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(Four Months) to kill

Usually I listen to a radio when I drive to my customers. Sometimes they have good jokes, and occasionally they play interesting music, too. This was the case couple of weeks ago, they played a piece by Astrid Swan, and there was also an interview of the artists. I immediately liked the piece, and when I got home I spent the rest of the evening listening to her new album. It was promoted by the radio station, for a week her album was on their web-page, free to listen. Well, I decided to buy it, just to support the artist. In the interview she said that although she is from Finland, she speaks English as her first language. Her Finnish is very fluent, but she said that for her Finnish is for handling practical daily issues, and she uses English when expressing her inner emotions and feelings. So, the lyrics are in Enlish; go listen to it yourself to see if you like it or not. Here's a youtube link, more info and complete lyrics at the description.

Well, and the rest of this post is actually about killing lambs - pictures included. So if you prefer not to read or see the details, please don't scroll down.

In the morning the weather was fine. There was a thin layer of fresh snow on the ground, no wind and the temperature was around zero degrees celcius. After drinking my usual doze of morning coffee I preaperd myself for killing. Three young sheep to be butchered. I sharpened a knife, fetched a captive bolt pistol and a box of 9mm rounds, an axe, a metal saw, and a bucket of water. I tied a pulley to a big branch of an oak in my yard, and run a rope through the pulley. I loaded the bolt pistol and set it on a garden table under the oak. And I put some pieces of dry bread on the snow. For a moment I thought that what would Pekka the Ram say now when I'm actually going to steal some of her women...

I went inside the pen and gave the animals a lot of dry bread. I catched one of the young ewes and carried her out from the pen - Pekka didn't care as he was busy eating the bread. I led the ewe to the oak, and there she was happy eating the pieces of bread which were waiting for her. I let her eat all of them, petting her gently to make her has calm and relaxed as possible. Then I slowly took the bolt pistol and placed it firmly against her forehead. Eating the last of the bread she didn't get nervous. I pulled the trigger and she went down instantly. I took my knife and cut her throat veins open, then grabbing her hindlegs and raising her up, to make sure that all of the blood runs out as fast as possible. I felt her body trembling for a second, then there was a final jerk and a pool of blood on the snow. I placed a piece of wood in between her hindlegs and then tied her legs together. I took the another rope and tied it to the piece of wood, then using the pulley I lifted the corpse hanging. Now that piece of wood keeps her hindlegs apart from each other, making it far more easier to skin and to butcher the corpse.

I don't yet know what I'm going to do with the skin, but I tried to take it off as carefully as possible. Most of the time it is possible just to run my fingers (or a fist) under the skin, pulling with the other hand. That way there isn't that much risk of accidentally cutting holes in the skin, or cutting into the flesh (or one's own fingers, as I have done couple of times before, in the past autumns). But there are some places where it greatly helps to make a fine cut with the tip of a knife - it is just that I don't always remember those spots beforehand, so I work rather slowly, every now and then pausing to think how to continue. Well, I made two minor false cuts, accidentaly severing the fascias, exposing muscle tissue. The only problem with that is the risk of contaminating the meat with dirt or bacteria. And finally I got the skin removed with no holes in it.

To remove the internal organs I need to cut the stomach open. That has to be done carefully, first making a small cut in between the hindlegs, and then slowly running the knife downwards so that the blunt side is towards the guts and the sharp edge cuts the fascia open. Any false cut and there is risk of spilling the contents of the gut or bladders all over the place... I took my time and managed to get the whole load into a wheelbarrow with no accidents. I sorted through the warm heap of internal organs, picking the best parts for the dog and leaving the stomach and intenstines for later. (Someday I'd like to learn to clean the intestines to make sausages of my own. Or maybe even Haggis. But not this year - I've been working too much and feel that my free time is so limited that I can't possibly do everything. So this part of the guts might go as a sacrifice for the guardian spirits of the surrounding forest...)

A sip of beer, sharpening the knife, reloading the bolt gun, fecthing more of the dry bread and I was ready to continue. For the second one I chose a new spot with fresh snow - it would feel harsh to lead her to place already red with the blood of her sister. So, there we were, the ewe enjoying her bread, and me holding the bolt gun. I was holding her in between my knees, feeling her breathing, letting her search for more bread in the snow. In my mind I drew a line from her left ear to the right eye, and from the right ear to the left eye. Where the lines intersect, there I placed the bolt gun. I pulled the trigger and she collapsed. It might be that the blow of the bolt gun already kills the animal, but to be sure it is better to cut the throat veins open.

