Home Slaughter - Killing with Confidence
Written by Brownbear
Many smallholders and strivers after self-sufficiency have an interest in slaughtering their own livestock, partly due to desire to avoid incurring the costs of using an abattoir, partly due to the difficulties of transport to and from a commercial facility, and partly due to a concern with animal welfare: a desire to avoid the stress to the animal of a journey, followed by killing at the hands of people for whom this is a purely commercial transaction and who do not have an emotional investment in the lives of the animals being ended as humanely and gently as possible.
That being the case, the first thing to ask yourself is, do I really want to do this? You may feel in theory that you would prefer to end the lives of your stock yourself; there may be a lot of practical reasons why an abattoir is inconvenient, but, to be blunt, some people do not really have it in them to kill with confidence. A hesitation, a mistake, can turn an ordered home slaughter into a scene of bloodshed and horror. A wounded pig can easily kill a person in self-defence. A wounded sheep can run to the hills and have to be tracked and finished off. Unless you can kill with confidence and competence, it is better for all concerned, to get a professional to do it. You can often find a person to assist you in your first home slaughter, not in the role of ‘slaughterman’ but as a humane dispatcher of livestock. He or she should not assist you with the preparation of the carcass for consumption, but can of course offer advice. Again, consider using a professional at first. Old wossname from the pub will offer to pop round with his gun, but again, what evidence have you that he himself is competent? Shooting down a pheasant or a bunny is very different to shooting a pig in the head at close range.
Not a film by Quentin Tarantino involving a quirky 70s soundtrack and a healthy profit for some lucky supplier of theatrical entrails, but the increasingly popular practice of killing one’s own livestock for the table. First, a legal note: any meat offered for sale or in barter, meat (other than game) to be consumed by any person other than the slaughterer and his or her immediate family, must be killed in an approved abattoir. So if you run British Sausages Ltd., or trade mutton for clothes pegs with a bearded lady in a brightly painted caravan, home slaughter is not for you.
There are very few home slaughterers who will wish to tackle cattle, and very few who have not already come across the many sources of information concerning the slaughter of fowl; for that reason, I propose to deal mainly with the middling animals: sheep, pigs and goats. There are three methods of slaughter that will prove effective: the use of a firearm; the use of a captive-bolt stunner; the use of blunt-force trauma. Each of these methods is followed by the cutting of blood vessels in the neck to ensure both the ending of life and the palatability of meat. Meat from a carcass which has not been bled will, when cooked, give off a tang of rancid milk mixed with blood.
The three central concerns of any slaughter operation must be, firstly, human safety; secondly, animal welfare, and thirdly, meat hygiene.
Whatever method you use to kill the animal, it will be necessary to suspend it by the rear legs for bleeding, cleaning and skinning. For this, you will need either a rafter, a handy tree-branch or some sort of gantry. Ensure that this is in place first. It is also not as easy as you might think to raise a carcass and suspend it on hooks, so consideration should be given to using some sort of block-and-tackle arrangement. As for the means of attaching the suspension cord to the carcass, either stout stainless meat hooks, or a gambrel should be to hand. A gambrel is a one-piece device which is passed through the leg, between bone and ligament, with a central eye to allow attachment of the cord. They are available from sundriesmen, or you can make your own out of hardwood.
Having the means of suspension in place, one can now turn to the machinery of killing. Whichever one is chosen, ensure that you also have to hand a stout, very sharp knife to cut the blood vessels. A hunting knife, or a butcher’s ‘sticking knife’ are ideal.
Use of firearm
There are a number of firearms which are suitable for the dispatch of livestock. A .22 pistol or rifle would be suitable, as would a shotgun. Pistols are now very tightly regulated, and to obtain a permit for a restricted weapon suitable for use as a humane killer, would not be cost effective. A .22 rifle would be a suitable if fired correctly into the head, but in inexperienced hands there is the risk of ricochet from the skull, or of a bullet exiting before its force is spent. You would then have a considerable risk to safety. For these reasons, a shotgun with smaller shot – no. 6 or smaller – is ideal. At the range involved in slaughter – no more than 6 inches or so – the charge of small pellets will have the force of a solid projectile, but any ricocheting pellets will be small and light enough to quickly lose their force.
Any shotgun is capable of killing an animal, and naturally one will not wish to spend a lot on a weapon dedicated to the purpose. A gun with a second barrel or repeating action is desirable, for a fast second shot if the first should go awry. The ideal calibre for small livestock dispatch is the .410 calibre, as it is powerful enough to do the job without the excessive force that might cause the head to disintegrate. The best gun I have found for this purpose is a pump-action – the two-shot magazine enables one to keep the firing chamber clear but the weapon loaded, which increases both safety and convenience. The Mossberg 500 is a suitable gun, being reliable and relatively inexpensive. If you use a 12-bore or 20-bore gun, make sure you use a relatively light cartridge of no more than 24 grams of small shot. A clay-shooting round such as Hull Cartridge’s 21-gram cartridge would be ideal.
For the safety of the people involved, you need to ensure that there is a safe area to shoot – you need to ensure both that any over-penetrating shot is travelling in a harmless direction, and that the animal is killed in an area where hygiene is reasonably good. A farmyard, with concrete underfoot and a solid structure or open field behind, would be a good compromise. Wash the ground with some disinfectant before and after the killing.
For sheep, a small hurdle crush would be ideal; for pigs, if you lead the animal to the killing area using food, and place a particularly tasty treat on the ground, the pig will lower its head, allowing you to take aim at the base of the skull. Bear in mind the structure of a pig’s head, the fact that the head will not be still, the danger of wounding, and ask yourself again, are you sure you want to do this yourself?
If so, then be confident, take aim, and fire smartly. Don’t hesitate as the animal will pick up on your nervousness and may panic. DO NOT IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOW THE MUZZLE OF THE WEAPON TO TOUCH THE ANIMAL AS YOU FIRE. If you do, there is a real risk of the barrel or even the action bursting due to blockage. You would be lucky to get away with just losing a hand. For pigs, aim along a line between the mid-point of the eyes and ears, depending on the angle of the pig’s head; for sheep and goats, their longer neck makes it possible to aim at the base of the skull from behind, or to shoot from the side, should you prefer. Remember that you are aiming for the brain. If you need to practice a bit, then get a couple of heads from the abattoir and try shooting them, then cut them in half and see where your shot went.
Different models of these are available at various prices, some of which require a Firearm Certificate (FAC) and some of which do not. For the home slaughterer, the cheapest ones, which do not require an FAC, are the ones to go for. An example is the stunner sold by Entwistle Guns of Preston, for two hundred quid. These contain a bolt, which is propelled forward by the explosive force of a blank .22 (or .380 if you use the adapter which gives it the force to deal with larger animals) cartridge. This device is placed against the ‘forehead’ of the animal and activated. It does not kill, but only stuns, and must be immediately followed with cutting the throat of the animal, which causes death.
This is the most ‘up close and personal’ method of slaughter, involving stunning with a blunt instrument. Although the cheapest, it requires you to be able to deliver a crushing blow accurately and after a backswing. The danger of stoving in the animal’s skull, and perhaps getting the hammer stuck, having to wiggle it out before proceeding to bleeding the animal etc, means that this is not a method for the faint-hearted.