Three little pigs went to market

Today I took our second set of pigs to the abattoir. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write, but a lot has happened in the past year! 

Our first set of pigs went to the abattoir in May, but I couldn’t bring myself to go along as I imagined it would be far too emotional and traumatic for me. We never name our pigs and although I see them everyday, I tried to limit my time with them, so as to not get too attached. Despite this, these pigs still got a lot of attention, back and belly scratches, the odd bucket of apples, as well as a few pumpkins at Halloween. I loved those pigs.

This morning I got up early and it was pouring with rain. It was cold and dark and I felt apprehensive at best. I know the pigs have had a good life, better than most, but I just wanted to ensure they had a stress-free, humane and dignified death, as much as I possibly can. 

I had arranged to meet Steve, a long-standing member of the farm team on the estate, at the woodland just after 7am. He is experienced in all things farm related, including driving a trailer with live animals, so it made sense to ask him to help, rather than struggle by myself, plus having two people makes it a lot easier. It was lashing down with rain and still dark, so I headed up to the woodland in my waterproofs and my head torch. 

The pigs were already in the trailer, having happily been fed and slept in there voluntarily for the past few days. As soon as they saw me they got excited, mainly because they were expecting breakfast! Unfortunately I had to disappoint them, and instead I made a fuss of them in the trailer whilst Steve secured and locked them in. The back was filled with cosy straw and they have plenty of space to lounge around in there. They were most displeased when the bucket of food failed to make an appearance, so I quickly made my exit out of the side door, as being trapped in a trailer with 3 hungry pigs weighing approximately 85kg each is something you probably shouldn’t do for long!

All hitched up and secure we tried to drive away in the Landrover, but unfortunately due to an abundance of rain overnight, resulting in wet leaves and soggy ground, we weren’t going anywhere fast. The woodland that the pigs live in is on a slope, so every time we tried to move, we ended up sliding down, to the point where we got wedged against a tree.

Luckily, because it’s a farm we weren’t stuck for long, as Steve went to get the tractor to pull us out. With a bit of extra help from my other half, who drove the Landrover with the trailer attached, and Steve behind in the tractor making sure they all didn’t slide down the hill, the boys safely got the pigs out of the woodland and onto suitable ground. Not the best start to the day, but it could’ve been worse I suppose!

Before we set off, I checked on the pigs to make sure they were ok and not stressed out by their bumpy start. As I peered through the air vents they seemed pretty much unfazed by it all. They were snorting away, snuffling in the straw, no doubt checking that their bedding wasn’t hiding any stray food-pellets! So off we set, the journey took about an hour and all went smoothly, despite it being a very wet and windy morning.

As we drove into the farm where the abattoir is located, I was surprised to see a lovely detached house at the entrance and a couple more nice houses down the lane, one in fact right by the abattoir building itself. I assumed that the people who own and work at the abattoir live there, but it was odd to think that anyone would want to live that close to that sort of establishment. But at the same time, it was also quite comforting, as it made me think that it can’t be that bad an environment, if people are living on the doorstep.

We had to wait a few minutes in the yard, as there was already another person with their trailer backed up against the entrance, but soon enough we were reversing our trailer up to the doors. When I got out, I expected the place to smell of blood and meat (like a butchers sometimes does) but it didn’t, it was all quite normal and clean and the radio was playing in the background.

The main guy in charge came up and happily greeted us and helped encourage the girls out of their trailer. Noses to the ground, they were curious as to their new surroundings, but with some gentle coaxing, they made their way down to the holding pen without too much fuss. The guy even said that he much preferred pigs to sheep, which made me think we were his favourites so far that morning. After a quick exchange of paperwork, a brief chat about what cuts of meat we wanted back and some smalltalk with a couple of the other guys that worked there, we agreed that I would pick up all the meat at the same time in about a week. This is because bacon takes longer to process and cure, and is also the bit we missed out on last time (because those pigs were too small), so we wanted to make sure that bacon was on the list this time!

Mondays are a busy time for the abattoir as that is generally when people drop off their livestock. The last Monday in December is again probably busier than usual, with only a few weeks left before Christmas. The abattoir asks that you arrive before 09.30hrs, and even with our mishap we arrived a good 45 minutes before then. As we drove off, there was a queue of about 6 more vehicles all with trailers and livestock, so we certainly picked the right time to get there else we could’ve been waiting a while, so you definitely would want to get there early to avoid queues. 

And that was it. The process was fairly seamless and non-traumatic for both myself and the pigs. I had all the paperwork prepared beforehand, with everything now done online with the EAML2 system, which you use to notify the movement of your animals. I brought along a piece of paper with what cuts of meat I wanted, and the whole process probably took about 15 minutes, if that.

I tried not to think about the next stage too much, but I know from my research that it’s relatively quick and painless and just another part to the process of raising animals for food. 

I feel surprisingly ok. I don’t feel as bad as I did last time, although there is always a tinge of sadness, but I try not to dwell on that. I like to remember them in their woodland, never wanting for anything and being appreciated not only in life, but also in death. Feeding us and our family and friends, and feeling confident knowing exactly the process that’s been involved in their journey at every stage. Knowing where my food has come from, how it’s been treated, what it’s eaten, knowing it’s been happy and appreciating the sacrifice it’s given. Not a lot of people can say that and I’m proud of what we have achieved and hope we can continue to do the same in the future.


