In 2014, Clare Hunt moved to Cullompton, Devon, to fulfil her dream of living on a smallholding. Here, in our dedicated series on smallholdings, she explains her venture into butchering her own lambs and offers tips she learned on the way.
In the three and a bit years which I’ve been a smallholder with sheep, there have been a lot of firsts.
My first lambs bought at market (nerve-wracking), first shearing (back breaking), first lambing (euphoric) and the first trip to the abattoir (daunting). And this year’s first has come in the form of butchery.
Previously I’ve had my carcases cut by a local butcher, but I’ve practiced, studied and gained a tiny bit of knowledge so this time round I wanted to get hands-on.
I think it’s fair to say rearing animals as a smallholder is very different to doing so as a commercial farmer.
With small flocks or herds come unavoidable familiarity. Personalities stand out from the crowd, individuals are identifiable and there’s recognition between keeper and kept.
My intention in having sheep was always they’d be a source of meat, but until you’re faced with the responsibility of putting a head on the metaphorical chopping block you never know how you’ll feel about it.
While I don’t think large-scale farmers are insensitive to the taking of lives, they are inevitably accustomed to it.
As a relatively new smallholder, it still gives me pause for thought. I feel matter of fact about the trip to the abattoir but there are always a few twinges the night before.
These are animals I’ve delivered at lambing, watched grow from gangly to strapping and some have become inconveniently friendly.
The flock's wool is used in Clare's craft business
Luckily, in my first year I had only male lambs, so their fate was sealed from the kick-off.
They had no other potential role in the flock. They couldn’t be saved as future breeding stock, which could have been the chicken-out option. Being pragmatic about sending them to slaughter was relatively straightforward.
I knew their welfare standards were verging on indulgent. The abattoir is local, they travelled in a small group and were dispatched quickly. The process can never be entirely stress-free, but this really is as good as it gets.
This year, I wanted to take things a step further to break down and butcher the carcases so I was wasting nothing.
My tiny bit of butchery experience convinced me though this wouldn’t be a doddle, it should be manageable.
It would be a slow process, wouldn’t win me rosettes for presentation, but there would be meat in the freezer at the end of the day which would look roughly recognizable as lamb legs, shoulders and chops.
Many smallholders feel they get a good understanding of the characteristics in their flock
Obviously, my first ports of call were YouTube and Google. There is tonnes of material out there, so I chose a set of instructions I trusted and rehearsed the sequence of events in my mind – detach the back end, detach the front end, portion the middle, divide the legs and shoulders. Bob’s your uncle.
Armed with what I believed was the necessary knowledge, the next considerations were practical – where and how to butcher four lambs in a domestic context.
I settled on a tarpaulin-covered picnic table in the garage. With convenient beams for hanging the carcases and lots of space for various containers and bags, it was a location where the odd drip or splat would be forgiven, more so than in the wood-floored kitchen.
I bought a new hacksaw, a considerable stack of plastic bags and sharpened my knives.
But I did have niggling worries. I have no spatial awareness so I wondered if I could actually fit four rigid carcases in the car.
I rehearsed the awkward conversation I’d have if the police stopped me. I considered the chance I just wouldn’t be able to work out what to do once I’d started and be left with four ruined lambs.
Then I started fretting about the weather. We’d been experiencing a run of hot, humid days leading me to worry about spoilage and flies. It’s amazing what your imagination can construct with when it’s got no actual knowledge to play with.
Having delivered four live lambs to the abattoir on the Monday, I’d arranged to collect the carcases on Friday of the same week.
This meant they would have a few days to hang, letting the meat relax and mature a bit as well as allowing it to dry out.
I’d kitted out the back of the car with a sturdy tarp and fortuitously all four carcases fitted in without problem. The first hurdle was cleared.
Back home, the hard work commenced. Just hanging the carcases was an undertaking. Manhandling 22kg of slippery lamb onto a hook requires a degree of dexterity, but once this was done and all my knives, saws, cutting boards, packaging and rubbish bags were arrayed I was ready to go.
Clearly, managing the first carcase was always going to be the hardest. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to follow step-by-step instructions, but whatever you’re doing they never seem to be quite as fulsome as you’d wish.
I felt a tiny thrill of triumph when I got the first back end off, then the forequarters. It was the middle bit which threw me.
I’d imagined all I would do is cut the ribcage into chops, but there seemed an inordinate amount of rib to deal with.
I had my first epiphany. There are bits on a carcase which you never see as a consumer.
Presumably there’s no demand for lamb ribs so they don’t feature on the butchers’ counter, but mine were meaty so I cleaved them off, anticipating having them in a delicious slow-cooked stew.
I was mildly disappointed with the first chops. They were unevenly sized and ragged. But then I saw where a Barnsley chop comes from, I identified the rack and the loin, began to intuit when to use the saw and when to use the knife. All the cuts of lamb I’d ever eaten slotted into place.
The legs and shoulders were more straightforward, though in attempting to half the first shoulder I took a rogue detour and ended up doing a wholly unnecessary and time consuming bit of boning out.
Eventually, and I do mean eventually, I finished the first carcase. Numbers two, three and four were certainly quicker than number one.
I even got a bit fancy, making the odd boned and rolled loin and chops which looked less caveman and more butchers’ shop. But it was hard, hard work.
I have renewed respect for butchers. It’s a physically demanding, skilled job. Each carcase is different so it’s necessary to appraise it and gauge the volume and distribution of meat and fat to maximise the yield.
As a rank amateur I got it done. It was satisfying and educational.
I was amazed by how little wastage there was. Apart from excess fat and gristly bits I’ve kept everything, from bones for stock to lungs for dog food.
I won’t be running short of meat any time soon. Would I do it again? Definitely.
I’m not self-sufficient and I never will be, but I think if I’m going to grow animals for meat, see them born, keep them healthy and fatten them up, I should take the process as far as I can. I’d encourage anyone to give it a go. But maybe be sensible and start with just one lamb on your first try, rather than four.