Killing and butchering sheep
PUBLISHED: 17:58 25 April 2014 | UPDATED: 21:06 29 April 2014
Feeding the family with produce from the smallholding is the ultimate goal for many of us. Tim Tyne gives a guide to slaughtering and butchering your sheep
We come to what, for many smallholders and self supporters, is the ultimate goal – feeding the family with the produce of your own holding. There is a great sense of satisfaction in tucking into a meal that’s been wholly bred, reared, killed, butchered and cooked at home, particularly when the whole family has been involved at every step along the way.
For us this is the norm, but I appreciate that for many smallholders, new to livestock keeping, it can involve quite a psychological step, this business of eating a piece of mutton that you remember skipping about with children as a lamb! It probably had a name, too! Interestingly, it is always the adults in a household who find this difficult to deal with (though generally, when questioned, they shuffle about a bit and make excuses such as “not wanting to upset the kids”!). Children, on the other hand, tend to be remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole process, have no qualms about being present at (or even helping with) slaughter and butchery, and, at mealtimes, are generally delighted to know the name of the animal they are eating, particularly if it’s one that they played a special part in the rearing of, such as a bottle fed lamb.
Mutton or lamb?
For us it’s mutton, every time! Once you’ve tasted proper mutton (spiked with garlic, peppered with crushed rosemary, and served with home-made redcurrant jelly) you’ll begin to wonder why anyone bothers with lamb at all! Sadly, though, mutton seems to have a poor reputation these days, which is not helped by the reality that most of the so called ‘mutton’ that is available is in fact worn out old cull ewes, which are generally sold into the ethnic market for the making of kebabs and suchlike. Properly reared mutton is an altogether different product, and in terms of flavour and quality it surpasses even the finest of beef. Admittedly it may be rather fatty for modern tastes, but the very fact that you’re opting for a degree of self-sufficiency, aiming to produce your own food traditionally and with sympathy, on a limited acreage, implies that your tastes aren’t very modern anyway!
Our own policy is to castrate a few of our poorest ram lambs each autumn (ie the ones that, for whatever reason, are not saleable as fat lambs, stores or breeding stock), and run them on the mountain until they are two, three or even four years old. They lead a very natural semi-wild lifestyle up there, and thrive, existing on a diet of sparse upland grasses, herbs and heather. They are handled only infrequently, for shearing and the like – that is if we can catch them! We kill one from time to time, usually when we’re getting fed up eating pork (or if the level in the freezer looks particularly low), and the flavour is outstanding!
Why do it?
Why slaughter stock at home rather than making use of a licensed abattoir? For us the answer is simple: why not? It’s what we’ve always done, it’s appropriate to our lifestyle, and it works well for us. I’m sure that if there were still small local slaughterhouses in rural areas we’d use them, but the fact is there aren’t. Of course, any meat intended for sale must go through licensed premises, which in our case involves a 120 mile round trip to deliver the animals to the slaughterhouse. The carcasses are then transported, via another abattoir, back to our local butcher, from where we collect the meat for distribution to our customers. So much for food miles! Is this really the way we should be operating, given the impending fuel crisis that the world is facing? The catchphrase “local food for local people” has rather a hollow ring to it when you consider the huge circular journeys that may be involved. And then there’s the stress factor. We like to think that our animals lead a fairly stress-free life, and we tell our customers so, but is this really the case if their final hours consist of a long trailer journey, a strange and frightening environment, and unfamiliar people? But for home consumption there is a better way – I slaughter the animal myself, on the farm where it was bred and reared, in familiar surroundings and with sympathetic handling. In this way we really do know what we eat, how it lived, and how it died.
A place to work
Unlike killing a pig, where you need lots of hot water, facilities for scalding and a fairly draught-proof building, you can handle a lamb pretty well anywhere. Often I’ve carried out the whole process out of doors, hauling the carcass up on the overhanging bough of a tree (or the front-end loader of the tractor) where, in cold, dry weather, it can safely remain overnight. For the sake of comfort though (and to avoid alarming the neighbours), an outhouse is the best place to work. No particular facilities are required, but it’s handy if you can rig up a block and tackle from an overhead beam or, failing that, improvise some sort of frame from scaffold poles or similar. In a large agricultural building the tractor and loader can be brought under cover – this is by far the simplest way to haul up a really heavy mutton beast!
