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On the hoof: Which food miles matter?

The food sector in the UK has become increasingly concentrated, with complex supply chains servicing supermarkets, retailers and food outlets.  This has severed our relationship with where our food comes from. Even if we read the label, it may not tell the whole story. For instance, some supermarkets centralise all their meat processing, so farmers are compelled to transport their animals long distances to the an industrial abattoir far from home.  In most cases, the transport is carried out by hauliers in huge livestock trucks.  This is stressful for the animals, as they are usually in a confined space, separated from their flock, for several hours.  When they get to the large abattoir, they will be offloaded into the ‘layerage’ area, where they will be kept for as long as it takes for each animal to be led into the slaughter room.  It need not be this way.

Some specialist abattoirs and butchers have managed to keep their businesses open, despite the competition from the large and powerful industrial slaughter houses.  They provide an essential service to small farms like ours (and to larger ones, too), who want to ensure our animals are treated with respect and care.  The covid-19 pandemic has shown how important local supply chains are, compared to the vulnerability of the large food companies. 

The most important journey is the one from the farm to the abattoir.  In our case, that is a ten minute drive down the hill, so the sheep barely notice they have been moved.  We unload the sheep and lead them into the layerage area ourselves, and if we wanted to we could witness the whole process.  We are fortunate that the abattoir is run by local people, who are farmers themselves and understand our need for our sheep to be treated with respect.  As a small abattoir, they can ensure full traceability, which is especially important in an organic system.  They can also give us the skins for us to take away for curing, a service that would be most unlikely in a large abattoir.  

Therefore the journey from our farm to your plate is not the most important one.  It is the quality of the journey ‘down the hill’ from the farm to the abattoir which reveals how a farm really cares for its animals.  This is never to be taken lightly, nor dulled by routine.  Every time we take sheep down the hill, our respect for the animal is exemplified in these final minutes. 

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