It’s vital to know exactly where and how your meat has been sourced.
In 2006 I stayed in the Canadian high arctic at an Inuit village, researching an article about how their culture was being affected by global warming. Whilst there we went hunting, and shot and ate ptarmigan.
However, one of our party, although not a vegetarian, didn’t want to take part. This made our bewildered Inuit guide exclaim: “But you’re farming methods are so cruel! Here an animal is either alive in the tundra or ‘bang’ it’s dead. It has a clean death and nothing goes to waste in the Arctic.”
The experience made me realise that there was an alternative to eating farmed meat, something with which I had never been entirely comfortable. On the other hand, I had always struggled with vegetarianism. So, a few years ago, I switched to eating game.
Since that time it has surged in popularity, largely for sustainability reasons. However, being organic, virtually fat-free, and with considerably fewer carbon calories, it’s also healthier to eat. Additionally, there aren’t to my mind the animal welfare issues associated with farming, and it can even help with countryside conservation.
But switching to game isn’t about reaching for one thing on a supermarket shelf rather than another. It has to be well-researched and thought through or you could find yourself doing more harm than good.
A supermarket duck or pheasant merely equates to a chicken if it’s been bred and reared, and in recent years stories have even emerged of shooting practises which were actually harming wildlife populations. Thus if you’re thinking of making the switch it’s vital to make a distinction between wild and farmed game, and to know exactly where and how your meat has been sourced.
I buy venison from my local butcher in Wiltshire and it’s hard to think of a more ethical way of eating meat. He shoots his own deer locally so there are virtually no transport or refrigeration costs. The animals graze naturally without grain feeds so the carbon footprint is minimal. They have a natural life and a quick clean death. Furthermore, in the absence of natural predators, deer populations need to be culled or other flora and fauna suffer from their over-browsing.
And it can also be surprisingly cost effective. If I buy a joint of muntjac deer (my absolute favourite) costing about £11, it feeds me and the cat for a week (if I’m careful). Because the meat is very rich it goes further than its equivalent weight of lamb or beef. I will finish the week with a large bean, vegetable and muntjac curry or casserole, before making a stock from the carcass for borscht or Chinese hot pot. There’s no waste and it’s remarkably good housekeeping.
More importantly, for no extra cost, I can do without tinned cat food. A pet cat has the same carbon footprint as a small car, a calculation based largely on assumptions about consumption of tinned pet food (most of which, frankly, I wouldn’t feed to my worst enemy let alone my best friend). From a local farmers market I source rabbit, duck and pigeon – all wild, well-managed and sustainable. I buy in bulk which means that although there are some refrigeration carbon calories, it’s very cost effective and in the long run saves me petrol.
However, all sources of game are not such an easy choice. Pheasant rearing, for instance, has become something of a divisive issue. “In low intensity situations it can be very beneficial”, explains Gethin Davies, livestock and agricultural advisor to the RSPB. “Obviously it can be a good thing that there are these areas of woodland set aside or planted to rear them, and to benefit their shoots many landowners will keep areas of rough grass around fields and sow seed crops. Wild birds - notably sky larks, yellow hammers and corn buntings - can take advantage of this, as indeed can other animals. But high intensity pheasant rearing can erode natural habitats and encourage small predators, like foxes, which can have a detrimental effect on populations of nesting birds.”
In 2011 the RSPB expressed its concern over the effect that strip burning of heather for grouse shooting in upland moors was having on peregrine populations - not to mention the possible unseen long term ecological effects of releasing thousands of non-native birds into the countryside every year. “On top of which,” says Davies, “there’s the waste. Only a small percentage of birds killed on shoots actually end up being sold for meat and there have been stories in the press about ramblers finding pits full of dumped birds which obviously cannot be regarded as a good thing. Really you need to take pheasant rearing case by case.”
In some ways, it’s just as ethical to buy meat from a conservation project where cattle are actively used in the conservation or restoration of natural habitats. “We have 25,000 cattle in the UK on our reserves,” says Davies, “but you may not be lucky enough to live near one, and then we’re back to a livestock system with animals being fed grains”. And there is an issue of supply. “In the UK we consume approximately 80kg of meat per capita per year; if everyone wanted to eat ethical meat there simply wouldn’t be enough.”
As a species we are omnivorous; whether or not we like it, that’s part of our genetic heritage and biological design. Although for many people like myself full-time vegetarianism simply doesn’t work, I do believe that if you wish to eat meat you should take responsibility for the fact that something has to die - there should be a sense of debt. When I debone a rabbit (and even the odd squirrel) I am very aware that what I am butchering was once a living animal. It engenders a respect which makes me want to minimise waste.
Supermarkets and fast food restaurants have so objectified animals that people no longer even make a connection between what they’re eating and the animals they see in fields (if they’re lucky enough to be in fields). There is a complete disconnect between the dinner plate and the abattoir. Very often, on the shelf or in a bargain bucket, it doesn’t even look like meat; it’s dressed or covered in bread crumbs. How much easier this makes it to simply chuck it in without a second thought.
I find that eating game reduces this disconnect and despite the complex and sometimes controversial issues which surround it, it’s really not a bad place to start on the road to more ethical meat consumption. My cat would whole-heartedly agree.
Clare Kendall is a multi award-winning photojournalist based in Wiltshire. Her work focuses heavily on ecotourism, environmental and social justice issues. For more visit: http://clare.photoshelter.com/
Image of shot game courtesy of www.shutterstock.com