On eating meat and how it gets to our plates.

I wanted to write a bit about the slaughter and butchery stuff we’ve been doing at this host. I won’t get too graphic as I know plenty of readers are either not wanting to read this stuff because they are already vegan or vegetarian because they are not okay with eating animals or because they are meat eaters who are squeamish about the finer details. Personally I find it fascinating in just the same way as I want to see the tiny seeds that grow into carrots and understand just what happens to them inbetween being in a seed packet and cooked on my plate.

There is the argument that if you eat meat you should be perfectly prepared to kill it yourself. I know that some of my vegan friends feel that as they are not prepared to do that they don’t have the right to eat meat or indeed any animal products. I have a vegan friend who says that in a survival situation she would be prepared to do just that and eat an animal but as she doesn’t need to go to such extreme measures given the availability of alternative foods she’s not up for someone else doing it for her either. I have a lot of respect for that view even if I am as horrified by soya milk and cheezley as my vegan mate is by pork chops and lard!

My personal take on meat is that I really enjoy eating it. I like the taste and the texture and I am not grossed out by the idea of where it came from. I am grossed out by the dreadful conditions some animals are kept in and the way they are treated during their brief lives which are only brought into existance so that we humans can eat them, their children, or the produce we can take from though. I think meat, fish, dairy, eggs etc should be viewed as luxury food items; a true price paid for them and a far greater degree of responsibility taken for that by us, the people who are consuming them. I do have a conscience about how my meat is farmed, my fish is caught, my eggs are laid and my cows are milked. I want to know how it got to my plate, what happened to it on the way there and that if I have it’s blood on my hands I am fully educated on that and able to justify it to myself.

Animal rearing, killing and butchery was high on the list of things we all wanted to learn more about this year. We wanted to know more about our food generally and as big meat and animal produce consumers this was an important part of that. We are all keen to keep animals for produce and meat so we wanted to get educated in how to do that to the standards and ethics we are comfortable with and we wanted to know what process animals go through from birth to plate. So far we’ve not had much experience this year of the birth side of animal rearing but this current host is giving us plenty on the death and oven-ready end of things.

We have helped to select and transport animals for slaughter – sheep, pigs and calves; checking sex and whether they are lactating ewes, learning about the paperwork involved in moving animals about, what happens at the slaughterhouse, been involved in catching, killing and plucking chickens and turkeys here at the farm, helped with mincing meat, mixing sausage meat, soaking and preparing sausage skins, watched pigs and sheep and veal calves cut into joints and enjoyed eating all of the results.

We’ve talked around the topic with Dragon and Star before, after and during each step. I think it’s really important they witness all aspects but I don’t want to traumatise them or create a disturbing or haunting memory for them as a result. Below, in everyone’s own words is how each of us is feeling about what we have seen and done so far.

As a confirmed carnivore I was both keen to witness all of the above but also apprehensive about how it would make me feel. I don’t want to be hardened and uncaring about animals, neither do I want to put myself off food I really enjoy. In recent years I have become passionate about free range chicken and eggs, freedom food certification on meat, pole and line caught fish and other welfare related reassurances, paying more and reducing my consumption and placing a far greater value on the quality of the animals’ lives. I can justify value loo roll and baked beans, not value chicken breasts.

My overwhelming emotion on what we have experienced so far is relief I think. Relief that I am able to deal with the slaughter and butchering and therefore feel I have met my own personal code of conduct of feeling I can look my potential dinner in the eye. Relief that the slaughterhouse didn’t feel to me like some medieval torture chamber with terrified animals being put to their deaths in cruel and inhumane ways by bloodthirsty knife weilding types. Relief that free range poultry really do spend their days happily pecking around a yard behaving just like our rather indulged pet chickens at home until they are snatched from their night time roosts, stunned before they know what is happening and are oven ready in minutes with minimal fuss. Relief that the sausages I have been involved in making are using top quality meat rather than dodgy sweepings off a barn floor somewhere.