Waste not, want not 

It’s been a tough few months out here in rural Devon. Several things have happened that haven’t been the greatest. I haven’t wanted to write about it, but I think it’s important to share the failures as well as the successes, because that is life and my blog was always about sharing our journey, warts and all.

We’re currently on our second set of pigs that we’re raising for meat. The first trio of British Lops that we hand reared was a great achievement and certainly the meat that they produced was highly regarded and every time we ate some, we felt humbled. We slaughtered them at the end of May and by October, we had probably eaten about half of the meat we got back. 

Our 3 British Lops & a freezer worth of home grown, free range pork.

The meat was kept in a large chest freezer in a garage at the farmyard, our place of work. Work men had been coming and going for months due to building works. During the second week of October my aunt came to stay. I like to cook our rare breed pork for visitors, so as usual, I made a trip to the freezer to get out a nice bit of pork belly. I was devastated to discover that all the meat was defrosted and swimming in a bloody liquid. All of it was ruined. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last been to the freezer and everything was fine then. The meat was room temperature when I found it, meaning it could’ve happened anywhere between 2 weeks and at least 5 days previous. 

It turned out somebody had physically unplugged the freezer. I asked around but everyone denied knowledge, not that finding out who it was would’ve helped. The meat was irreplaceable. I doubt whoever unplugged it realised what they’d done (the freezer is one end of a triple cluttered garage & extension lead goes to plug socket at other end), but somehow that makes it worse. If it had been a power-cut or faulty switch, I think I would’ve coped better than thinking it was pure ignorant negligence that meant I had to bag up and bin months of hard work. We put blood, sweat and tears into raising those pigs, they even made fame in a magazine! Yet here I was trying not to gag on the smell of rotten meat and trying not to cry at the same time. It’s safe to say we’ll be investing in some socket locks next time!

The sadness of the week continued when one of our ducks escaped (not unusual) but somehow managed to get out onto the road and got run over and killed by a tractor. We didn’t know at first, as she just didn’t come home for bedtime (this was unusual), so we spent nearly 2 hours trying to find her in the dark and rain. It was only the next morning when I walked the dogs down the road, did I come across part of her remains. She was this years duckling hatch, so only a few months old. Again, seemed such a waste. For days after, our breeding pair (her parents) and her brother Luke, went out into the field looking for her. Her brother seemed lost, as they were inseparable, and it was so sad to watch.

Luckily our loner duck Rae (last years hatch but likes to do her own thing) took him under her wing (pun intended) and began socialising with him, and now they are often seen together. This makes me happy as Luke was clearly unsettled by his sisters sudden departure, but sweet that he’s now found a new buddy in Rae to hang with.

Lastly, we had to kill three of our five cockerels. This in itself was inevitable, and something that we had planned to do. These three males were Bantam birds, part of the first incubator hatch I carried out earlier in the year. Four out of six eggs hatched, and three out of four chicks were cockerels. Unlucky for my first time! We already had an existing Bantam cockerel Rocky, plus later hatched a Cuckoo Maran cockerel in the following incubator hatch. My plan was always to raise them and then eat them. There was never going to be a lot of meat on them, as they’re not table birds, but they’d be ok in a stew or for soup. 

I’d previously butchered and cooked a pheasant, so I was confidant I could do these chickens. The plan was for my partner to humanely ‘despatch’ (kill) them in the morning and then I’d pluck, prepare and butcher them myself. I had instructions in book form and also access to several YouTube videos. What could go wrong?!

The first part went smoothly. We have a derelict outbuilding where we could kill them out of sight of the other birds. But plucking them would be an issue due to lack of room and the fact that once they’d been let out, our other birds would be straight over being all nosy and it could potentially distress them.

My partner had made a wooden frame a few months back to hang a heat lamp from, so I utilised this in our kitchen, to tie the birds to for plucking. I covered the kitchen floor in bin bags and got to work. It wasn’t too difficult once you got into the swing of it, but it took me a while to get confident. By the third bird it was quicker and seemed easier. 

Just to keep me on my toes, during plucking, I heard the postman pull up outside. To prevent him from thinking I’m some sort of weirdo with a kitchen set-up like something out of an episode of Dexter, I quickly rushed outside to intercept the mail before he got to the front door. On returning back to the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of my hair in the window, which was actually covered in feathers. Oops! Didn’t quite pull it off after all!

After plucking, comes the slightly gross bit of butchering & removing the birds innards. As I said before, I’d done it with a pheasant and it seemed pretty straight forward. Well, chickens are different and I struggled big time. Not with finding the idea of butchering difficult, but the physical removal of everything, without nicking any of the vital organs, I found near impossible. I tried for an hour. I called my partner and even he, who has gralloched many deer, also struggled and we ended up accidentally cutting the gall bladder, spoiling the bird.

So after four hours of hard work, I had to admit defeat and threw away the birds instead of putting them to good use. I felt deflated, disappointed and defeated. But saying that, at least a tried. I can put it down to a learning experience. I can’t be good at everything right?! But it has made me more determined to learn how to do it properly, so that I would feel more confident next time.

So that’s a summary of my last month or so, certainly more downs than I had hoped for, but it’s all part of the process I guess. We have a busy winter coming up, lots to harvest and produce to make, so plenty to keep me busy and out of trouble.

Smallholding life is amazing, but sometimes it’s tough. But I guess if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it right? Despite the testing month, I’m still confidant this is the life for me and I’m looking forward to the next lot of Pigs going to slaughter, so that my empty freezer can be filled for winter!