I should be better than this.

I have found myself with time at the keyboard that I did not expect to have and also have found myself embarrassingly self-aware. This self-awareness arose courtesy of the DPD delivery man and has been todays major surprise. I have discovered, to my chagrin and disappointment, that I am subject to petty anger and annoyance. I am sitting fuming just because a delivery didn’t arrive.

I had arranged that this would come today and after downloading the companies app onto my overcrowded phone I was given my “1 hour delivery slot“. I was duly impressed and thought “this is progress“. I organized my day so that I was not away in  the morning, I would not want to be delayed on my return home for the delivery man and organised a number of jobs for the afternoon.

Just as the end of the 1 hour delivery slot arrived, perhaps the 61st minute, the delivery slot was changed to an 8 hour window – all of the afternoon and evening! Now the plans I had to go into the wood and to the water tank were impossible as I had to wait in, I had to stand-down the neighbours who’d agreed to come to help, and I had to dart about trying to do the animals between visits to the front door to check the delivery man had not arrived.

By mid-evening my delivery had still not arrived and my app now informed me that they called but I was unavailable and will try tomorrow. I will be given another 1 hour delivery slot in the morning. Hopefully this one won’t expand into an 8 hour slot with no warning. I think I am going to try and have the parcel delivered to a shop in town as I could not stand another day like today.

I don’t know why this annoys me so. The parcel is important but hardly life or death. There is probably a good reason that the delivery failed; for all I know the delivery driver’s wife went into labour and he had to rush home. I will, almost certainly, get the parcel at some point, and it is pretty amazing that something manufactured in South Korea can find its way to the wilds of North Wales. But I still found myself angry and annoyed.

I dislike being lied to. Sometimes when people do it I can understand their motivation and make excuses for it. But I don’t like being lied to by an app on my phone ! If the thing was not going to arrive I’d prefer to have known not been left with unrealistic anticipation. I suppose I also dislike feeling that my life and tasks are held to be so worthless that someone can say “just sit about for a full working day, our driver is an important man and will get to you when he can“. I feel my time is as valuable as his. I dislike phoning help-lines and listening to people telling me they are “so sorry” and that I am a “valued customer“. I feel that rather than pay people to sit at a phone and give apologies they should employ staff to get the logistics right.

But that is me back at my petty anger again. I suppose it’s the materialistic bit of me showing through. I am like a huffy child puffing and demanding “my stuff”. The more I think of it the parcel can wait, it will make little difference if it doesn’t arrive until the weekend. It is not a pacemaker – I will survive. Perhaps if I wait I will learn to defer my gratification, perhaps I’ll be less demanding. Deep breath in and relax. That’s better. Thanks DPD that is a lesson learnt.

 

 

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Isn’t it wonderful weather we are having ?

I don’t know how many conversations I have had in the last month about how wonderful our recent weather has been. Probably every time I venture out of the smallholding I meet someone who is enjoying our present heatwave. In the evening, on the television, reporters wax lyrical that we are enjoying higher temperature than ever (even higher than the last record summer in 1976) and illustrate their reports with film of happy sunbathers enjoying ice-creams or sunbathing. But I can’t share the joy.

I can’t share the joy even though I have DSC_3368-EFFECTSgone swimming in the sea twice a week recently (and I can assure you swimming in the sea is not something one is able to do often off the coast of North Wales). I can not join in the bonhomie despite the fact that many of the garden flowers are looking spectacularly good this summer and the smells in the garden are wonderful. I can’t get happy despite the schadenfreude that comes form seeing the difference in electricity production between our solar scheme and our neighbours hydro system. Even the recognition that I sheared the sheep just in time doesn’t cheer me. No, despite all these benefits I stay resolutely downhearted. Why ?

I am concerned because this heatwave is a growing problem. For those on mains water, and those living and working in the town, then dry hot weather is no great problem. It is even a boon to their recreation time. The occasional hose-pipe ban may interfere with gardening but the downsides are fairly minor.  Those of us who rely on springs for our water and who have to tend for animals, or grow crops, see things very differently.

