The Cottage Smallholder

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In praise of the animals that give us meat

Photo: Ewes and lambs

Photo: Ewes and lambs

With the sunnier days I’ve been working out of doors again. Back at the 40-acre estate. Basking in the opportunity to watch the wildlife as I paint.

Now there are sheep grazing one of the large paddocks. Many ewes clearly remembered that the approach of humans meant that their lambs disappeared last year.

When they see me looking, they hide their lambs on their offside and steadily stare. My heart goes out to them. We’d feel the same if our babies were mainly bred for meat.

Although I know now that free range doesn’t mean a 100% happy life, we have a tendency to romanticise the notion of free range in the UK. In fact, with cattle and sheep, it still means the horror of young being snatched, loaded onto a truck and disappearing forever.

My old friend Peggy told me that when the lambs were taken from the ewes in Moulton, the ewes pined for days.
“Their cries were truly harrowing. The ewes were bereft.”

Some farmers now try and contain the distress by removing the young in batches over a period of weeks. Perhaps this just extends the upset. On the same estate I’ve heard cattle calling for their young until well after dusk for many, many weeks.

The problem is that Danny and I love eating meat, although we do consume far less than we used to. The ewes touched me today but I’ll continue to buy free range lamb when I can afford to. But now I’ll truly appreciate their sacrifice.

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  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Colour it Green

    Thank you so much for your contribution. Perhaps the lambs in the paddocks and in Moulton were removed a bit too early.

    I’m so pleased that you let your lambs grow up before slaughter.

    Tanks also for pointing out the link between milk and veal. I hadn’t thought about that.

    Hello Jo

    I was pretty certain that there must be intensive lamb rearing in the UK so thanks for adding your comment. Ordinary supermarket lamb tastes so much thinner than free range lamb.

    It’s good to hear about your goats too.

    Last year I was collecting sheep’s wool from another paddock on the estate for insulating a ‘hay box’. I found loads of lambs tails too.

    I remember eating mutton as a child but can’t recall the taste. Powter’s the butcher in Newmarket sells their own locally reared lamb and mutton so I think that I must try it out.

    Hi Sebbie

    Lucky you. You can’t beat good sympathetically reared lamb.

    Hello Natasha

    You are making me very curious to taste the mutton!

    Hello Dee

    I think that most people who raise organic free range animals make sure that they have a good experience in the slaughterhouse. Adrenalin can taint the meat for starters.

    We eat quite a lot of game. Much easier to come by in the country and totally free range!

    We are eating less but better meat and fish these days. The CFC can throw up some great bargains (especially Tesco finest range. The shop is on the poorer side of town and doesn’t attract loads of wealthy customers.)

    Delighted that you are enjoying the blog.

  2. Hello there!

    I have spent most of my adult life eating no meat and very little fish. Now I eat organic meat occasionally. I do this in the hope (I hope not in vain) that the animals are treated more humanely on organic farms, but who knows what happens in the slaughterhouse. It worries me. I love to eat meat dishes, but not at any cost.

    And I also wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog. We’ve been making more effort to look at the CFC in our local supermarkets these days :-).

    best wishes,


  3. Natasha

    I find mutton for sale often, and I have to say it is delicious, when organic and free range, the chops can be barbequed and served pink, and they are every bit as tender as lamb. I look at the difference between lamb and mutton like veal and beef, I like a bit of British veal every now and then, but the main noise for me is the beef!!

  4. We’ve been eating delicious ‘lamb’ over the last few months. An ex colleague of dh has a small farm and we bought half a shearling from him. It is so tasty, very good value for money and now I feel happy that as an older animal it’s disappearance may not have traumatised the mother sheep so badly.

  5. Jo @ LittleFfarm Dairy

    We always leave the lambs on the ewes until they’re naturally weaned; that way there is no stress for the animals involved & the mums’ milk dries off gradually with no chance of the dreaded mastitis, which is very difficult to treat in sheep.

    Lambs for the supermarket are often intensively reared or ‘finished’ as it’s known, sheared & then kept in big sheds which have a conveyor belt of feed going round to encourage them to eat constantly (very similar to barn-raised poultry or egg units in fact). The breeds raised for meat are extremely large, hence the bigger joints.

