Louise Gray hunted and killed her own meat for two years
'The ethical carnivore' explores the damage caused by the meat industry
Gray feels meat consumption will decline as people learn more about the industry
“I wait and wait, breathe, breathe until my hand is steady, my shot sure, the crosshair moving up and down as I breathe, in and out. And squeeze.
“One shot and she is down, her body twitching like a dog in its sleep. I make the gun safe and run to her; she is still, a clean kill, the eyes gone, dead. George cuts the throat for the bleed-out.”
Two years ago, Louise Gray quit her job as an environmental journalist for a new role as a hunter.
Gray, a farmer’s daughter, had never killed before. But her growing unease about the ethics and environmental impact of the meat industry - which has a larger carbon footprint than the transport industry - led her to a resolution: She would only eat animals that she killed herself.
“No-one really knows where their meat comes from,” explains Gray. “With climate change, should we be eating meat at all? There were all these unanswered questions that I wanted to explore for myself.”
The mission took her from chicken barns to pheasant shoots and abattoirs, probing the secrets of industry, and weighing the responsibility of consumers. She documented the experience in her book “The ethical carnivore: My year killing to eat.”
The act of killing
The journey began in Essex, South England, in pursuit of a rabbit.
The first kill would prove the most affecting. Gray felt crippling guilt after shooting a beautiful white rabbit, which was only wounded at first before succumbing to its injuries.
“It was the first time I had killed anything and the sense of not being able to reverse it…was quite frightening,” she recalls.
But after a spell of doubt when she considers abandoning the mission, Gray persists and finds herself slaying beasts across Britain, from the oyster bays of Scotland to the shooting clubs of London.
Over the course of the book, she kills 21 different species on land and at sea, with guns, knives, and her bare hands, culminating in a mighty stag that she hunts with her father.
Gray learns new skills along the way; stalking, shooting, and gutting her kills, before converting them into delicious meals for her incredulous urban friends.
Most of Gray’s haul comes working alongside the professionals who keep the meat industry moving.
This takes some harrowing turns, such as during a visit to a slaughterhouse that is presented as a vision of hell.
“The sows hang upside down, their heads soaking in blood dripping off their ears, their eyelashes,” the author recounts. “The hair is burned off with a naked flame and the flesh is branded, adding the smell of burning flesh to sh*t and blood.”
The experience leaves Gray shaken, and vowing to never eat an animal that has been through a slaughterhouse, which she feels are impossible to justify.
But she is careful not to condemn the workers of this bloody trade, routinely dismissed as sadists by environmental activists, and poignantly records a female abattoir manager showing her pictures of pet dogs.
“If you are going to eat meat you should be ready to understand and frankly thank those people,” she says.
Sympathy for the “devils” of the meat industry is a recurring motif. Gray is frequently impressed with knowledge of farmers and fishermen, who have a close connection to the land they work, and compassion for animals.
The author is clear that the meat industry does need reforms.
She suggests the systematic use of CCTV in slaughterhouses, and higher standards of animal welfare – although the exact level of suffering livestock experience remains contentious.
She also argues that fishing practices must change to lessen their environmental impact. The method of dredging the ocean floor is shown as hugely destructive, while the salmon industry in Scotland generates nitrogen pollution and spreads diseases to wild fish.
Perhaps surprisingly, Gray finds appetite for change from within the industry. She visits farms that use costly but humane practices, and fishermen who fight to restore damaged marine environments. She even reports that McDonalds have taken steps to ensure an ethical supply chain.
Gray hopes her book can inspire consumers to reduce their meat intake by laying bare the dark secrets of the industry, and the huge environmental costs.
But she feels that positive incentives are a more effective motivator than guilt.
“Eating less meat is a simple thing you do in terms of reducing your carbon footprint – it’s not like saying to people they can’t fly, or have to live in a cave without electricity,” she says. “If you just tell people about the grisly aspects of meat they tend to shut down and not listen.”
Gray believes people are increasingly willing to listen, pointing to falling meat consumption in the UK and US. She believes that culture is changing, with vegetarians no longer “socks and sandal stereotypes,” and high-profile experts such as Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi arguing that we should eat less meat.
The author hopes that environmental and health groups can also take a stronger line in promoting low-meat diets, which groups such as Friends of the Earth are beginning to explore.
“They are frightened of sounding didactic and telling people how to eat,” she says. “I think they should be slightly braver as people are ready for this message now.”
Gray foresees that low-meat diets will spread as they are normalized. She is also optimistic that alternative protein sources such as insects and lab-grown meat can flourish and partly replace beef, pork, and chicken.
At least, Gray hopes that readers will consider where meat comes from and buy from low-impact sources. But she does not recommend that they follow her example.