DSC_3360Our spring emerges from a hill about a mile from the main farm. It supplies us and our neighbours’s stable and cattle. Though the spring still works it has become a shadow of its former self and is now little more than a trickle. As the flow is so slow some of the pipes have become clogged up with silt and we have had to clean them through. The flow is so slow that we have had to avoid using the source. We did explore the area around and looked for alternative sources but there were none. Many of the streams and smaller rivers have dried up. The main brook that runs through our meadows is also very weak. Previously four or five feet wide and about a foot deep it is now no more than 2 feet wide and 6 inches in depth. However, using a petrol water pump it is our main source of water for the foreseeable future. We pump the water from here up to water butts at the farm and then disperse the water.

Now each day starts and ends by shifting water to the animals around the farm. This lets one become painfully aware of the “weight of water” and quickly remember the information from school that 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. Our smaller animals drink about 10 litres a day each and the cattle and horses much more. This is a lot of water to move in buckets.  As humans we drink less but consume even more as we like to flush toilets, cook, wash dishes and take showers. So there is a large component of shifting water for ourselves also. In addition to this we need to water the vegetables and the greenhouse if we are to see any crops this year. The only members of the smallholding not calling on us in this time of difficulty are the bees who seem to be enjoying this wonderful weather that has brought so many flowers out in force.

I should perhaps clarify a statement that I made above. This is the question of showers. We no longer take showers at home. The reason we go swimming in the sea is for hygiene rather than pleasure (the jelly fish make sure of that) and if this weather goes on I think there might be a market for shower gel that works well with sea water. This has also been the reason for our visits to the leisure centre as swimming and showers are free to the elderly in the parish

I know that this weather will not persist for ever. Unless this is the beginning of Armageddon then I know we will see rain again. It is impossible to think of North Wales without thinking of rain. But I do fear that these variations in climate are becoming commoner and more worrisome. Extremes in weather were predicted by the models of climate change (though it was also predicted to be wetter on average) and we are going to have to find ways to live with these as well as finding ways to stop them worsening.

Anyway, back to moving water from place to place. I had only intended to write a short note to apologise that I had neglected my blog over the last two weeks. Hopefully, it is now clear that I was neither resting or enjoying this wonderful weather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

DSC_3212

I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoay said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

As the relentless march of time carries me ever onwards towards my demise I find, perhaps as a useful reminder, that I spend increasing times at funerals. It seems that each month I am on a pew listening to the service, recalling the life of a friend or acquaintance. Each time I am aware at how increasingly close to my age they were when they passed. I listen to the services and to the stories of the lives of my friends and find it very comforting that everyone gathers together to remember the departed and to show respect for their life.

This respect is real. It doesn’t depend on the person having done anything spectacular or unusual it is simply respect for a life well lived : a parent to brought up children, a spouse who supported their partner, a neighbour who played a part in the community. It is respect earned by living a good, normal life. However, it is not shallow respect or deference, this is respect that was earnt as it came by the passing of time. It came by being a good person day in and day out for years. It follows from raising children to their maturity. It is respect when a spouse helps through the thin times as well as the good. It is respect that is often earned in those times at the end of our lives when illness and infirmity make our lives harder. A partner who sees beyond these elderly problems and gives support and love despite them certainly deserves anyone’s respect.

We often talk of love in our teenage and early adult years when we are setting out on the road of our lives. The songs we hear are about our love being as deep as the oceans or as wide as the mountains. We will face and conquer all for the person that has conquered our heart. But how little we know. In many developed countries the average length of a marriage, until separation or divorce, is a little over 10 years. The romantic songs of our youth often profess undying love but for many a decade is the length of eternity.

