Tales of the Bird Man: No Meat on my Plate

Tales of the Bird Man: No Meat on my Plate

It’s strange, thinking back to the days when I ate meat, specifically about the act of eating meat and what meat I ate. As an adult I recall the tinned ravioli of my youth and I come over all queasy. To this day, I’m not at all sure what the meat was composed of that lay hidden inside those little pasta parcels. I remember it was squishy and uniform, some sort of paste that oozed out into the allegedly tomato-based sauce.

I ate rather a lot of ravioli, though. Macaroni cheese, too, with bits of ham. I must have liked them, or, being a child, I simply would have refused to eat them. I tried eating tinned macaroni cheese a few years back, though, and found the stuff revolting. Too salty and, curiously, I could taste sugar in the mix as well. The pasta, meanwhile, was unspeakably bland and soft. Either the recipes have changed or, more likely, it’s the transformations time has wrought on my taste buds, making the stuff unpalatable to grown-up me.

I remember alphabet spaghetti. I spent more time spelling out words with those pasta shapes than I did eating them. They would often go cold and very gelatinous, my mother chiding me for not finishing my dinner but my response being to say, “Look! I made a word!”

“Words won’t fill up your tummy,” she said.

I often got sausages alongside my alphabet spaghetti. My mother was of the opinion that I needed to eat meat. I asked her once, why this was.

“If you don’t eat meat you’ll end up not growing properly,” she said.

I remember mince. We ate a lot of minced beef in our household. I used to accompany my mother and father to the butchers. I remember looking at the huge slabs of meat, all hanging from great big hooks, and shuddering. My response to death, laid out like that, was instinctive and deeply emotional.

I looked at whole chickens, ducks and geese; sides of beef and lamb chops. I’d ask, “What are those?” and my parents would tell me. One time I was nearly sick at the sight of a great big slab of flat pink, something my father told me was an ox’s tongue.

“A tongue?” I asked, horrified.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s very tasty.”

“You have it on sandwiches,” my mother said.

“I’m never eating a tongue,” I said.

“Well, I’m not keen on it myself, truth be told,” she whispered. “Your daddy likes it, though.”

One time, when my parents were out and I was in my early teens, I decided to bake bread. My parents returned home to find at least ten freshly baked loaves on the kitchen table. The mythologising that goes on in families has led, with time, to this number being exaggerated in the retelling of the tale. I have often poo-pooed my mum for claiming I baked twenty slabs of bread. I really didn’t. What’s more, the bread I did produce was perfectly edible. It was the mess I left behind that my parents had a problem with.

Rare is the teenager who has a problem with mess, who can even see the trail they leave behind them: broken things, smelly things, dirty things, and breadcrumbs. I kept myself clean and my bedroom tidy, but the kitchen looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost had met his demise there that day. An ectoplasmic shower of flour covered almost every surface, pans and trays everywhere.

“Bloody hell,” said my father. “It’s like there’s been an explosion in a snow globe factory.”

Although I was often indulged as a child, allowing my imagination to flourish and eventually turn me into the writer that I am today, I was told to clean up the mess I’d made. Mum helped, which really meant she did most of the work.

I was always interested in finding out how food was produced, what went into it. That’s what drove my actions and questions. When it came to killing things to eat them, I made the argument as a little boy that if we couldn’t kill, then we shouldn’t eat the things killed for us.

“Why is that?” my father asked, his face a picture of confusion as he wondered what planet his fifth and final child lived on.

“Well,” I began, thinking hard. “It’s not fair to get other people to do things you’re not prepared to do yourself.”

“I wish your father thought like you do,” Mum quipped. “He might help me with the housework a bit more often.”

“You can come and work at the factory,” Dad said.

“I did, once, remember? It was how I met you. Five children later, I’m not going back there.”

Four decades after what I said as a child, the proposition remains with me, nuanced by education, experience and time. When you go to the supermarket and see all the shrink-wrapped bloodless meats, you’re distanced from how they are produced. It’s made very easy to turn a blind eye to how animals are raised and killed for the table, especially when the meat you’re buying is very cheap and you’ve got a family to feed on a limited budget.

I have a lot of respect for people who raise farm animals to high welfare standards. They let chickens and other livestock free-range and do all the things nature designed them to do. They kill them for table quickly and humanely, without suffering involved. They use as much of the animal as they can, to avoid waste.

I’m not on a mission to stop people eating meat. That would be great from my perspective, sure, but mine is not the only viewpoint in the world and I don’t believe beating anybody around the head to bully them into submission is ever going to work. Calling for people to be more responsible and considerate in their shopping habits is a realistic, achievable aim – certainly better than calling for others to ‘do as I do’ and stop eating meat altogether. If you do, as a result of your own thinking, stop eating meat, that’s great in my opinion. I think it’s just as wonderful, though, when people stop buying cheap chicken to eat it five nights a week, and buy a free-range chicken once or twice a week instead, eating vegetable-based meals at other times.