You’ll not need a lot of space to work, but ideally you’ll want room to move all around the animal once he’s hanging up. You’ll also need somewhere safe to place sharp knives etc, and a small pen to restrain the sheep prior to slaughter. Be aware that there are complex regulations governing the use of firearms in confined spaces so, unless you are using a captive bolt stunner, you may be better to locate the small pen just outside the shed door.
Tools of the trade
Apart from the block and tackle already mentioned, you’ll need a gambrel and a couple of meat hooks, a really good sharp knife with a blade length of about 6”, and a butcher’s saw. The gambrel can be improvised from a bit of mild steel bar (or double up a short length of chain and hold the ends apart with a spreader, forming an ‘A’ shape), and a Jewson’s hard point wood saw will do instead of the butcher’s saw (don’t try using a hacksaw – I speak from experience!). Another useful piece of kit, if you can get hold of one, is a small hook-shaped knife used to open the carcass for evisceration – the shape of the blade prevents any risk of puncturing the stomach, which could lead to contamination of the meat.
And, of course, you’ll need your shotgun. We find that a .410 is ideal for slaughtering all classes of stock, without any fuss or unpleasantness. Shot size should not be less than No.6, with a 21/2” cartridge being OK for most situations (for very large pigs, or cattle, use a 3” magnum, but do check that your gun is correctly chambered to take these longer cartridges). Larger bore shotguns may be used equally effectively, but the results can be messy and unappetising.
Committing the act
Get everything set up and organised before you begin. Think the job through carefully, and talk it over with your helpers. Everyone involved must know exactly where to stand, what to do, and when. You can’t afford to make mistakes – that’s the sort of thing that gives home slaughter a bad name.
Ideally you’ll have had your sheep penned up overnight, with only a bucket of water and a little straw to nibble at. This ensures that his guts are reasonably empty (making evisceration much simpler), and also means he’s hungry, which is an advantage – it’s a simple matter now to place a pan of feed in front of him, and shoot him as he eats. He’ll know nothing about it at all. The gun should be held 6 – 8 inches from the head, and you shoot him in the middle of the forehead, just above the eyes, in a straight line with the neck. The shot makes only a small hole in the skull but completely destroys the brain, and death occurs immediately.
If your sheep aren’t used to hand feeding, it may be necessary to put a halter on the animal and tie him to a rail of the pen. Certainly this is the case with our Welsh Mountain wethers. To be honest, I prefer this method as the sheep is held with its head up after having been shot, so it is much easier to make the necessary cut for bleeding.
Bleeding must be carried out immediately, by making a deep cut at the angle of the jaw which severs all the major blood vessels in the neck. As soon as this cut has been made, hoist him off the floor by the hind legs and let him drain for a while.
Generally, I think it is the usual practice for sheep to be partially (or wholly) skinned whilst lying on a low trough-shaped bench but, when I started slaughtering my own stock, more than 20 years ago now, I didn’t know that. I taught myself, relying on rather vague references in books on self-sufficiency, and got into the habit of skinning the whole animal with it hanging up as follows:
Start by making a small incision in the skin slightly below, and to one side of, the pizzle (in a male animal), then, with knife blade facing outwards (remember, we’re only cutting the skin at this stage, and don’t want to puncture the abdominal cavity) open all the way up one side of the pee pipe (for want of a better word) to where the clear area of skin starts in the region of the groin. At this point veer offline, cut across the clear skin (still with the blade facing away from the animal), and all the way up the inside front of the hindleg until just past the hock joint. Repeat for the other side. In the case of a ewe, a single cut up the belly is all that is required, before branching just in front of the udder region. Loosen the skin as much as possible on the hind legs before cutting right around and separating the skin from the leg at the hock. Finish skinning the hind legs by pulling down on the hide while ‘fisting’ with the other hand. This is easy to do in a lamb, but in older animals you may need to resort to the use of a sharp knife to help separate the skin from the animal. All the various layers of fat and connective tissue should remain on the carcass, not on the skin, as they are necessary to protect the meat whilst the carcass matures.
