Louise Gray spent over a year only eating animals she killed herself. She describes how learning to fish and shoot taught her to appreciate meat, and how a red stag turned out to be her most ethical meal of all.
The stag was lying down, his face turned towards me, his chin almost resting on the ground, having a wee midday snooze. “Go for his neck,” whispered the stalker... No one forgets their first stag, no matter how old they are or how varied their life experience. For many of us it is the first time we look our dinner in the eyes. We are all used to consuming as much meat as we like, to ordering a steak off the menu, grabbing a chicken sandwich for lunch or picking up a packet of bacon at the supermarket. But how often do we take responsibility for the death of the animal?
As I approached that dead stag, shot a little to the left if I’m honest but still a clean kill, I took responsibility for the venison I would be eating for months to come. And do you know what? I felt no regret.
A little later, when I sat down to write about the experience, worried about the reaction of the reader, I thought I should add in how sad I felt for the beautiful animal. But I didn’t feel sad, I felt deeply grateful – and I felt defiant. This is what I wrote: “The ground is stained with blood. Suddenly I am alone but for the sharp peaks of the mountain. I feel the other Louise, the person who pulled the trigger, who was in absolute control, lift and retreat. I allow my imagination back in. I see Nature is angry with me, growling, lashing my cheeks with rain. Yet I don’t feel afraid. I dig my feet into the soil and feel my bones reverberate with the earth. I feel defiant. After all that control, a moment of wildness, a square-off with Nature. No matter, she’ll win in the end.”
This may sound arrogant. But it is the reality, and if you want things to change, I think you have to deal in realities, otherwise you will make no difference at all. This is where I started my year of only eating animals I killed myself. I wanted to confront the reality that humans eat animals – and explore the impact it has on our countryside, climate change and our modern human psyche – and I wanted to write a book about it.
To begin with I found it frankly traumatising. The most important thing you learn when you are pursuing any animal is that you, and you alone, are responsible for the kill. That was difficult to take on board and I have to admit my reaction to my first kill, a rabbit with a little white blaze, was to sit down and cry. I felt a little better when the gnarled old gamekeeper I was with also shed a tear.
It was only when I had prepared and cooked the rabbit that I felt able to continue with the project. Also, I felt great respect for the men and women who taught me to shoot and fish. I could see they were good people with a deep knowledge of the countryside and I wanted to learn those skills. Gradually, I learnt to control my emotions so I could keep a rifle steady when looking through the scope at a beautiful animal.
I learnt to have the patience to watch a river or loch before casting, so I could see how the fish were behaving and the kind of fly they were likely to take. I learned the right moment to pull the trigger on a shotgun and bring down a bird – ‘bum, belly, beak, bang!’. I was taught the skills to dress game. I was shown how to gut, pluck and butcher pigeon, pheasant, rabbit and squirrel – and even roadkill.
Most of all I grew in confidence as I got better at sourcing and preparing my own meat. This for me was the most significant emotion, and the one that overrode the sadness at killing an animal – my sense of pride in feeding other people. Personally, I think ‘blood lust’ is a myth – no one goes after an animal to kill – but ‘hunter’s pride’, the moment when you serve the meat to your friends, is something people feel universally.
Serving barbecued wild lamb I had shot myself to semi-vegetarian friends, I felt a great sense of empowerment for bringing meat to the table. I wrote: “I’ve learned skills. How to identify and find animals. And kill and skin them. It’s only the skills any young boy or girl should have; it’s not much, but it’s a long way from where I was. I feel more confident and free, too. I have overcome challenges and proved what I can achieve outside of the supermarket system we are all stuck in. I have made every decision all the way in the meat I eat.”
Of course, most people are deeply embedded in the supermarket system, so I also wanted to investigate the journey of domestic meat from farm to fork, including the slaughterhouse. In a way, going into an abattoir for the first time was even more difficult than killing my first rabbit. Over a series of visits, I learnt more about how suffering can be kept to a minimum by the latest technology, but I never got over my initial shock.
This is the reality of where most of our meat comes from, and again it taught me a huge amount. I learned to respect not only the farmers who work so hard to ensure livestock have a good life, but the men and women who ensure the animals have a good death. It didn’t quite put me off buying meat, but it certainly made me want to eat less. In a way, I felt that was the most powerful message in my book, that if you really take responsibility for the meat you eat, then you naturally want to eat less. Why not invest in high-quality meat that is raised on farms where the animals are well cared for, rather than spending the same amount on a greater amount of cheap meat? Less and better is the way forward.
It seemed like a simple message, but of course life is not simple. I also wanted to explore in my book the issues of class, money and gender that have crept into our modern attitudes to eating meat, and my own personal life experiences that influence how I see the world of fieldsports. Towards the end of my experiment, I decided to go stalking to not only witness the experience as a woman and a city-dweller, but as part of exploring my relationship with my own father.
My father has shot all his life and loves a day on the hill more than anything else. All my brothers were taken stalking as par for the course. So why wasn’t I taught to shoot? Was it because I’m a girl, or simply because I did not show any interest as a child?
As I wrote the book, I had to be honest about why I was confronting these issues? Was I trying to prove something to myself or my father? In the end it was neither. As I learned to shoot and fish, I realised that like anything else in life, only you can take responsibility for your actions, including killing an animal. In a way, I grew up.
I also learned a bit more about turning over the stereotypes many of us associate with shooting. I was lucky enough to go stalking on an estate in north-west Scotland, Ben Damph, or ‘Hill of the Stag’. The deer are controlled as part of a long-term scheme to allow the forest to regenerate. I was not stalking the deer for a trophy head, I was looking for a young beast or an old stag to cull, leaving the better animals to reproduce.
This kind of ‘ethical’ stalking should be shouted about. Deer numbers are at an all-time high across Britain. The ungulates not only eat young trees and prevent forest from growing, but can cause road accidents. Around the UK, local councils, the Forestry Commission, and other official bodies are dispatching 350,000 deer every year. Why not eat the meat?
Many people in the shooting world feel they have been misunderstood for years. There is an idea that people go up the hill to kill a stag. This simply isn’t true. People go for the stalk, which is always the best part of the day, even if it is raining, even if the midges are horrendous and even – as frequently happens – you fail. When you do kill a stag, it is a very personal moment when you are forced to take responsibility for the death of the animal and show due respect by doing it to the best of your ability. Dragging the beast off the hill and eating it is a further sign of respect and an opportunity to provide sustainable meat to friends and family.
I would encourage more people who stalk to eat the meat themselves – including the offal such as heart, liver and kidneys – and even butcher it. Also, I think we should move away from stalking as ‘trophy hunting’. A head on the wall may have been important in Prince Albert’s time, but now we are stalking animals for more important reasons. I think stalking should be about the challenge and culling animals that need managing, not something to show off about. Isn’t the greatest honour to share the meat with your friends and know that it came from an ethical source?
Every time I eat that venison, I remember the day on the hill. I feel a connection to my father, and all those stalkers who have gone before. Most of all, I taste a deep satisfaction in what I have achieved, in providing food from such a special place – it is better than any trophy.
Read more from Louise Gray:
Louise Gray’s book, The Ethical Carnivore details her year spent eating only meat from animals she had killed herself. From abattoirs to game shoots and roadkill to insects, Louise explores what it really means to be an ‘ethical carnivore’. It can be purchased on Amazon and in all good bookshops.