At these funerals I hear the tales of marriages which have lasted decades. Stories of couples who, split by death, lived longer together than they ever did apart. Stories of children bereft of parents who have always been part of their lives. It is clear when you listen to these tales of normal life that there were good times and dark times, but the latter were faced down and defeated. It is clear that, it is the sharing of these difficulties that is important in the person’s love, probably more so than the simple sharing of enjoyment. During these years families and couples grow into each other and grow deeper in love. Like watching a vine growing over the years round a tree, in time the vine supports the weak and broken branches; were the vine not there neither would be the tree. Pleasures are important, and obviously enjoyable, but it is the facing difficulties together that tempers love and makes it stronger. The more problems you solve together the deeper is your attachment and affection.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A love that cannot overcome difficulties is a weaker thing, these elderly couples demonstrate that their love was so strong that, ultimately, only death could break them apart and, even then, could not break their love. These eulogies of the bereft are the love songs of the elderly and they remind us that love can last for ever. They sing not of the possibilities of love but of the proof of enduring love over time. They also remind us that working to stay together can strengthen and deepen love. We should be wary of viewing love through the eyes of the young and foolish, looking only for pleasure and joy. No-one’s life can be unalloyed joy we will all need to face difficulties, dangers and disappointments. If we have a family these dangers will be multiplied (although so will the joys). Finding someone who cares about you enough to stand by you throughout is a remarkable feat and should demand that you are steadfast in return. If both of you can do this, you will have found something the young can only sing about.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

the last of life, for which the first was made.

 

Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;

Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”


Robert Browning

The loss of a friend.

The loss of a friend.

My relationship with one of my neighbours is broken and I am not sure how, or if, I can fix it. We have lived on adjacent properties for many years and had always had cordial relations until a few years ago when ‘Rammy’ died.

Rammy was our, not very imaginatively named,  Welsh Mountain Ram. He was the first ram we had and over his life we had grown very attached to him. Each autumn he paid attention to the ladies in our flock and ensure the following spring we had new lambs. He was protective of his harem but he was never belligerent with us. He would see off any dogs or strangers who came into his realm and could be quite impressive as his 80kg ran at full pelt towards a foe. However, with us, all we had to do was to make a pretend gun, by pointing two straight fingers at him, and say “bang bang” and he’s stop running and keep his distance. During the annual tasks of shearing or dosing he would give-in gracefully, after only a token fight, and I was always certain that had he been determined to escape my clutches he could have done so. In short he was a gentle giant of whom we were very fond.

Unfortunately one autumn there was a minor accident. Our neighbour left the gate to our sheep field open and the ram and some sheep left the field to wander the lanes. The neighbour noticed what he had done and was able to herd the sheep, who had not ventured far, back through the gate and into the field. He left the ram in the lane. He did not think to tell us about this and we only discovered that Rammy had gone on a walk in the early evening when we did the routine head count and noted him absent. We frantically started searching and our neighbour told us, in a blasé fashion, what had occurred and that Rammy was last seen heading down the lane towards town.

We found him fairly quickly. He had gone into an adjacent farm’s field and was content having found himself surrounded by about 200 ewes ready for mating. He must have felt that he had discovered paradise, everywhere he looked there were nubile and receptive ewes admiring him. We tried to lure him home but the prospect of a bucket of nuts was no match for the sea of pheromones and plaintive calls of the seductive ewes that surrounded him. It was dusk and darkness was falling rapidly. We contacted the farmer who owned the flock that he was visiting and told him of our dilemma. We agreed that it was too late to separate him tonight, as darkness had fallen,  but that we would meet at dawn the following day with his shepherd and both our sheepdogs to round up all the sheep and pull him out. The worry about our ram, and the embarrassment that we were causing a major task for our neighbour at a busy time of year, meant we had a fitful and sleepless night.

At dawn’s light we all met at the gate to the field. We could not see Rammy and we joked he might be sleeping off a night of unexpected passion. We entered the field with the dogs and started to prepare to gather everybody together. As we crested a hill, to gain a vantage point to plan our strategy, we saw in the distance a large white body. It was clear Rammy was lying dead. When we got closer there were marks on his face and bleeding which confirmed what had happened. He had entered a field where there were two large texel rams who were planned to service the ewes. When Rammy met these two he met his match and he had died in the fight with them.