Now peel back the ‘V’ shaped piece of skin formed where your original cut divided – pull it over, between the hind legs, to the back of the sheep, until you come to the rectum. Hook your finger around this, pull out a few inches of pipework, and tie it off with a piece of clean string. Cut the rectum away from the skin, then drop the tied off end down into the body of the animal. The next obstruction will be the tail – this can be cut off close to the carcass, and remain attached to the skin.
From here on it’s fairly plain sailing to remove the skin from the rest of the body, rather in the fashion of pulling off a sweater, using your fist, and sometimes a sharp knife, to loosen the skin as you pull. When you draw level with your original incision, extend the cut downwards, all the way to the throat. Skin out the front legs in the same fashion as the rear – it’s very helpful here if you can raise the carcass a bit higher off the floor, and have someone hold each front leg still while you’re working on it. Saw off the front hooves just below the knee. Now finish skinning the length of the neck, until you reach it’s juncture with the head.
Start by sawing through the breastbone – I wish someone had told me that, years ago! Score a line with the knife, and saw all the way through the full length of the breastbone. Next, use the knife to open up the animal’s neck from breast to jaw, exposing the oesophagus and windpipe.
Now, taking care not to puncture any innards (this is where the hooked knife comes in handy), open the carcass from chest to crutch, and all the guts will flop out towards you. Now you can see why it was sensible to cut through the breastbone first! Locate and remove the bladder, without spilling its contents onto the meat, and also pull out the kidneys if you wish – some people prefer to leave them in the carcass. Lift out the liver, which is found to the right of centre, nestled against the diaphragm, and put it to one side for supper, having carefully removed the gall bladder.
Next, a couple of sweeping semi-circular cuts with the knife are used to separate the diaphragm from the inside of the ribcage, whereupon the whole caboodle – the guts and the contents of the chest cavity – simply drop out onto the floor, remaining attached to the carcass only at the head. Saw off the head and the job is done!
Truss up the front legs before the carcass cools, and saw off the hind feet, having re-positioned the meat hooks to the hocks. Don’t be tempted to hose down the carcass, as this merely serves to spread contamination into cut surfaces; any visibly contaminated areas should be trimmed off with a sharp knife, later.
Before we even begin to think about butchery, the carcass has to hang, so we transfer it to our storeroom, where it is allowed to mature for 10 days or a fortnight – the older the animal, the longer it needs. The carcass does not need to be refrigerated, but must be kept reasonably cool, so an unheated storeroom in winter is ideal. In damp weather, a little mildew may appear here and there, but this is no cause for alarm – we simply wipe it off with a cloth moistened in vinegar.
Butchery is not my strong point I’m afraid. I start by trimming off any areas of contamination, and any particularly unpleasant looking bloody bits, then simply cut the animal up into oven-sized pieces! I did once attend a butchery course, but when I attempted to demonstrate my new found skills at home I was told to ‘stop farting about, and just get on with it!’ Apparently Dot needed the kitchen table for something else, and I was clearly holding her up! In the past our butchery has always taken place on the kitchen table, but now we are the proud owners of a butcher’s block, which simplifies matters no end (and avoids domestic conflict!).
Also, luckily, I have a friend who’s very good at cutting things up. He knows exactly where to chop, and knows the names of all the bits and pieces too! So, for the sake of getting some pictures for this article, and to christen the new block, I called him in to help.