It would be really easy to be judgemental about people’s meat and animal produce consumption choices but I’m not going to be. I think everyone has their own personal level of what they can and can’t justify to themselves. For me, my standpoint is that eating meat is an active choice rather than a default and to justify that active choice I need to have certain checkpoints met. Quite apart from learning more about being able to make my consumption of animal produce even more in line with my ideals by doing as much of it ourselves as possible using the skills we are learning here I have been pleased to see that the checkpoints I was looking at theoretically sit well with me know they are more in my face.

I’ve been in slaughterhouses before and I think that working in an environment where your job is killing animals means you get de-sensitised to it (just like a soldier or a nurse) but I feel really passionate that animals should be respected and treated with compassion right to the end. I’ve not learnt or seen anything I had not seen before but it has further fired my desire to work in this sector and do things differently and my own way.

I was expecting animals being slaughtered to be a bit like when our cat was put to sleep and how zoo animals and animals on vet programs on TV are put down, with it being all calm but it wasn’t like that. The animals were herded into a pen and then zapped on the head by a stunner then hung up by their foot on a hang-y thing and lifted up, put into the place where they get killed and their neck gets cut, then they go to the next area where they are cut up for meat.
I didn’t think there would be an actual place to kill chickens and turkeys. We have killed our own chickens by snapping their necks but here they stunned them then slit their necks. I didn’t know you could get all special equipment just for killing chickens and turkeys (stunner, plucker etc.). The plucker is amazing. I knew that birds go from being alive to being dead and plucked really quickly.
I still like to eat meat but I feel much more respectful to it but I am happy about eating meat knowing all the processes it goes through.
I enjoyed doing the work in the butchery room, mincing meat, packing sausages and cuts of meat. I like handling meat, I know it is dead animal flesh and that is okay.

I found the abbatoir fine because I didn’t feel like I had seen an animal being killed as they were stunned before they were killed and I liked that they went from being walking around to being stunned and then were killed before they came round. Watching the chickens and turkeys was fine too. We have chickens at home and I know how much fuss they make just when people walk past them so the squwarking didn’t worry me as I know they make that sort of noise anyway. I didn’t think they were scared before they were killed and it was only a few seconds between being picked up and being stunned. I quite liked the process of getting them killed and then plucked and stuff so quickly.

When we were working in the cutting room with the meat although I knew it was a dead animal I was dealing with it felt like meat or food rather than animal then so I was fine handling the meat. I already knew that meat I eat was a dead animal and I really enjoy eating meat so it hasn’t changed how I feel about being a meat eater.


Story so far…

 We’ve done five weeks of WWOOFing, nearly seven weeks away from the house and totted up over 400 miles so far so we’ve been chatting about how we’re finding it. I think we’ve all hit a wall here and there, had moments of loving it and moments of wanting to click our fingers and make it stop. We’ve all learnt loads and made an excellent start to achieving some of our list of aims and objectives for the adventure.

We have had a pretty diverse mix of host in just the first three – slept in a tent, in Willow and in a cottage. We’ve had time living communally, time left to our own devices and times spent mixing the two. Work has been varied, expectations have been different and we have met the biggest mix of people from the most amazing variety of backgrounds and cultures.

Unexpected advantages have been Ady and I enjoying working together so much, I miss the kids being off doing their own thing so much but I don’t remember the last time Ady and I had so much child-free time together, even if we are technically working. Not having as much time with the children as usual for me has been tough, in our previous life we were together most days, all day, often doing our own thing around the house or garden it’s true but always with time cuddled up together watching half an hour of TV, reading a book, chatting about something or finding out answers to their questions together. I’ve missed that and they tell me they have too, I’m keen to find time to make sure that has been a temporary blip rather than a long term casualty of the year. We are definitely on the way to a fitter and healthier lifestyle – again this past two weeks have been a slight blip but even so we are eating and drinking far less and spending far more time outside, being active. I think regular swims and walks more than made up for the less physical work anyway.