This was all an unfortunate accident, there was no malice on anyone’s part. Leaving a gate open is an easy mistake. Failing to notify us  that the ram was out is perhaps more annoying as, had we known earlier, then we may have been able to catch him before he entered the neighbouring field and the outcome may have been very different. But it is still a minor fault. So these issues are hardly grounds for the relationship with my neighbour to have broken down. I could have made the same mistakes, I recognise this.

The problem I have is that he has never apologised for this event nor recognised how much a loss this was. I am sure he saw the ram as just another item of stock, annoying to be lost but easily replaced. He probably does not realise, as he does not keep animals, how attached one becomes to them. I don’t want restitution. In all honesty he was not worth a great deal of money, he was no pedigree star. I know we can’t turn back the clock but the lack of an apology is always in my mind whenever we meet.

We never discuss what happened, it never comes up in conversation. There is now an awkward silence on the matter. Hence, an apology will never be forthcoming. I fear that without an apology then I can’t then forgive. Without this pair of ‘apologising and forgiving’ I fear that I can’t forget and it is this memory that has broken our relationship.  But perhaps some things once broken can never truly be mended and there will always be some form of scar.

 

 

Looking at the floral display.

Looking at the floral display.

The unusually warm  weather continues and today much of the afternoon saw temperatures of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The promised thunderstorms have not travelled our way and it has stayed  hot and dry. This taxes my coping strategies; as a Scot living in Wales I have the full repertoire of skills to cope with cold and wet weather but I have never had much call for strategies for dealing with excessive heat or too little water. This is a novelty and I appear to be a slow learner, though at least this time I haven’t managed to burn myself. My only good recollections of sunny summers of my youth were the days afterwards when I could peel the dry burn skin off my body in strips. These were the says before anyone had heard of sun factors or creams. It was all part of the fun.

It was perhaps to seek refuge from the heat that I went into our town’s church. It was also because they had a floral display so that they might celebrate their 300 year anniversary. All the local chapels and churches had donated floral arrangements to decorate the stained glass windows. As I went in I was struck by the cool soothing atmosphere, the smells of the flowers and the sense of peace. I am not a regular churchgoer but I have been to a number of services in this Church and have found the minister and his sermons interesting. But there was something else today, something different to the atmosphere on a Sunday morning.

It realised was the liveliness and colours of the flowers juxtaposed with the quiet dark of the church that first caught my attention. Then on further  reflection I was aware of a greater sadness. As I looked around there were only a handful of elderly women who were managing the event. I also noted that when I have been to any of the chapels, who donated flowers, again it was the same handful of older women who made up the congregation. With the exception of the local Catholic church, where the congregation is larger and younger, it is the same stalwart band who keep the church and chapels running.

I am no spring chicken but when I attend services or events I am aware that I feel young, being about a decade or so under the average age. I also feel rather unusual in that I am male. There are male ministers but they are now few in number and  they have to cover a very wide parish containing a number of different churches. Looking at the flowers, especially in the window of remembrance, I saw how much work had been done. It brought to mind the other times the church put on events –  Easter, Christmas, Harvest Festival, and the like. These are basic events in our calendar – how will the church continue to do these things when age finally forces these members to stop?  I thought of the chain of events in the community over the past 300 years when the church was the focus of the town and realised that it is very unlikely that the church will be in a position to celebrate its fourth centenary.

I was not brought up in a religious household, though my parents came from non-conformist backgrounds they themselves did not believe, and they left me and my brother and sisters to form our own opinions and beliefs. My training has been scientific and I have always held that reason is the greatest human facility. However, I have also felt that largely I am Christian in my morality.  I have difficulties with faith and if there were such a thing I’d be a Christian Agnostic. I know this may reflect accident of birth, had I been born in a different culture I might view my moral decisions through the prism of Islam or Judaism. I have also been increasingly aware that when moral dilemmas confront me on issues such a euthanasia, abortion, racial bigotry, or greed, for example I have found that I nearly always ally myself with those who speak on behalf of the Christian Church. I have found that I am increasingly upset by simple utilitarian ethics which find the most convenient and expeditious solution, rather than to grapple with the moral problem.

