer affairs survey, published in 2018, found that in the previous six months, 28% of the British public had reduced or limited their meat consumption. Almost one in every ten people (9%) now eat no meat or poultry, but this rises to one in five (19%) for those under 25 and one in four (25%) for women in this age group.

Let’s get the steak-knife out, and carve up the vegan-type objections to farmed meat just a little. First, agriculture contributes just 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions, whereas transport contributes (26%) and energy (25%). Ruminants also only recycle carbon recently photosynthesised from the atmosphere by the plants they eat.

Second, 71% of UK farmland is under grass, most of this for sound agronomic and environmental reasons in that it is either too steep, too acid, too stony for crop production, or is to be kept as permanent pasture due to its botanical diversity and benisons for pollinators and small mammals. If this land were not grazed, most of it would not produce food in future. And grassland stores more carbon than trees.

I used to be weary from farming livestock. Now I am wearied by mad-dog political attacks on livestock farming. People can be very cavalier about farmed animals, and to rid the British uplands of sheep and ‘re-wild’ with trees would entail the extinction of native ovine breeds hundreds, sometimes, thousands of years old.

My own personal extinction rebellion is on behalf of the farm breeds, such as the Scottish Dunface that have disappeared off the face of Earth as decidedly as the Dodo. Did they not have worth, those farm animals? Is there a hierarchy of virtue, whereby Wild=Good and Farmed=Bad? On top of this, foresting the uplands would, I suggest, be a rude surprise to the curlews and skylarks and wildlife dependent on these open spaces.

Ultimately, #Meatfree is ludicrously anti-ecological: Woodland that is managed — rather than running ‘wild’ —  by allowing pigs in for pannage (nut gathering) and cattle for browse increases biodiversity. I managed a wood in this way for four years, during which time the tawny owl clutch size increased by 400% and the wood warbler population by 200%, to name just two species.

The vegans’ freedom to politicise farm animals sits ill with our history. We have a debt of honour to our farm animals: it was wool off the sheep’s back that gave Britain its wealth — symbolised to this day by the woolsack on which the Lord High Chancellor sits in the House of Lords. Farm animals are also, as Rudolph Steiner noted, ‘the soul of the landscape’. To shun this aside is to radically transform our landscape for the worse, and turn our back on our history.

Farm animals bring countless other benefits to the wider environment. Their manure is an altogether more environmentally-friendly fertilizer than artificial competitors, just as wool and leather are sustainable and natural, whereas plastic-polluting clothes are not. Many other forms of life depend on them, too; cow dung, just for example, contains up to 250 insect species, and of the 56 British Red Data Book species of beetle associated with dung, 16 live in cattle excrement. These invertebrates are the beginning of a food chain.

On top of this, conservation grazing by livestock prevents grassland turning to shrub, and promotes biodiversity in the sward. With lifestock grazing of downland turf we would see fewer or no utterly beautiful Adonis blue butterflies.

So what is to be done? I propose a Medievalist ethical carnivorism, whereby we can have our meat and eat it. This commences with the understanding that the eating of meat from correct sources is a private good. Pasture fed sheep-meat, for example, is a significant source of protein, omega-3 fats, valuable amounts of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), vitamin B12, selenium and niacin, zinc and phosphorus.

Beyond this, the public good of eating such meat enables livestock breeds to exist, aids the rural economy, benefits biodiversity, manures the land for the growing of crops. If passenger pigeons had been a farmed bird and delicious roasted with thyme, they would still exist.

The consumer, though, has obligations as well as sensuous pleasures and moral satisfactions under Medievalist ethical carnivorism. To appreciate the value of correctly-farmed livestock all school children at the age of 16 should visit an organic mixed farm (livestock and crops, the two must go together), then witness the slaughter of a cow or a pig or a sheep. An animal’s life can only be truly appreciated when its death is witnessed.

Meat is more, so much more, than entrecote or chops wrapped in plastic on a Tesco shelf. Sadly in the UK, the days are gone when we ate an animal, nose to tail. When nothing went to waste. When bones went to soup. When brains went to a ‘rissole’ with breadcrumbs and eggs.

According to the recipe book The Accomplisht Cook, writtenby Robert May in 1680, the traditional ‘Bride’s Pye’, the precursor of today’s tottering towering wedding cake, contained a filling of oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lambstones, sweetbreads, and spices. Sweetbreads are either the thymus  or the pancreas; lambstones are testicles. Bring it back,  the whole eating of the animal, and nothing but — something the French manage. Not a bit of animal should be wasted. Their lives are too valuable for our wastefulness. 

The farmer has grave and great responsibilities. Farmers must go back to the future, to a holistic and considerate view of  farm animals such as existed before the 18th Century when the commodification of livestock, its keeping primarily for meat, began. Henceforth I propose all farm livestock is kept for multiple purposes and killed for its meat only at the end of a working life, which is very near its natural lifespan. (As was the case before Bakewellian ‘improvements’ in the 1700s). Thus sheep for wool and milk (and derivatives), cows for motive power and milk (and derivatives), both as walking muck-spreaders. Yes, let us eat the meat of mature sheep, not lamb. Let us eat mutton.

Inevitably, the dispatch of livestock late in life will decrease the amount of meat entering the market — not wholly a bad thing — and realign consumption with historic levels, when it was not the centre of every meal 24/7 and subsidised by EU and government agency. To partially offset decreased meat supply, we could, in addition to ‘nose to tail’ cookery, add horse to our diet, rather than to the knacker’s incinerator. (As practical research for this piece, I today ate an equine rump steak. Delicious, like strong beef meat.)

The livestock necessary for Medievalist ethical carnivorism are our native breeds, developed for our climate and habitats, able to thrive without shiploads of imported soya or the vet’s constant administrations. Modern ‘commercial’ breeds, usually imported, are constitutionally weaker, commercially more expensive to raise. Bring back the old breeds. Slower to grow, perhaps. Less meat perhaps, but better meat absolutely.

And give them a decent death. Part of the new consideration towards livestock is its death. No more long-distance stressful transport to a fear-reeking abattoir. I propose ‘on-spot slaughtering’ by high velocity rifle, as successfully demanded by animal welfare association Four Paws Switzerland (Vier Pfoten Schweiz). This method is already used in UK for ‘farmed’ deer. It’s more humane, but cattle slaughtered by slaughter in the field also show improved meat quality, with lower lactate (stress induced) values and higher tenderness.

The watchwords of Medievalist ethical carnivorism: quality of meat, quality of livestock life, quality of environment. With this new/old respect we will end the objectification of livestock. Recently, I read the ‘how to’ manual of a 14th century French shepherd, Jean de Brie’, and it contained much lost wisdom. Here is de Brie on the right attitude to ovines:

“First of all, the lambs, young and tender, should be treated kindly and without violence and should not be struck or corrected with switches, sticks or whips nor any other kind of beating that could hurt or bruise them, for they would fall off and become thin and weak. Rather one should lead them gently and kindly by leadership and correction.”

Compare, contrast to the ‘modern’ intensive farming of sheep. Where is the kindness today, where is the love, the respect? It seems to me it’s either back to the future, or no future at all for farmers of livestock. 



John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.