Every action we take that has better animal welfare as an underlying goal is a good thing. Besides, my lifelong beef (possibly distasteful pun, nevertheless intended) isn’t only with the idea of eating animals, how we treat them.

I’m just as concerned about how we treat each other.

I’ve no idea how old I was when I saw that horrific picture of the girl in Vietnam, naked and burning after a napalm attack, running towards the camera and screaming in agony. It was in a copy of my father’s Daily Mirror. I think the photograph had won some sort of award. I wasn’t allowed to read the newspaper, understandable enough when I was very little, but Dad had left it on the sofa. My mum found me reading it, and snatched it away.

“You shouldn’t be looking at the newspaper,” she said. “Your dad will go mental.”

I looked up at my mother with what she recollects as being the saddest, most doleful eyes, brimming with tears.

“We should be extinct,” I said. “Like the dinosaurs.”

It was quite a dark thing for a child of maybe four years old to say. My mum sat across from me, in her armchair. She told me the context of the photograph, well, enough for me to grasp that there had been a war.

There was and always is a war, somewhere.

“Why are people so cruel?” I asked. “To each other and to animals?”

My mum shook her head. “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Animals fight. Animals kill.”

“But they do it for reasons,” I said.

“People think they have reasons,” Mum pointed out.

“They don’t have reasons,” I said. “We don’t have to do the things we do. Did that little girl live?”

Mum didn’t know. I found out years later that the girl had survived.

“I won’t ever be a soldier,” I said. “I won’t go to fight in a war.”

Mum told me about conscientious objectors. I said I would be one of those.

“You’d be given a very hard time,” she said. “I remember, back before I met your father, this one man who didn’t fight. They put him to work on the farm and everybody hated him. I didn’t. They called him a coward.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I won’t hurt people or animals.”

I’ve stuck to that my whole life, more or less. Of course, I’ve hurt other people emotionally. It’s something all human beings do, in friendships and relationships. Sometimes even intentionally. I’ve had to take beloved pets to the vets for a final journey, to end their unfixable suffering. I’ve stood on bugs without knowing. We all have.

I tried becoming a vegetarian when I was a teenager but my mum just gave me beans on toast every evening until I was sick of them. It never occurred to me to cook for myself, of course. Making all that bread when I was very little, that had been fun; cooking a meal for yourself, that was a tedious chore. It was only when I left home to study in London that I finally became the vegetarian I’d aspired to be for years, and learned to embrace cooking as a great thing to be able to do. I found it cheaper to make a big vegetable casserole for the week than to spend money on meat.

That was twenty-six years ago. What you eat really is your own business – but I do, as part of my work to promote better welfare for chickens, focus on the horrors of the caged hen systems, mechanised killing machines, hormone injections, fast-grown mutations and the overuse of antibiotics. These things aren’t in themselves the sole preserve of vegetarians and vegans to speak out against; it is for everyone, whatever you eat, to say Not In My Name, Not On My Plate. Because the mass production, industrialised approach to farming has consequences for everyone, and the planet.

A few ex-caged hens clucking around in your back garden are excellent ambassadors and whistleblowers. People with no knowledge of chickens and no awareness of what goes into their fast food favourites, they meet the survivors of legal torture and incarceration, and they ask questions while delighting in the bright-eyed, intelligent birds that rush to greet them. Conversations begin. Knowledge is shared. They manage to enter into people’s hearts and make them think about the issues. No need for placards or aggressive militancy. By clucking and being friendly, pottering about and eating, interacting with each other and people, well-loved chickens can do so much more good than angry words ever have.

I’m proud of my flock. They do good for their own species without even knowing it. The same is true of backyard and back garden flocks the world over. The pet chicken is, of course, a largely modern phenomenon. They’ve been kept for meat and eggs for tens of thousands of years, though. In all that time, I’m sure there will have been the occasional pioneering sort of person who kept one or more chickens as pets. It’s only in the 21st Century, however, that we can say somewhere between an astonishing 250,000 and 500,000 households in the UK alone keep chickens as pets.

Chickens and humanity haven’t built up the sort of relationship we have with dogs and cats. The chicken has been a pet in significant numbers for only a matter of decades. If the pet chicken revolution continues to grow as it has in recent years, and assuming we don’t blow ourselves and everything else up or otherwise ruin our shared habitat, you can imagine that, after ten thousand years of friendly contact, chickens might evolve as dogs and cats did in response to interactions with us. They could conceivably learn more than a thing or two about how best to behave around us to ensure they are loved and not eaten.

Imagine. Chickens using litter trays, able to hold their poop in until it’s socially acceptable to let it go in a designated spot. That would be something. For the time being, alas, it’s the biology of chickens, more than their brain power, that determines them as being wholly unsuitable to spending quality time walking around on posh carpets.