This had already weighed heavily on my mind after the Irish referendum debate. I agree that no-one other than the woman can decide about her body and her baby – no doctor, no priest nor any government agent, and I also agree that there are times when to continue with the pregnancy would be clearly wrong (for the mother’s or child’s safety and wellbeing), and I also have seen  the terrible situations that women had been placed in Ireland (Such as the dreadful death of Savita Halappanavar) by the current regulations and thus think that there was little option but to repeal the eight amendment. However, this is still a difficult moral choice as it involved the legal rights of the unborn child and this is no minor matter however one looks at it. To alter these is a grave undertaking.

I was therefore unsettled when I saw the celebrations after the referendum results. Though this may be the right result it not a cause for celebration. Abortion is always, at best,  a necessary evil; every woman and man  would prefer to find some alternative path, but sometimes it is impossible. I am sure no woman makes the decision lightly but I found disquieting the celebrations in the media. I am sure that most of the celebrations were the joy of ending a successful campaign, and some may have been the pleasure in defeating a foe (the Roman Catholic Church in this case), I hope few were in anticipation of the changes this referendum will permit. I hope no-one was celebrating that we have reduced the rights of the unborn child or that we will see more abortions in the future.

This debate was one of the many dilemmas that always face us. When does human life start and when do we have our own human rights ?  In the past the church often lead the way on these issues. Currently we are unhappy with the moral guidance the church gave on many issues (sexuality, marriage, etc) and we tend to forget, as a society, when their advice was progressive (regarding racism, slavery, etc).Thus we increasingly ignore the church in these debates and as a consequence our churches are increasingly empty and silent. Instead of grappling difficult moral decisions and thinking about the principles involved we look to the easiest solution available to us.

In the future, without churches, where and how will these moral debates be  held. Thinking about morality, debating and critiquing it , improves our abilities to act morally. Avoiding the issues and getting by with pragmatic solutions will  lead to us seeing our moral skills atrophy. Increasingly we might not know what is the right thing to do we might only know what is the thing that pleases most people. We have gained a great deal  in our societies through reason and following the Enlightenment. However, we must be careful that we don’t jettison valuables  while clearing  space for the future. Somethings once we have lost them can never be recovered. Standing in the cool of the church looking at the flower a shiver of sadness passed through me.76579_polarr.jpg

 

 

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Religious freedom; that is, the ability to think freely on religious matters, the right to worship an the manner your religion decides, the freedom of associate with others of your faith, and the freedom to express your faith, through words or actions, is one of the hallmarks of a modern, liberal, civilised society. One of the signs that this has been reached is the tolerance that citizens show towards fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs as them. Thus in a tolerant society people may disagree, even vehemently so, and believe others wrong in their thoughts and deeds but we tolerate these differences and live alongside each other despite them. We do not insist we all think and believe the same way and do not demand that people act, or don’t act , in the same way. We don’t insist that we all abstain from meat on a Friday, nor that we all observe the Sabbath on Saturday, nor do we insist we all face Mecca while we pray.

However, there are some limits to this tolerance. This tolerance does not allow us to commit acts which are harmful to others and we insist that everyone is equal in front of the law. Or rather, with the rare cases of religious exceptions, we insist everyone is equal in front of the law. We tend to think that these exceptions should be rare, and should be based on a clear picture that they are necessary for religious observance, and do not break the natural rights of others. For example, I am sure that no matter how liberal a state became, and no matter how protective it was of religious freedom, that any modern state could countenance an exception to permit ‘child sacrifice’.

That above example was an extreme and therefore easy choice, but what of the difficult choices ? What about when a religions try to preserve archaic practices which we no longer hold to be reasonable ? What about when a religion demands of its adherents that they mutilate the genitals of their young ? This one is difficult . In the UK we allow a religious exemption to mutilate young boys’ genitals , while we circumcise them, but ban and prosecute anyone who tries to mutilate a young girl’s genitals. We cope with a difficult problem by having obvious dual standards. This is how important religious freedom is; it is more acceptable to be incoherent and duplicitous than to infringe any more than is absolutely necessary on the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