    We also leave the goat kids on their mums for a little longer than most people. By the time we remove the kids, their mums are thoroughly fed up with them & don’t mind their disappearance; & the kids settle down extremely quickly to the new routine.

    As they’re taken away late in the evening they tend to just settle down in a sleepy heap anyway; & by morning the excitement of all the new toys in their ‘playpen’ distracts them from wondering where Mum is. As for the mothers, they’re given a good meal whilst the kids are removed, so they don’t even notice. Less stress all round – for the humans as well as the animals!

    BTW sheeps’ tails (& testicles, come to that!)are removed with a tight rubber ring rather than string, which is placed between the joints in the tail, leaving enough tail to cover the anus. It cuts off the blood supply so that the redundant tail eventually shrivels up & falls off, sealing itself neatly & cleanly so there’s no open wound.

    Whilst tail docking might appear cruel it is done for a good reason – the prevention of fly strike. This is when a particular type of fly lays its eggs on the lamb’s tail & the resultant maggots burrow into the skin & literally eat the sheep alive. It’s utterly disgusting & horrible to treat, not to mention a very distressing condition for the sheep which can easiy kill them if not caught quickly enough.

    Given a long, slow cook mutton is absolutely delicious – the flavour is far more subtly complex & richer than that of lamb. And when it comes from your own contented, well-cared for free-ranging flock, you can feast with a clear conscience!

  6. colour it green

    I think you will find most of the lamb sold in this country is free range. Sheep are often housed during lambing, and sometimes during the winter months.. but around here they are out all year round. I certainly dont think lamb is a similar issue to pork or veal, and in both cases of pork and veal, British raised is to much higher standards than imported. Veal comes from milk production.. the calf has to be removed so we humans can have the milk.. so perhaps milk is the issue to look into.

    Whilst ewes are protective to their young at this age – by the time they are ready to go to slaughter the lambs are the size of adult sheep, not these little cuties.Like Tracey, we keep sheep and we keep the lambs with the ewes until they are more than happy to stop feeding them

  7. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Belinda

    In Europe there are loads of non free range lamb, beef and pork. You can tell the difference when you taste it. Particularly the pork and the lamb. The free range of both taste amazing compared to the cheaply reared animals.

    Hi Joanna

    What we see in the fields often differs from the indoor practices that we don’t see.

    But you can taste the difference when you eat the meat.

    Hi Tracy

    Good on you. Looking out for the welfare of your flock is great.

    I think that the massive flocks that I see grazing on this estate are too big. There must be 400- 500 ewes and lambs. And this is stressful, I would imagine. So all stress is probably magnified.

    Hi Mandi

    Years ago when I was a child, people could buy mutton. It was always slow cooked.

    Yes, like you I’d prefer to buy mutton. Although a lot of lamb that we buy must be mature sheep from the size of the joints.

    Hi Belinda

    I so agree. People are entranced by lamb.

    But mutton and hogget have loads of flavour. Like the difference between fillet and rump steak.

    Hello Michelle in NZ

    These are half tails. I find the baby tails when I clear the paddocks of wool (and tails- they are tied with string so that they drop off).

    I agree with you lamb seems to be a term that has a long age stretch.

    Happy Easter to you and Zebbycat (wonder mog and super hero) without lifting a paw.

    Hi Moggymerlin

    Those cries are haunting. Especially if you have arrived from a city and are not used to it.

    After twenty years, I’m still not used to it. And I hope that I never will be.

    Hi Pamela

    Being a Townie,
    I’d prefer some distance between me and the meat. But it’s only a matter of time before we raise our own meat

    Hello Chris

    Your duckling story moved me it must have been harrowing to see them being picked off. Ducks are generally not great mothers as their broods tend to be big and they wander so far that quite often the ducklings just can’t keep up.

    An acquaintance of mine saw a mother duck and babies marching up the village High Street – on the edge of the road. She saw a duckling vanish into a drain. Despite the desperate cheeps the mother didn’t stop. My acquaintance did stop and try to rescue the duckling sadly without success.

    Your comment made me thiink hard. Wild ducks are very vulnerable to predators. They are not the best of parents. Sadly it’s so rare that a whole brood lasts the length of a breeding season.

    Hi Liz

    I can see where you are coming from.

    I have not seen mutton available since I was a chid.

    Slow cooked I think that it would be superb.

    As you say, lamb is a tough issue along with pork and veal.

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