t was going to happen at some point: our flock of herdwick sheep would reach a certain size, and we'd have to make the decision of what do with the surplus (a clinical way of putting it). We can only sustain so many sheep on the farm due the amount of land, and hence amount of grass that we have, and due to finances - we can't support all the sheep for the rest of their natural lives. And since we need the small-holding to be self-sustaining, we needed to make some money using the sheep. The obvious way to do this is to sell the sheep. The options were: (1) sell the excess sheep off to other farmers at market; (2) or slaughter the excess sheep for meat, and by selling the meat, aim for the small-holding to be self-sustaining. If we sold the sheep at market, we didn't know what quality of life they would have on other farms. So, we opted for option number two.
In a perfect world I'd home-slaughter all the animals that we were rearing for meat as I think that it is the least stressful way for them to die. One second they're eating breakfast, and the next they are dead, without an inkling of their impending doom. That is the way that I would like to die: without any knowledge of it coming. But, UK law means that we cannot sell any meat that we home-slaughter. So, it all has to go off to the abattoir. My concerns were that this would lead to the sheep being stressed and unhappy. Neither of us wanted this. So, we tried to make it all as straightforward and efficient as possible. We visited the abattoir beforehand, and planned how we were going to transport them with as little stress as possible.
On the morning of 'slaughter day' we fed them, and then loaded them up into my truck: two hoggets (a sheep between one and two years old), Bert and Ernie, and a ewe (a female sheep which has had lambs) Alice. We'd booked a 9am slot at the abattoir, and as soon as we arrived, after a thirty minute journey, the staff were waiting for us. Once off-loaded, we walked our sheep through to the stunning room, and were able to spend five to ten minutes hand-feeding them, and trying to calm them. They were obviously aware of the new surroundings, and sniffed the floor of the abattoir holding pens as we walked pass them. There is research which says that when animals are stressed they release a specific hormone in their urine. Other animals following behind can then smell that hormone, and this in turn leads them to feel stressed. This ran through my mind as I saw Ernie and Bert smelling the floor. But they continued to follow my wife with the food bucket. We entered the stunning room. It was small, and had a conveyor-type lift in one corner which led through hanging plastic drapes to the next area of the abattoir.
As we hand-fed Bert and Ernie (Alice was not as relaxed as they were) the onsite vet said that he could see they were more pets than livestock. I asked him what the difference was, to which I got no reply. Two men then went into the small pen with our three sheep. One picked up a pair of tongs about 24" long. They put the ends of these tongs over Alice's temples, and in one to two seconds she had fallen to the floor, unconscious. These tongs pass a large amount of electricity through the brain, hence causing a loss of consciousness. She then had one of her hind legs attached to the conveyor lift with a chain, was pulled up off the floor, and was moved into the next area where her throat was slit. This is what actually killed her: loss of all blood - exsanguination. This last part was out of sight of Bert and Ernie. The same happened to the two boys, and was over in the space of about one minute.
I don't know what they were feeling. I'll never know. Bert and Ernie, being that they are very tame, were happy to eat out of our hands and the bucket. This makes me think they were relatively relaxed. I know I wouldn't want to eat if I was feeling anxious or stressed. Alice has always been more wild. She may have been feeling stressed. I hope not too much, but I don't know.
It was better than I thought it would be. I'm glad I was there to the end, both to witness it, and also to be there for the sheep. I hope that having two familiar humans around helped to calm them. It does feel like the ultimate betrayal. There's no getting round that.