We’ve learnt lots about nature – we’ve seen buzzards, sparrowhawks, otter, deer and various other wildlife, spent time with dogs, pigs, chickens, sheep, ponies, goats as farm animals and learnt about feeding and keeping them. We’ve sampled local delights including eggs and sausages from places we’ve stayed, local wine, cider, beer, cheese, ice cream, butter and so on. We’ve experienced an extreme off grid lifestyle, done tent dwelling in heavy frosts, lived in the van without hook up, seen some beautiful sights, some stunning scenery and above all met some amazing, inspirational and interesting people.

It’s been a fabulous start to our adventure, everything we hoped for and more really. We’re starting to anticipate what might be potential issues and discuss how we will deal with them as and when they might arise, getting a real flavour of what our year might bring at the same time learning that unexpected twists and turns to our careful planning are around every corner, along with new opportunities and unforeseen offers. We need to be flexible, subject to change and ready to roll with whatever comes along. These are great lessons to learn, a fab code for living and teaching all four of us so much about ourselves, each other and all the other people we meet.

I was expecting to only stay on farms, I was expecting to stick to our planned hosts rather than get invited to stay with people we only just met. I thought living in Willow would have been harder than it is. I’m not missing electricity as much as I thought I would, not missing a real bed, I probably sleep better in Willow than my bed at home. I’m having lots of fun, I feel healthier and think I sleep better. Before we left I thought I’d miss our house so much but I don’t miss it at all. I am missing friends who live near us – Toby, Archie, Eliot, Jack, Maisie & Lorna and Granny & Grandad. I am missing friends who are far away but can’t wait to see them while we’re travelling. I love the fact that before we go to each host I am never sure what they will be like or what that part of the country will be like and so every time it is new and exciting, not like at home when all our days out were to places we had been before.

I was expecting us to have to work or we wouldn’t get fed and there to be lots of rules and do as we were told even if we didn’t know how to but it hasn’t been like that at all. I really miss the chickens, ducks and our house but I am loving the freedom to run around, play in woods, going for adventures with dogs, goats. I like living in Willow because I like the fact everything is all here like our beds and the sofa. I like spending more time with Mummy and Daddy.

So far I am finding the adventure far easier than I thought I would. Living in the van, travelling in the van and the work were all things I was worrying about but so far they have all gone really smoothly and far easier than I expected. The variety of people we are meeting, the generosity of people we meet is overwhelming and I never realised people could be so kind. I struggle with moving on from place to place, I get really at home and find it hard to say goodbye and move on. I like the work, being physical and outdoors.


Middlewick Cottages

Today we said teary goodbyes and gave hugs to all at Middlewick before hitting the road again and heading Devon-way again to host number four. We’ve arrived and are currently enjoying an amazing view including a little corner of sea through a gap in hills. We’re in the van for tonight at least as the owner is away until tomorrow so we’re on hook up in their little camping field and are enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and the prospect of a relaxing evening before starting work tomorrow.

So a round up of Middlewick, host number three. A fab place to spend two weeks – we had a really good time there, loved the company and surroundings and enjoyed what was effectively a break from WWOOFing as we went back into luxury holiday cottage accomodation and had access to the swimming pool, massages and other home comforts. We slipped back into our old dynamics rather with later nights, evening glass of wine or two, TV watching etc. but were all very aware it was an exception to this year rather than a return to the norm.

It would have been all too easy to carry on there and it certainly added plenty to our lists of what we do and don’t want eventually and prolonged our time in Somerset, giving us another insight into that part of the country. We got a lot out of our time at Middlewick, Dragon and Star had loads of freedom, adopted Maggie the resident dog and spent hours walking with her out in the surrounding fields. A lovely moment I will take with me from there is standing chatting with Ady in the sunshine and catching a distant glimpse of the kids and dog in a field across the hills, all running with hair streaming behind them. Although the work wasn’t ticking boxes in terms of our learning objectives for the year it was still very interesting and varied with the very large added advantage of Ady and I spending lots of time working together. In previous years we have worked together a fair bit and always enjoyed it; it’s nice to be reminded of those aspects of our relationship and partnership. We have very complementary skills and make a good team, helping each other amd enjoying each others’ company. It’s also good to be impressed with those qualities in each other again, remembering we are not just co-parents or paying the bills in the same house but are actually first and foremost a couple.

