Meating up

We are very committed to supporting local producers. We buy hardly anything from supermarkets anymore,  choosing instead to frequent local shops or buy directly from farmers and growers. It makes sense in terms of sustainability and supports the community – socially and economically. When it comes to meat, however, there is another major reason for buying direct from producers – we can be sure that there is good animal welfare.

Over the years, we gradually moved to buying mainly organic meat, but more recently we have started trying to source as much as possible direct from small producers who are happy to allow their customers to visit and see their production methods directly. Many such producers are not registered organic, but are low-input and high welfare and, unlike larger producers, happy to answer questions about their systems and pleased to have engaged customers.

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good to find a decent producer

And so yesterday we found ourselves on a hillside up above Abergavenny with Martha Roberts and The Decent Company pigs. We met Martha at a smallholders’ gathering last year and decided that her approach was just what we wanted from a meat-producer. So, when she announced that her latest pork was available, I asked if we could come and collect some in person and see the pigs. What a joy it was to meet Nancy, Winnie, Minnie, Dora, Madge, Margot, Wilbur and the growers, plus Polly and her (unplanned) piglets and see them enjoying a free-ranging life amongst the trees and grass… not to mention mud.

We learnt a great deal about pig behaviour and it was a delight to witness them exhibiting it – rooting, rolling, nesting, squabbling, snuggling up together. Most of Martha’s pigs are Gloucester Old Spots (or crosses thereof), but the wonderful Madge is a Mangalitza. Part of me balks at cooing over piglets that I know are destined for the table, but they have a good life and would not exist at all were it not for their meat value. It feels right, to me, to meet my meat and accept the implications of eating it.

So, we had sausages for breakfast this morning and we felt very grateful to Martha for her hard work, high standards and allowing us to learn what goes in to producing the food on our plates.

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the end-product

By the way, I highly recommend Twitter for getting to know small local producers – many of them have accounts and post often about their animals, crops and products. Martha Tweets from @martharoberts and this link should take you to her account even if you are not a registered Twitter user.

It’s a jungle out there

In our garden we have four chickens: Lorna, Esme, Perdy and Black Aliss. After various battles, they are now confined, most of the time, to one section of the garden. They a have a run where they can be further confined, but they are not shut in there much because, frankly, it’s boring for them.

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

Perdy, Esme and Black Aliss

I often see backyard chickens in a dirt run and feel sorry for them. The reason being that, despite their limited flight ability, domestic chickens are birds of the jungle, not of the mud wallow. They are descended from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) which, according to the Smithsonian:

browses on the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, and flies up to nest in the trees at night.

Now I appreciate that we have come a long way since the Red Junglefowl: domestication appears to have taken place 7-10, 000 years ago, and there may have been genetic contributions from three other closely related species. However, chickens do still, generally, prefer to sleep up on a perch (like being on a tree branch) and scratch around for grubs and insects, so they have deep-seated instincts. I can’t help feeling, therefore, that we should provide them with an appropriate habitat in which to live, and that a bare patch of mud or an area of open grass does not do this. In addition, a small enclosed area is likely to build up a rampant population of parasites, leading, for example, to repeated worm infestation.

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

Esme emerging from the ‘woodland’ laying box

Our hens have open areas where they can scratch about or have a dust bath, access to the area around the compost bins, where there are often insects to hunt, intermittent access to the fruit cage, with its herbs and grasses (they are excluded when there is fruit to be had!) and an area under the willow hedge, where leaves accumulate and invertebrates live. They also visit the rest of the garden to turn soil and do the weeding! Recently they have been spending a lot of time under the trees and we decided that it might be a location where they would like to lay. With this in mind, we placed a plastic laying box (actually it’s an old covered cat litter tray that we were given) inside the hedge and this is now Esme’s preferred laying spot. Of course, this is not a safe location to spend the night, so they all happily troop into the run and then their house to roost, safe and sound and inaccessible to foxes or other predators.

Animal welfare is something that anyone keeping livestock should take seriously, both because it’s ethically right and because you get better production if you have healthy happy animals. So, if you do have backyard chooks, give them some shade and an area under the trees where they can get back to their roots and release their inner junglefowl!
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