When these practices do not involve the suffereing and rights of people, but rather relate to animals, we become even less logical. It is generally accepted that if we are to kill, to eat, large animals such as hens, sheep or cattle, then they should be stunned into insensibility before the final act of killing the animal is performed. There is a clear body of evidence that animals which are not stunned and who bleed to death suffer pain and distress during this process. (For a summary by the RSPCA and British Veterinary Society see here). Therefore it is against the law to kill an animal by bleeding unless it has been stunned beforehand. Except if there is a religious excemption such as exists for the halal or kosher slaughter of animals. In most cases, even those animals who are slaughtered under kosher or halal regulations are still stunned before slaughter but it is estimated that up to 1 in 5 animals killed under these relgulations are killed without being stunned.

I am of a liberal disposition. I do not agree with this method of killing and think those that do this are doing a great diservice to the animal and to their faith. I argue with them and hope that, given time, they will see the error of their ways and behave better – either by stunning their animals or by deciding not to eat them at all. If you can only eat the animal if it has suffered it would seem inhumane to eat it, especially as there is no necessity to eat meat at all. I will, and have, argued strongly on this topic but because I am a tolerant individual I must tolerate their right to do this. It is one of the costs of maintaining our society, I would not seek to ban them but would urge them to reconsider their practice.

Unfortunately, I fear that an aspect of this problem is not being dealt with fairly and that a lack of openness and honesty is causing unnecesary suffering for animals. Many animals in abbatoires are killed in accordance with halal practice and the numbers killed thus exceeds the number needed for sale clearly labelled as killed under these religious excemptions. It is felt wiser in the slaughterhouse to do more animals this way than needed as they can be sold as normal while an animal killed humanely can not be sold as halal or kosher.

There is obviously no harm which will befall someone should they eat halal slaughtered meat unknowingly, though an observant religious person finding they had unwittingly eaten meat not slaughtered in such a fashion may worry for their souls (Though I believe the religions themselves give dispensation for such accidents). So many animals are killed without stunning but no mention is made of this on the labelling except when it is sold explicitly as halal meat. It has been suggested that almost every kebab sold in Wales is mad from meat slaughtered to halal standard (some stunned, some not) but no mention of this will be made at the point of sale. This is the very definition of unnecessary suffering , if I eat meat killed without stunning when I have no religious need to do so, then that the suffering of that animal was unnecessary and should have been avoided.

We already place labels on our food, various pleasant red tractors, or green trees, to ressure us that our animals had a good life and were well cared for. But we seem reluctant to place a label which lets us know that the animal didn’t suffer at death. I can understand the retailers’ reluctance; they clearly know that if there was a label saying halal slaughter some buyers would avoid that product because they do not want to be party to unnecessary animal suffering. They would prefer that we remain ignorant and continue to make the purchase unhindered by any moral deliberation.  Unfortunately they thus remove a choice we may wish to make to support better animal husbandry.

I fear our legislators also wish to avoid this issue but for a darker and more sinister reason. I believe that  they fear, that should they insist on labels saying ‘humane slaughter’, or something similar, then people may ask for a debate on how far religious exceptions in law can go in our society. They fear that they may unleash public anger. They tend to believe that for every person troubled by issues of religious tolerance and animal welfare there is a bigoted, racist, islamophobic or anti-Semitic  doppelgänger who will be released, and therefore it is best just to keep quiet about all of this.

Unfortunately keeping quiet and hiding secrets never encourages anyone to change. Those to whom you lied never find themselves pleasantly surprised when they find out the secrets you kept from them. It is more likely that when people find the truth they tend to become angry and hostile. Thus, if anything, this strategy of hidding the religious exemptions from humane slaughter is, in the long term, likely to increase animosity between groups and reduce the drivers for change and increased societal harmony. A simple label “killed humanely” would reassure those of us who eat meat, it might make some of us who eat meat think about whether we should continue to do so, and would hardly be offputting to someone who felt that their alternative methods were appropriate (Though it may make them think).

Surely it is just as important to know the animal was cared for when it was killed as to know that it was treated fairly while alive ? It might even be the very least we could do.