A Rewilding Journey: Meat is Murder?
I recently skinned and butchered a roe deer. Well actually, two of them.
They were bought directly from the Welsh Government after being shot and killed by rangers as part of an annul cull. We drove to pick them up from a larder, where they’d been had been hung for weeks after having their heads, organs and hooves removed. I watched with curiosity as they were reeled out by the rangers that shot them on meat hooks. They were wrapped in black bags and loaded into the back of our car.
We took them back to my father-in-law’s house to be processed. It was a beautifully sunny day, so we strung them up outside in a tree. The knives and trays were brought out and I was taught to skin and butcher the innocent and once living creature by my father-in-law, Peter, a longtime forager and regular buyer of high quality, unprocessed meat.
Humans killing wildlife; the core of what bothers me about our current way of living. And yet, I supported it by partaking in this. I’d help load their lifeless bodies into the car and here I was preparing them for human consumption.
Both came with information tags added by the rangers and on reading I learned one was a male and the other was female, when they were shot and who by. You could tell them apart by the thickness of their necks — the female’s being the more slender of the two. Excruciatingly, I imagined them alive and spritely with their big beautiful eyes, quietly moving through the forest on dainty hooves. The female, once as a mother, the young male aspiring to victory in the coming rutting season.
The cognitive dissonance was, and still is real, so let’s attempt to unpack it.
A Deer Dilemma
I have immense respect for anything, especially something the size of a deer that can survive in the little wilderness left in Britain. They don’t get to nip out to a supermarket to select from a seemingly infinite supply of food. They can’t order a takeout if they’re feeling a big groggy or have a bad leg. When the wind and rain is lashing on the windows on a stormy night or when the land is dry because it hasn’t rained for weeks they’re out there, still trying to live. They have to fend for themselves always, and not only do they need to find their food, but they need to get there before others do. Their survival is dependent on a healthy, productive and resilient ecosystem in the area in which they live.
Unfortunately for any wild animal, their habitats are constantly being manipulated by human activity or parcelled up into smaller, fenced-off areas. This has the effect of creating tiny islands of habitat in which to find things to eat. As seasons change, so do the supporting flora that enables them to live. But as soon as they’ve consumed the food available on their ‘island’, if they aren’t able to move to another then there’s nothing more to eat. It’s a tough life and only seems to have gotten tougher with each new housing estate or KFC that gets approved.
However, when deer do have access to a healthy ecosystem, they thrive. Without any natural predators in the UK they breed and consume without knowledge that their region is only able to support a finite number of deer before food starts to become worryingly scarce. This is a huge problem for the supporting ecosystem:
All of the UK’s six deer species are herbivorous, which means they feed on plants. Grasses, sedges, the leaves and shoots of trees and other woody plants are all on the menu. Fruit and berries are sometimes eaten too, while tree bark is taken when other food is scarce. [Woodland Trust]
So, if a deer population thrives it will eventually eat itself out of food. No new trees will be able to grow and due to individuals competing for lessening resources, they will find themselves in closer proximity increasing the ability of diseases like bovine tuberculosis to spread (source: the ranger). Is this enough to justify humans killing deer? Well, sort of… but it just reveals a much broader scale of human destruction of the natural world.
Tragically, the reason deers get culled is because a long time ago, humans threw the food chain out of whack.
What is a Food Chain?
A healthy food chain, when visualised as a pyramid, consists of 4 levels, trophic levels if you please.
At the bottom there are the producers — green plants and trees that produce food from sunlight and grow in decomposed waste (soil). If the plants in a region are thriving and plentiful that will allow the next level known as primary consumers to exist — animals that eat the plants like bugs, rabbits, squirrels, most birds and deer. If there’s plenty of those guys then that level can support the next — secondary consumers. These are the smaller carnivores that will predate the animals listed above — to name a few here in the UK that is foxes, otters, owls, weasels, mink (invasive) and birds of prey. While foxes would readily eat a deer if already dead they aren’t equipped to be a natural predator to them. That job would be left to the tertiary consumers also known as apex predators. This mighty bunch occupies the space at the very top of the pyramid, and can only exist if every level below them works. So what are they?
Well… The UK no longer has any, just humans with guns and traps. But it wasn’t always like this. The UK used to be home to bears, wolves and big carnivorous cats called lynx.
I have found cougar scat and stumbled upon trees that have been ripped apart by a hungry bear harvesting a colony of beetles inside while wandering in the forests of the PNW. I’ve camped in Glacier National Park, Montana and heard wolves howling through the night. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that you could run into an animal that might stand up to you, every sense becomes heightened. And I could hardly believe that at one point the UK was also such a wild place. There were brown bears here up until 1000 years ago. The lynx was driven to extinction by deforestation and persecution long before that while the wolf, being a little more adaptable to destruction of its habitat (the forests) was eventually killed off by humans off in 1760. These are incredible life forms that had lived and evolved here for millions of years prior, wiped out in a relative blink of an eye. All it took was human colonisation and the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society and therefore forest clearance to make land for farming that ensued.
So to recap, humans cull deer to balance an ecosystem that we broke. If we didn’t, then the biodiversity of our remaining forests would suffer as would the health of the overall deer population. With a sigh, I can accept that, ‘it is what it is’ now and until we’ve regenerated habitats, found a way to live alongside apex predators again and reintroduced any remaining substitutes for the ones we wiped out it seems like the only option to prevent further ecosystem collapse.
Personally, I still have a little niggling dilemma that still doesn’t feel resolved. I was there, cutting the deer up. I ate its delicious flesh, BBQ’d and covered in home made Za’atar, perfectly balanced with a cucumber raita even though I felt sad about its life ending prematurely thanks to human-determination.
If we need to kill deer, then we don’t need to kill deer for food because we farm other animals. Evidence suggests we don’t even need to consume meat as part of a healthy diet, although the jury is still out as our bodies are clearly set up as omnivorous. But we certainly don’t need to subscribe to the idea that we need meat with every meal.
I only eat meat on the weekends now, and since we now live in a rural area, buy it locally straight from non-industrial farms that work with nature as much as possible, where the animals are well looked after and hopefully get to experience some joy while alive. We can’t just harvest animals from the wild anymore but on the rare occasion we get the chance to come close and spend the time, individually or as a group appreciating that animals life while processing it ready for eating, it somehow feels closer to a more primitive and wilder way of living. It is an experience that takes you back to the days where we were hunter-gatherers and creates a great appreciation for the sacrifice involved in eating meat. If I am still a meat-eating-monster that also cares for the other beings that share this planet then at least I take a little comfort in procuring it as above than to walk into a supermarket and buy it, chopped and packaged for convenience and completely devoid of any signifiers of the living creature it once used to be.