Jill & Jonathan, along with all of the other people at Middlewick were a fab bunch to spend time with and get to know. We enjoyed their company, felt like part of a team doing something worthwhile and working together making headway. More people’s names have been added to my phonebook as friends and I know our paths will cross again and we’ll be visiting there again in the future.

It was one of many fortunate path crossings with someone unexpected, deviating from our planned path and saying yes to an opportunity that arose from nowhere that I suspect may make up a fair chunk of the twists and turns of this year. What could have potentially been a very early pitfall appeared in the shape of two hosts unable to take us after all (one due to ill health, the other due to some other unidentified issue) and ended up costing us money in campsite fees and food was answered in the shape of a chance meeting with Jill who happened to need some willing hands to help out. I love the way it all fell perfectly into place and became a great solution for everyone with new friendships forged at the same time.

Bad: No livestock (although there are sheep and chickens planned)
Good: Really enjoyed playing with Maggie the dog and I saw a stag deer.
Learnt: How to play various card games.

Bad: Not as many children to play with (in comparison to Steward Wood, for example)
Good: Saw a stag deer, really enjoyed the swimming, liked choosing my own food all week.
Learnt: How quickly we slipped back into old ways once we were in a house again – using loads of electricity, water, gathering things we don’t really need again, got lazy.

Bad: Leaving! Really missing it there, I enjoyed it a lot but it was bad to get back into creature comforts and luxuries of four walls, a bed and a bath again. I thought I would really appreciate those luxuries when we were in the tent and campervan but very quickly I was taking it all for granted again.
Good: Being made to feel so welcome and being taken into their world, we really felt like part of the team, took us on face value, trusted and valued.
Learnt: I didn’t learn any new skills- I was gardening, tidying, working with mowers. But I did learn how easily we judge people and shouldn’t. We have mixed with people now who live in the woods with dreadlocks, millionaires with successful businesses, people like us living in vans and everyone has a story to tell, something to teach you and an interesting idea to share.

Bad: I felt we really lost focus of all our aims for the year. I found myself stressed one evening when I hadn’t turned the immersion on for an instant hot water bath, we slipped back into patterns of behaviour such as drinking alcohol, using electrical appliances, gathering things we didn’t need and taking things for granted. This year has taken so much energy and planning, so many sacrifices and decisions and planning, so much letting things go and deciding what is really important to us and it was all too easy to slip back into greedy ways and lazy habits.
Good: The people! I really felt as though we became part of the family – Jill, Jonathan and Thomas, Kathleen & Norman (Jonathan’s parent’s), Shirely & Shelagh the rest of the team and even Jude, the previous owner who is still around all became like family or long lost friends. We were made to feel so welcome and once again I feel we have made contact with new friends who will stay friends long after we have driven away in the van.
Learnt: I don’t think I learnt any new skills as such, although I did learn how quickly I can turn my hand back to skills from the past. At previous hosts I sometimes felt like the weaker link as I wasn’t able to manage as well with hills, hard physical labour, this time I felt my natural skills were valued and useful as I helped with tasks I was more than able to do competantly. I know a fair bit about the hospitality business although I did get an insight into what it might be like to be an onsite owner / manager of a holiday cottage business and in conversation with Jill I learnt plenty about her previous enterprises. Like Ady I think most of what I learnt was in conversation with the interesting and diverse people we spent time with.


Midway through host number three

and a change is as good as a rest, particularly if the change is to such a restful place 🙂

We  have had to shuffle about the next few weeks as we had a couple of cancellations which would have left us with empty weeks. We had been invited to stay at Paddington and our next host was flexible with us about when we arrived but we got one of those offers you just can’t refuse and fate conspired to mean our move was just next door!