Disposing of the odds and ends
Just as in killing a pig, when it’s possible to use ‘all but the squeak’, so it should be possible to make full use of every part of the carcass of a sheep. The liver and kidneys we’ve already mentioned. The heart, too, makes a tasty dish, or can be included in mince, where it gives an attractive speckled appearance. A quick flick through two recipe books on our kitchen shelf has turned up seven recipes for sheep’s heads (and a further 11 for tongues and brains), two recipes for hooves, and one for tails, so that’s that lot dealt with! Use the horns for shepherd’s crooks, obviously. The hide will make a rug, or slippers, or even a new skin for your banjo! Quite a bit of the intestines can be salted down for sausage skins, and the rest of the innards (together with the lungs and any other bits and pieces) can be fed to the dogs – there’s been a huge amount of interest recently in providing more natural diets for dogs (see CS December 2007) and, not surprisingly, they do very well on it. This only leaves one thing – the blood. This should be sprinkled around your raspberry canes, where it’ll do a power of good. Now, when an inspector calls, you’ll be able to account for every part of every beast! (or simply write ‘missing’ in the flock record book, like everyone else does!).
I covered this in some detail in January ’06, but I’ll give a very brief summary here of some of the aspects of legislation specific to the home slaughter and consumption of sheep:
The animal must be killed humanely, in accordance with The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter and Killing) Regulations 1995.
Animals must be stunned before slaughter.
The following methods are all legally acceptable for the home slaughter of sheep:
Captive bolt pistol
Captive bolt pistols are no longer subject to firearms legislation, so are readily available. A captive bolt pistol is a stunning device – immediately following stunning it is necessary to sever all the major blood vessels in the neck with a sharp knife, in order to ensure that death occurs as quickly as possible.
Humane Killer, 0.32 calibre free bullet
A humane killer can be used to kill sheep of all ages, outright, although bleeding should still be carried out immediately. Generally, a humane killer should only be used by a vet, knackerman, or some other suitably qualified person. There is a very real risk of ricochet should an inaccurately placed bullet happen to pass through the animal, hence the need for proper training in the use of this device.
This is the safest and most practical method for use on the smallholding. Death is instantaneous, therefore both stunning and slaughter are carried out in one simple action. Bleeding should be carried out immediately.
0.22 rifle or revolver
Only to be used as a last resort, when no other method of humane destruction is available, for example in the case of casualty livestock, in order to prevent further suffering.
No person shall slaughter any sheep by a religious method, or cause or permit any sheep to be so slaughtered, other than in a licensed slaughterhouse.
All slaughter waste not intended for human consumption or classified as specified risk material (SRM) must be disposed of in accordance with the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005. This would include hooves, horns, skins and blood.
No part of any home-killed sheep can be sold, bartered, swapped or given away to any third party (including friends, relatives, etc).
No-one other than the person who actually carried out the act of slaughter may consume any part of any home killed sheep, unless the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) Regulations 2002 relating to the removal and disposal of Specified Risk Material (SRM) have been correctly adhered to, in which case it could be shared with family members living in the same household.
According to the age of the sheep, the slaughterer must remove from the carcass, stain blue, store and correctly dispose of, certain Specified Risk Material (SRM). In the case of sheep or lambs under 12 months of age (or having no permanent incisors erupted), SRM consists of the ileum and spleen. In older sheep, the skull (including brain and eyes), the spinal cord, the tonsils, the ileum and the spleen are all classified as SRM. In practice, although I know dozens of smallholders who regularly slaughter their own sheep and lambs for family consumption, I am not aware that any one of them takes the slightest bit of notice of this daft piece of nanny-state legislation. I must let you make up your own mind over this. If you decide to invite your friends round for a barbeque, and kill a sheep for the purpose, fine! No-one can actually prevent you from breaking the law; it’s just that you may be prosecuted for having done so. In my opinion it is high time that the law included some exemptions for small scale producers supplying home-killed meat to relatives and close friends, or within a tight-knit community, provided that there has been no attempt to deceive.
Anyone who would fraudulently endeavour to sell home-killed meat to an unknown and unsuspecting customer, as a legitimate product, perhaps by applying a false Meat Hygiene Inspection stamp to the carcass, quite rightly deserves to be punished.