Tonight I watched Mark butcher a sheep. It was one of the wild sheep on the island that he shot this afternoon with his crossbow. There are quite a few herds of these wild sheep on the island. The story goes that they were introduced sometime in the 1800’s and never left. Now they roam freely like the deer, but some of the islanders do what they can to manage them. If the herd gets too big there will be a food shortage come winter and many of them will die off, leaving those that survive skinny and unhealthy.
This is what happens in the wild; there is a natural carrying capacity of any environment for a given species niche and if the population grows beyond this carrying capacity there is a population crash. What prevents these crashes are some natural check on the population, such as a predator that allows populations to stabilize around the carrying capacity in most natural environments. But when an element is manipulated, such as habitat being destroyed by humans, or a natural predator, such as the wolf, being hunted close to extinction, or any number of other changes then populations experience booms and crashes, sometimes never recovering or sometimes finding a new equilibrium point if given enough time. If the crash is too severe then extinction can follow.
The sheep population in this island seems to growing a bit too fast causing there to be signs of an oncoming population crash as some sheep have started to drop dead of starvation. Due to this people have been encouraged to hunt particularly the adult females to slow their population growth. The females and the lambs roam as separate herds from the males this time of year. It seems the males don’t like to stick around once the kids are born.
It took one arrow from Mark’s crossbow that went clean through a female sheep’s lungs and grazed the heart, to kill it almost instantly. The process of butchering a sheep goes something like this (if you don’t like graphic detail I suggest you skip ahead). First he hangs the sheep by it’s hind legs, putting a dowel between the bone and the ligament on each leg. Then he boils two pots of water, which he will use to periodically clean his knife and hands. Then he chops off the head and the front hooves. Now it is time to remove the hide. He puts two little slits in what would be the sheep’s armpits and begins to pull away the wooly hide. It’s amazing how it separates from the fascia with just a little encouragement from the knife. After getting the front end of the sheep started he then moves to the hind legs and works his way down. If you know what you are doing, which Mark clearly does, the whole skin will come off as one single piece and you are left with the rest of the animal still hanging upside down, held together by the fascia.
Now it is time to remove the guts. To do this he starts at the groin, cutting carefully so as not to puncture any of the organs. Once again his skill shows as he is able to open the core cavity and let all the organs spill out, still intact in their own fascia like sacks. Since he doesn’t puncture the stomach or intestines the mess is actually quite minimal. The only part that gets a little bloody and gross is where the arrow pierced the lungs and heart and seems to have nicked the trachea that contained chewed up grass. Here we see a bit of loose guts.
With the hide and the guts removed I am struck by how much smaller the carcass now looks. Mark finds the ribs to not have much meat on them and not be worth the work so saves only the front and hind legs and the meat surrounding the spine and neck for eating. He also likes to save the liver and heart if he can. This time it looks like he will only get the liver. The rest of the animal he will bury in his garden as potent compost.
Mark considers this whole process part of his Buddhist practice. I can tell by the look on his face as he butchers the sheep that he doesn’t enjoy the process too much. But he would rather bare the karma of killing and butchering the animal himself then put that on anyone else. And so he hunts for much of his own meat and raises and kills his own chickens. I think this decision is an admirable one. I too, don’t love the idea of having watched the sheep I will be eating over the next couple days die and be butchered, but I feel firmly that if I can’t stomach that then I really shouldn’t be eating meat at all.