Jonathan: Denise and I drove down north to Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy today for a cup of tea and a cake in the cafe. 45 miles for a snack? Well of course we did other things along the way: buy a new bin for the kitchen (we’ve had the old one 24 yrs!) and some Xmas cards; bought a big bag of dog food at Lovett’s in Iochdar. Oh, and we collected the sheep from the abattoir – the real purpose of the journey. A sheep in a polythene bag. Five poly bags on the cold room floor. Quite heavy: encouragingly heavy! Iain commented that they were very good sheep – which was even more encouraging. I paid up – £20 each for killing and butchering; a £100 cheque on the office desk; and then I loaded them into the back of the car. An hour and a half later we were home – and the first thing I wanted to do was weigh the bags! And the result: 5 bags, very similar weights; totalling 75kg or slightly more. It’s difficult to put a value on this, as we are keeping it for ourselves, but wouldn’t ordinarily afford this quality of meat – and Hebridean is very highly regarded. But our non-meat equivalent would certainly be a moderately priced cheese, at around £8/kg. But even at that measure we’ve brought home £600 worth of meat from the five sheep. Bagging up the joints and cuts into individual freezer bags, seeing and feeling the wonderful quality of the meat, I felt for the first time in my life really pleased – proud, in fact – of the results of my own vision, commitment and hard work. Yes I’ve felt some measure of pride in my civil engineering work, but never anything like this!
Jonathan: This is the time of year for culling livestock. In the past the meat would have been salted, dried, smoked … All a lot of work – so thank heavens for freezers! Today I’ve been plucking and jointing cockerels, some younger Buff Orpingtons we raised for meat, and the first of three Welsumer cockerels from the croft that must make way for some youngsters.
Jonathan: A sad and difficult day. Geese are a bit silly at times, a bit cussed, and can make a bit of mess. But they have individual characters, and are very social creatures. It is difficult to be indifferent to geese, unless I suppose one keeps them in very large numbers and on a strictly commercial basis. The numbers on our croft have peaked at 24 this year (ignoring losses of young goslings), and I know most of them well, certainly those that weren’t born this year. But even this modest number is too many to sustain over winter. The intention this year was to reduce this 24 down to nine, two established breeding trios of older birds, and the young male and two females born this year and raised initally in the walled garden. Those to be culled included the very noisy chinese geese and their two youngsters, an older female who appears to be infertile, and all of the ten geese born on the croft this year.
Yesterday afternoon I rounded them up into the sheep fank (with the help of the sheep dog from next door, who obviously thought I needed help!) and then had the heart-rending job of taking out geese one by one to kill. Being separated from the others makes them desperate and the best way to quieten them is to tuck their heads under one’s arm so that they can’t see – they then go quiet. I use a captive bolt gun to stun them and then cut their throats. Sorry to be detailed on this, but there’s no good comes from fudging and glossing. Once they are dead, my emotional trial is over. They are then raw food to be processed. Sounds heartless. So is eating a KFC meal without ever giving a thought to the animals that have died to make it.
A complication was that a lot of the geese had lost their coloured leg rings, which meant I couldn’t tell what age they were; and under the circumstances I couldn’t identify them from usual behaviour; so by the time I was down to 11 geese left, I had to stop, to avoid the risk of not having sufficient males or females. Not ideal, but next spring, when they start thinking about raising new families, I shall be able to identify who is who, and fit new leg rings accordingly.
Lacking any equipment to pluck the birds entirely (by hand that would be extremely time-consuming and difficult), we can’t yet roast geese whole, which is no doubt what most people would imagine. Insteady I pluck all the best quality curled feather and down for making pillows and cushions, and then cut out the breast meat, typically 8oz or so per breast, and a dark richly-flavoured meat it is. It’s not getting all we could from them, but it’s all that’s practicable in the circumstances this year. A few breasts have gone to neighbours as thank-you’s for this and that, but the rest in the freezer. Each breast will make Denise and I a meal.
Thankfully the trauma is one that I only have to deal with once a year. For the rest of the year the geese are a real pleasure to keep – making very little work and costing nothing more than perhaps £1 per year of grain each bird. That’s good value.