Chickens learn fast and are incredibly adaptive to the circumstances they find themselves in. A chicken can cope with blindness or with being one-legged. A chicken recognises that you identify it with its own name, and also learns the names of other animals considered pets in the same household. A pet chicken will come running when you call it, not just for food but for affection as well. A pet chicken will know when you are happy and coo at you when you are sad, trying to cheer you up. I’ve seen chicks help other chicks to hatch, something scientists call altruistic behaviour. It’s often denied, by those supposedly in the know, as even being possible in poultry. Well. It is.

I’ve seen chickens, like elephants and apes, grieve when a friend – and they do have friends, enemies too – dies. I’ve sometimes feared a grieving hen will die of a broken heart if she doesn’t make a new friend quickly, and in doing so overcome her feelings of grief and loss. My long-since passed away Araucana hen, Ghostie, lost her best friend, another Araucana, when she wasn’t even a year old. She refused to engage with other hens in the flock and stopped eating. It was only by acting quickly and getting another couple of Araucana hens that I stopped Ghostie becoming an actual ghost! She perked up when she saw her new sisters and, after making sure they knew she was boss, was absolutely fine.

Chickens are dumb, some people say. Really? No. Not really. It’s not at all dumb to vastly outnumber human beings. It’s not dumb to survive as a species by becoming indispensable to the most dominant and domineering lifeform on the planet, providing meat and eggs. As far as nature is concerned, chickens are hugely successful. They have over thirty different vocal sounds that can be combined or used individually. Chickens can count, knowing precisely how far a measured distance they can stray from the coop before the sun goes down, which would expose them to the danger of night-time predators. A chicken is self-aware, being able to recognise its image in a mirror or other reflective surface as a representation of its own self.

That’s more than a human toddler can do.

Almost everyone is a stereotypical something. Ask your average man on a UK street, what does a poultry-keeper look like? If they even know the word poultry – and a lot of people don’t – then they’ll probably say it’s an old man: a farmer who wears tweed, carries a gun and has a cloth cap. He might even smoke a pipe while he leans on the fence and watches over his flock. It’s a strange fantasy of rural life. They’re confusing Prince Charles and the old Hovis bread ads with the keeping of chickens. Or maybe they listen to the BBC Radio 4 drama, The Archers.

Farming is heavily romanticised. It’s interesting how there is this sepia-tinted image in people’s minds, when the world since 1950 has largely switched over to a very different kind of farming: mechanised production lines and animals packed into small spaces, stuffed full of antibiotics and growth hormones. Believe me, modern farming offers nothing for the romantically-inclined to admire and idealise. Farmers work harder than ever, despite the promise of industrialisation having once been to make all our lives easier. Joni Mitchell sang that they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, but whoever ‘they’ were, they did more than provide new parking opportunities. They built great big sheds in which to house tens of thousands of chickens in cages – and other livestock as well – in narrow stalls, never seeing daylight and destined, eventually, to end up on conveyor belts taking them to fully automated deaths.

There is a great deal of double-speak suited to the 1984 world imagined by George Orwell. Modern farming is often described as traditional farming, while those returning to real traditional farming are said to be indulging in unorthodox and unconventional, eccentric approaches. But return to the methods of the past, they do. And in ever-increasing numbers. Environmentalists were once dismissed as barking mad extremists when they called for the use of fewer antibiotics and campaigned for better animal welfare. They argued that to ensure the long-term viability of the soil in which we grow much of our food, natural compost was better than artificial fertilisers.

Not so crazy now.

Many long-established farmers and those new to the work are turning their backs on automation and cages, in favour of keeping animals out in the fresh air, living natural lives. Then there are those of us who are taking livestock out of the farming environment altogether, into our gardens and onto our allotments, calling them pets or, at the very least, treating them with respect, acknowledging they aren’t stupid and valuing them immensely for their eggs, meat and sheer breathtaking beauty.

I’m as far removed from any farming stereotype you might care to conjure up as it’s possible to be. My immediate background was not farming. My father was a production manager for a soft drinks company, my mother a housewife bringing up five kids. I don’t wear tweed or smoke a pipe. I was born into a working class family, nowhere near farm animals, and I’m not old yet. But then, I’ll probably say that if I reach the age of 90 (my father died at the age of 96 and believed himself capable of anything right up to his passing). I studied English and Theatre Arts at university but I’m not a rich graduate, I don’t own land (I rent an allotment) and, until 2007, I had never grown a single food plant. I occasionally bought a cactus in a pot and my salads always came in bags from the supermarket. If I could become a successful chicken-keeper, and I most certainly did, then anyone can.

Mrs Tweedy, in the animated film Chicken Run was quite correct: the chickens really are up to something… A clucking revolution is taking place.

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