Whilst at Paddington we were invited to the new neighbours for a pizza evening mid week. New owners have just taken over at Middlewick Holiday Cottages and have a regular Wednesday night pizza party using the fab brick built outdoor pizza oven. Neighbours, local friends and any residents of the cottages are all invited along to bring their own toppings and a bottle and join the fun. We headed over with T&M and had a fab few hours chatting to various people including the old and new owners, a couple of guests and some of the staff.

The following day Jill, the owner came and found us working in the orchards and offered us a swim in the residents pool which we very gratefully accepted. We crossed paths most days and we went over again on Sunday for another swim and some delicious rhubarb cake and Jill showed us round one of the cottages and made us the rather un-turn-downable offer of WWOOFing for her for a week in exchange for use of the cottage, plus swimming pool, plus trampoline, plus access to her very lovely dog Maggie who Dragon and Star adore, plus a fridge-full of food.

Well what would you do?

We decided that people who jack in their jobs, rent their house out and head off in a very well loved campervan for a year have to practise saying ‘yes’ to pretty much every opportunity that comes along and this seemed like a good opportunity. So we finished up Monday’s tasks at Paddington of cleaning out the feed shed, feeding the animals and dusting pigs and chickens for mites, went on a very unproductive shoe hunt to nearby Street and Wells for Dragon (have since ordered some online) and then arrived and settled in to Orchard View. Oh to have a bed, a shower, a kitchen, electricity again 🙂

We’re doing a vast array of tasks here including: gardening, clearing rubbish, tidying, painting, cleaning and housekeeping, some painting and decorating, reorganising the library, lighting the pizza oven, testing appliances and TV channels in each cottage, a spot of ghost-hunting (cottages are 350 years old and reputed to be haunted). We’re also doing plenty of swimming, getting to know Jill (and now her son who has arrived today and is currently having a great time with Dragon and Star in the swimming pool), playing with Maggie the dog, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful massage from the lovely Shirley and enjoying the luxury interlude of four walls again for a while. We’re learning loads about all sorts of things and really enjoying yet another diverse environment to the ones we’ve already stayed in – definitely another interesting chapter in what is already shaping up to be a good story of our year.

Infact, it’s going so swimmingly that we have done some further reshuffling of our schedule and filled what was an empty week with staying on here for longer. Jill seems pleased with what we’re doing (although she was less keen on my bad influence of ‘one more glass of wine’ the evening she came and had dinner with us!), there is plenty to be getting on with helping with here and as there are plenty of children around next week Dragon and Star are only too happy to hang out here a bit longer.


Essential and desirable

We’ve been on the road now for nearly six weeks, parked in Willow in various locations including the driveways of family and friends, four different campsites, one different host, stayed in our tent and resided in a holiday cottage. We’ve had electric hook up in some locations which is a luxury and something we’ve only ever done once while camping before.

Disconnecting ourselves from the electricity supply is a challenge though. We have gas bottles which can power our heater, fridge and oven although eco-wise I think there is very little between the twin evils of gas or electric really. We did a little bit of research on alternative energy options for the van before we left but ignorant as we are both of the level of usage we require and quite how they all work we decided to head off, see what we most missed or needed and then find out from the people we meet and stay with along the way what the best options are. We are booked to stay with various off-grid hosts along the way who use solar, wind, water energy and learning from those who actually do it seems by far the best way.

Breaking down what we use energy for and whether it is essential or just desirable is an interesting exercise. In my parents lifetime ‘white goods’ have become a home ‘essentials’ with fridge, freezer, cooker, hob, dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier all being viewed as basic kitchen appliances, but when Dad was a boy things were kept cold in a pantry, food was preserved by pickling or bottling or simply eaten when it was in season – the concept of a ‘weekly shop’ simply didn’t exist. Washing was done by hand and dried outside when fine, infront of the fire when not, cooking was done over the fire, the same place toast was toasted and water was boiled. No kettle, no toaster, no microwave, no George Foreman lean, mean, fat fighting grilling machine!

