Quite aside from being illegal, the dumping of sheep carcasses at Mavis Grind seems particularly lazy, and was certainly not an act that will win crofters many additional friends. The knee-jerk outrage displayed on social media when the story was published yesterday (‘Appeal after sheep dumped’, SN 5/12/14) was entirely predictable.
Yet what was most distasteful about the story was not the act itself but the response from the council’s environmental health officer. Rather than simply clarify the rules on the disposal of animal remains, the officer instead took the opportunity to demonise the practice of ‘home killing’, and to highlight the draconian laws that surround it. Crofters suspected of breaching those laws, she said, should be reported.
This attitude is unfortunate, to say the least. Killing animals at home is part of most crofters’ way of life, and, contrary to what was suggested in the article, there is absolutely no reason why it cannot be done hygienically and humanely. The role of the environmental health officer, surely, is to help that to happen, not to frighten people into stopping altogether.
Anyone who suggests that eating home killed meat is more dangerous than eating, say, supermarket chicken (around three quarters of which was found to be contaminated with campylobacter in a recent report) is fooling themselves. And the idea that shipping lambs to an industrial abattoir on the mainland is more humane than killing them quickly and painlessly on the croft is equally ridiculous.
Regulations on animal welfare and food hygiene are of course essential, and no one would dispute that. But it’s hard not to suspect that some of the rules surrounding home slaughter – particularly those on the sharing of meat – are the result not of the EU’s deep concern for human health, but of intensive lobbying by food companies and retailers, concerned about the potential loss of revenue.
Environmental health officers cannot, of course, publicly condemn the laws they are supposed to uphold. But one would expect some common sense in the way those laws are enforced, particularly in a place like Shetland. The attempt to demonise crofters, and to portray home killing as a sordid and undesirable act, is entirely wrongheaded – as wrongheaded, in fact, as disposing of sheep carcasses in an inappropriate place.