So, a captive bolt gun doesn't shoot a projectile. It just has a 9mm piston inside, and a chamber for a cartridge. When the cartridge is fired, it forces the piston outwards, about two inches or so. When the bolt gun is correctly placed against the forehead of the animal, the pistol will knock the animal unconscious, possibly also breaking the skull or even crushing the brain. In Finland we need a license to carry a firearm, and I don't have one. But a captive bolt gun is free to use. In the old days they used to stun animals by hitting them with the blunt side of an axe, but that is not legal anymore. I've been thinking about this - as I do the whole process all by myself I think it would be extremely hard to hold the animal in between my legs and then deliver a stunning blow with an axe or a sledgehammer... Any mistake and I would either hit my knee or just cause terrible pain for the animal. But the bolt gun is a good tool - safe to use, quick and sure way to send the animal to sleep.

When I started with the third animal the sun was already about to set. I tried to work quickly, drawing on the freshly gained experience. Luckily enough it went smoothly - well, mostly. When I was almost done I quickly cut her head off with a metal saw. And that was before I had removed the internal organs. So, working hastily I not only cut her neck but also the throat, which caused some contents of her stomach to spill out of her throat. Basically, I got sheep puke splashing on my face... Well, that is one of the reasons I had a bucket of water nearby.

I took all of the meat inside a barn, where they can hang for several days. That will make the meat more tender. I salted the skins and placed them on top of each other, waiting to be processed further (well, I really hope that I'll have time to work with them). I cleaned my tools, fed the rest of the animals and realized that I'm getting dizzy because I haven't been eating anything since the breakfast (which consisted of one and a half carrot and three mugs of black coffee). So, I came indoors to cook food, to eat and to write this.

A year ago, when I was thinking about ideas for this blog, I felt that maybe I shouldn't write about butchering or skinning animals - as I'm not an expert, but just a novice who works slowly and makes a lot of small mistakes. I bet that there are a lot of people who are far more experienced in survival skill and traditional handcrafts than I am. But, then, on the other hand - I felt that this blog won't be about showing other people how to do things. This more about learning by doing, experimenting and finding out. This is the third autumn I slaugher sheep by myself. I took a look at some books, I talked with some of the other people, and then just decided to go and immerse myself in the action. And now this brings me back to Astrid Swan. In the interview she said that with her new (5th) album she decided to return to the essentials - to uncompromisingly make music she feels like doing, following her inner feelings and intuitions. And that is the way I like it!

Well, enough of writing for now. I'll go heat up the sauna!

a stunbolt gun, unloaded
a stunbolt gun, unloaded
she's all dead
she's all dead
skinning
skinning
skinned and internal organs removed
skinned and internal organs removed
tags: 
diary
homesteading
music
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Comments

I think it's fine for you to write about this. Sure, there may be someone better at butchering, but hey, I'm probably not connected to them. Those of us in urban environments get something from post like this, even if it's just some awareness of how our parents or grandparents lived.

Hey, thanks!

As I have been talking with my neighbours and customers I have realized that after the WW II it was very common to have a pig or sheep also for those people who worked in factories. And a lot of families ran small farms with two or three cows, producing most of their food by themselves. This was about the time my parents were born. One of my neighbours still remembers how their house got electricity - that was in the mid 1970's, which is when I was born. So, this shift from agrarian self-sustained culture to a modern consumer culture has been so rapid, and a lot of know-how has been almost lost in the process. Now I have to re-learn many things which were self-evident for my parents and for some of my neighbours who were born in the 60's or 50's.

And I see I'm not the only one. Many of my neighbours and friends are going back towards more traditional way of life.

Hello Erkka,

I'm reading your blog again. Usually I object to killing, but your lovingness as you do such a deed makes me glad. You seem to respect your animals with a certain dignity some humans aren't even given.

Thank you for writing this.

I admit I don't have a strict rational justification for keeping animals for food. It is more about a feeling - as I've been interested the way my ancestrors lived, I feel I'd like to learn some of those skills. Then several years ago one of my friends asked if I could host her flock of sheep while she is travelling - I agreed. When she returned, we decided that all the ewes go back to her, and I can keep Pekka the Ram and his sons. Then, bit later I was asked to host two ewes - which I could do, since they were not related to Pekka. I gave away one of the young rams, and slaughtered the another. And that way I was left with two ewes and a ram. From that on my options were either to get Pekka the Ram castrated, or let him live his maleness to the fullest... So, in this natural yearly cycle of birth, growth and death I occasionally have to play the role of a predator - as, anyhow, keeping domestic animals means that humans have to take responsibility of simulating some aspects of wild nature. So, I do my best to play my part as gently and smoothly as possible =)

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