Since Dragon and Star were born life has moved on even further and consequently our van has about 12 chargers for various things in it’s cupboards. We all have a mobile phone and a camera, the kids have handheld games consoles, we have two laptops with us and a Mifi which all have chargers, we have a kindle and we have a radio running on batteries which will either need replacement batteries every month or so or a set of rechargable ones and a battery charger. In theory none of these are essential of course and when camping we bring far fewer gadgets, ration our usage of them and have to find ways of accessing power to charge them up.

This year is about learning and challenging but never about endurance and punishment and while I do forsee those games consoles lying dusty and unused at times I know that being able to escape into beeping pixelated worlds of loved games is helping Dragon and Star adjust to not having bedrooms or TV or all the toys that are back at home boxed up. I am sure I will cope just fine on the days when I can’t charge my laptop or get a signal on my phone but both Ady and I are finding talking to friends either online or by phone is comforting and enjoyable and although the days I can’t blog will probably find me hunched over a notebook with a wind up torch frantically scribbling away in one of the various paper journals, still spilling my words out somewhere it’s nice to be able to share them online with friends and followers.

I’ve heard tales of campervans with wood burners on board, to heat water, cook food and provide warmth, vans with solar panels and little wind turbines on top to harness energy to run phone and laptop chargers, vans that run on recycled cooking oil. There must be ways of using the energy created by turning the wheels to drive along to charge up a battery you can then use to power things. But we had no budget for an eco-van, our budget stretched to Willow, 30 years old and a child of the 80s – she doesn’t have shoulder pads but she is very much of the era of over-consumption and having it all. We’ll still be living ever such a lot lighter than we would at home though and hopefully learning lots of new ways to put into practise in the future.

So far our essentials are sources of light and heat – we have a selection of wind up torches, battery powered lights and the electric-hook up powered lights in Willow for light, an electric fan heater and a gas powered fire aswell as hot water bottles and a good supply of socks, hats and jumpers to keep us warm. Some way of storing and cooking our food – for now we’re using electric fridge and gas powered oven, I’d like to try some alternative cold storage options at some point (not really necessary in this weather!) and I’ve read about using terracotta pots (two different sizes, one inside the other, the space inbetween packed with wet sand that you keep topped up with water and a terracotta saucer as a lid), chalk fridges and various other storage options if keeping things cold is essential. For cooking (and actually light and heat much of the time as well as heating hot water) I don’t think you can beat man’s greatest discovery of fire and the smell of woodsmoke is one of my favourite perfumes too. Food and water are essentials of course; we’re looking forward to learning about foraging, we have fishing rods and an air rifle to do a bit of fishing and hunting, but so far the local co-op and produce from farms attached to the campsite we’re staying on and WWOOF hosts have provided. A way of keeping ourselves and our clothes clean which can just be a source of water but heated is obviously preferable.

Our desireables? Well that’s a list that gets a bit longer. I think some sort of connectivity to the rest of the world – phone line, internet connection is there on the list, along with some entertainment facilities – books, dvds, creative pursuits such as art materials and writing implements, consoles, radio or other music.

For our connectivity while online we are currently using a MiFi from three and it’s proving excellent. We have yet to stay anywhere that it fails to pick up a signal and it provides fast wireless broadband for up to five seperate devices, which means I am able to have my laptop connected, Ady can use it for his phone and we have plenty of scope for the kids to hook up to it on their DS / PSPs too. I can’t recommend it highly enough, I can’t call it essential but it’s very, very desireable 🙂

Next on my list is the kindle we were given as a leaving present from friends. It’s loaded up with fiction for my bedtime reading, stories for the kids and various non fiction stuff. It’s allowing us a mobile, pretty much unlimited library and it’s smaller and lighter than one tiny paperback. We love it 🙂

Other things we are valuing lots include hot water bottles, Ady’s individual cafetiere mug for his real coffee hit, four of those tiny folding stools which have enabled us to bring the campervan table outside (it also has four screw on legs so can be used as a table outside the van) and eat around it and our solar power lights which we put out to charge up all day and then put on as soon as it gets dark and they are still lit come morning.