Where your Mouth Is: Sheep Farming in New Zealand
After getting a particularly cancerous pork chop from the local supermarket our writer made a vow – he wasn't going to eat a piece of meat again unless he knew where it came from.
"That’s the gun Munder's son shot himself with."
I look at the rifle in my hand. The barrel is heavily scratched, accidental hieroglyphs of a murky past.
"Reliable model, dad got it for $100."
The wooden grip shines in two places, treated by a hundred years of sweaty palms.
"Winchester 22, came over with the Poms."
I stand in a field with Corrin the farmer and John, my New Zealand host. We are at the base of the Main Divide mountain range; snow topped peaks look down on us. The Canterbury Plains stretch to the east, farm after farm rolling over the Earth’s curvature.
"Lost the magazine, but still works," says John, a semi-retired hunting guide. He wears Wrangler jeans, a fishing supplies cap, and a cotton shirt. All are marbled with sweat and dirt. He walks with a half-skip limp, his knee decommissioned a decade ago by a wild boar.
"Remind me once we’re finished," says Corrin, "I think I’ve got a spare one in the house."
A worry of barren ewes flows round the small paddock in front of us, their only use meat.
I join the conversation: "Was it an accident?"
"The boy who shot himself, was it an accident?"
"Suicide, shot himself between the eyes."
I put the gun on the back of the pickup and take a few steps away.
After getting a particularly cancerous pork chop from the local supermarket I had made a vow. I wasn't going to eat a piece of meat again unless I knew where it came from. New Zealand’s animal products made me uncomfortable, they tasted fake, more like an impression of food than the real thing. You could taste their high-yield high-efficiency farming in every bite. That was all except the wild venison. The best tasting piece of meat I’d ever eaten had lived on the mountain behind John’s house.
I told John of my vow. He liked it, thought it was a great idea. He said he could make it happen. I thought we would be going hunting in the mountains. Instead I found myself at Corrin’s farm with a gun.
John takes aim. The first shot fades over the fields. The ewe chosen is still standing but chewing rapidly. Blood starts to run down its chin.
"Bit low there, got it in the mouth," John says, lowering the gun.
He takes aim again. I hold my breath. Bang. The sheep doesn't fall. It runs around in circles shaking its head, trying to throw off whatever is causing it pain. The second shot went through her cheek.
"Aim higher when you’re this close," says Corrin, "you’re making a pig’s dinner of this John."
Corrin paces back and forth with his hands behind his back. Used to slaughter he still finds this slow death difficult to watch. John aims for the third time and shoots. The sheep falls onto her back, legs twitching in the air.
Corrin stares at John, his gaze is not met. "Bit of a disaster John."
"Yeah, the gun's not firing the best."
John laughs awkwardly, an apology to the beast.
I had seen one other sheep shot when I was a child. My mum said it would be good for me to watch. Maybe she would have been right if it wasn't such an isolated incident. It didn't make me used to death, only aware of it.
And what of Scotland, why was I only questioning my food choices in a foreign country? I had an ineffable feeling we were better, we were more ethical. Scottish beef was best, Scottish pork had a great life, Scottish eggs were from happy hens. I had a conscience, I bought free-range everything. Those two words made it all seem alright. I imagined mother hen twaddling through a leafy forest, eating a diet of wild grains and juicy worms while chirping away to her comrades.
The UK requirements for a free-range classification are as follows:
- No more than nine hens per square metre.
- Theoretical access to the outdoors at least once every three months.
On the way to Glasgow airport for my flight to New Zealand, I got stuck in traffic on the M74. A livestock float destined for the slaughterhouse pulled up beside me. Dirty scared animals in a dirty scary lorry, the whites of their eyes bulging through small holes in metal walls. I wound up my window and looked straight ahead. We used to live with our animals in our house, why as our standard of living has gone up has theirs come down?
Snow loosened by the brutal sun falls down the mountains in fitful whispers. Covered in sunblock my nose still burns, the ozone hole above New Zealand difficult to avoid. The hiss of spraying water can be heard behind us, an irrigation pivot arches its emaciated frame over countless fields, like rows of greyhound skeletons pissing on the Canterbury Plains.
Corrin slowly wrings his hands; deeply creased, they sound like sandpaper against damp wood. When we first shook hands, the thick skin felt like a layer of rubber between us. His shirt is loosely buttoned, a wisp of white chest hair hanging over the top button. His rolled-up sleeves reveal forearms like ancient treated timbers. Corrin is known as the most parsimonious farmer in Canterbury – that he once made his wife get a part-time job is local folklore.
New Zealand’s biggest export is milk powder to China. Modern irrigation systems have changed the face of farming on the Canterbury Plains. Where dry scrubland used to support hardy sheep, lush green grass feeds an army of dairy cows. Corporations have invested heavily, driving up the cost of land while reducing the private farmer's margin. During the six months I lived there, two local families sold their farms to the same corporation. Ruthless commercial farming doesn’t just affect animals.
Corrin decided not to irrigate his fields for dairy cattle, instead sticking with sheep.
"Sheep do well on this land naturally. Once you get the loan to irrigate the land, you spend the rest of your life working for the bank. The bank owns everything."
John asks me to pass him his boning knife. A bright plastic handled blade in an old carved leather pouch. He starts by cutting the throat, then slitting from the neck to tail. He cuts round the anus, then scoops out the blue green and purple coils and sacks that make up organs. He dumps these beside himself, careful not to puncture the bladder or intestines.
"Go chuck them in the trees Ciaran."
They smell like hot grass and blood. Visceral fat and slime make them slippy, the intestines roll out my hands like a greasy slinky. I put the bundle down and try to get a better grip. I throw the ewe’s mechanics in the trees then walk back.
"What’s wrong with you Ciaran?" asks Corrin.
"He’s not used to this sort of thing," answers John for me.
I’ve lost my appetite.