Ethical meat doesn't mean much - until you get out into the countryside and see where it comes from. Then it makes sense, says Sachin Kureishi
I am languishing on my patio, riding out the horror of a three-day, post-music-festival hangover, when the phone rings. It’s Patrick Galbraith, an old friend and the Editor of Shooting Times. “Hi pal, I’ve been thinking about cooking up some squirrels and a deer and I was wondering if you wanted to join me and maybe write an article about ethical meat consumption?” he said.
Thinking about my bank balance, I tell him that any offers of paid employment are very welcome but ask, on a practical note, where we’re going to find such exotic creatures.
“Well, that’s the thing,” he replies. “You’ll have to go back to the country.”
My name is Sachin Kureishi and I am a British-Pakistani man in my mid-20s from a grotty neighbourhood in West London. Thanks to Patrick I have now been to the country exactly five times — this does not include a trip to Glastonbury.
During those visits I’ve come face to face with a cow, met a ferret, seen a duck shot out of the sky and separated a fist fight in a Scottish layby.
I tell him I’ll think about it,then roll over on my sun lounger and go back to sleep — what do I have to say about “ethical meat consumption” anyway? That evening, as I pull some beef out the oven, I suddenly find myself trying to avoid thinking about how the cow met its end. As the news plays in the kitchen I watch my brother spreading peppercorn sauce on the cow’s belly; at least I think it’s belly, it could be a leg. Either way, I don’t feel so hungry.
A few days later, Patrick rings again. This time he goes in hard, telling me I need to eat less processed meat and more squirrel or biblical floods and tornadoes will come. I’m not sure I quite follow, but if the people of the countryside need my help, then give it to them I shall.
I wake up just as we’re pulling into a lay-by beside a dark wood. I step out of the car and look around — we’re surrounded by green, soaring trees, the air is filled with the chitter-chatter of birds and it doesn’t smell like car exhausts or rotting sewers.
A local farmer tips his cap at me as he rolls past in a tractor. He mumbles something in gibberish but from his smile I believe he is thanking me for coming to help. “A pleasure,” I say with a nod. I’ve arrived in the country.
“He’s there,” Patrick says, and I follow his gaze to a sunless area under an oak tree not far away. Tim Weston is perched on the tailgate of his pickup, sniper rifle slung over his back like an archer’s bow. “That’s our guide,” says Patrick.
“The deer hunter,” I murmur back. After we exchange pleasantries, Tim explains that the plan is to try shooting some mid-afternoon squirrel, then later in the evening try for some deer. “But first,” he says, retrieving his rifle, “want to have a go?”
I take it hesitantly and cradle it in my arms, gently caressing its neck as you might a baby. Such an elegant, formidable thing, I think, as I raise it to my shoulder and squint through the scope. The world around me disappears; I am now alone. And I wonder who is more alone, the sniper or the writer, as I grip my finger around the cold trigger and take aim at a tree. I pull down and a bomb-like crack rips through the wood. Bolt actions speak louder than words.
On the hunt for ethical meat
“You ready for the real thing?” Tim asks as I hand it back. Childishly, it’s been a bit of a thrill but I admit that ideally I’d prefer not to kill anything. “If only it were that simple,” he says before making off into the wood.
I follow this intriguing man through the prickly forest. Patrick walks beside us, shotgun barrels held aloft, ears alert to squirrel scamper. The sun winks at us through the trees, glistening dew lies on the tips of the high grass like little crowns — I feel at ease for the first time. Bang! Patrick fires through the trees and a terrified squirrel scurries up into the canopy.
I catch up with Tim and press him for answers; what did he mean by “If only it were that simple?”.
“Sachin,” he says, “We’ve already killed these animals, ever since we became custodians of the natural world all those thousands of years ago. It’s just my job to make sure they die in the right order.”
He plucks a stalk of holly from the earth. “If there are too many deer, the effects will ripple through the ecosystem. They’ll eat all the holly and then there won’t be any trees — other animals won’t have a place to live. Species will die.”
I think about this irony; the only way to mitigate the effects of our intervention is with more careful and considered intervention.
The morals of meat consumption
If animals have to die, the moral question surrounding meat consumption has been framed incorrectly. It requires a caveat: if the animal has to die, what then should be done with it? Would a true environmentalist not eat it? Even if they disliked venison, would it not be incumbent on them to lather it in peppercorn sauce and gobble it down with a side of skinny frites? Any alternative seems wasteful.
Bang! Another shot flies past my head. “It’s not the day for squirrel,” Tim says, as he squats to look at some faeces. “But maybe for deer.”
We walk all day, the pain from my blisters now a welcome focus. I’m so hungry, the thought of chewing on dry deer breast is making my mouth water. I’m desperate, but maybe this is how it should be.
There’s something morally dubious about walking into KFC at three in the morning and devouring the wings of 12 chickens, only to forget the feast even took place until you see your bank statement the next day. If we find a deer I will enjoy it like no deer has been enjoyed before, devouring every scrap I’m given, and in doing so I will have respected its life the best way I could.
The mood is stirred when, all of a sudden, Tim stops in his tracks. He presses scope of his rifle to his eye, locked and loaded before the stock hits his shoulder. Patrick hands me a heat scope and I look through. And it’s now that I lay eyes on it, the most beautiful animal I have ever seen — a tiny deer, smaller than I had imagined, but with an ethereal, dazzling glow that could light the darkest wood. I explain this to Patrick. He reminds me that I’m looking through a heat sensor.
Bang! An ear-splitting crash reverberates around forest. I open my eyes to see Tim has already made off into the darkness. I follow him. A young muntjac buck with short almond hair lies in the shrubbery. It has a chalk-white chest stained with a thin streak of blood that runs from the narrow gunshot wound on its back.
I look into his sightless, button eyes. It wasn’t afraid, it couldn’t have been. Do animals feel fear like we do? The affirmative would require recognition of themselves as alive and the possibility that they might no longer be. If not, death is not the same for them. I wonder what he was feeling as he drew his last breath.
I glance over at Tim, who now has the buck suspended from a tree. He tears a knife down its chest, spilling its oily guts on to the dirt below. Bon appetit.
Night has arrived. The air is crisp and congealed to such a stillness I can hear a couple of travellers fighting over a donkey in a neighbouring town. I hold a candle over the barbecue as Tim lays a thigh into the crackling pan.
Tim pierces a chunk of meat and hands it to me. I let the hot, moist flesh melt on my tongue as I sink back in my chair.
A sense of great understanding washes over me. I think about identity — who am I, really? What is an animal? The muntjac I saw lying in the grass looks nothing like the venison stocked in Sainsbury’s.
Stalking trends come and go. From calibres to optics, all have their time. Fashion also influences the shots we take,…
Muntjac are starting to appear on my deer stalking ground. Do I need to worry they will push out the…
I think of the age-old philosophical problem concerning identity over time, how much something has to change before it can no longer be considered that thing any more. Those skinless, sanitised breasts wrapped in plastic share none of the physical qualities of a live animal.
Perhaps it’s irresponsible to remove people so far from this. Maybe meat packets should have warning labels like cigarettes. Of course, I’d be the first to express my disapproval, but right now what I want may not be what’s best.
Meat can be eaten ethically, I know that now, I just wonder if enough people care.