Sunday Hunting

By David

It’s surprising how easy it is to get used to killing. When I was ten or eleven my father informed me that my Sunday chore was to find two wild goats and kill them to feed our dogs for the coming week. For eight years I did this. That’s about 832 goats. I remember the first kill like it was yesterday. Sadly, goat number 832 did not leave such a lasting impression. When I graduated from University I became a Management Trainee for Thomas Borthwick & Sons Ltd. one of New Zealand’s largest meat packing companies. They had a policy of making their trainees work at all the positions down the sheep and beef processing chains. Some of the town raised trainees asked to be excused the task of actually killing. Thanks to the 832 goats plus a couple of hundred wild pigs and a few dozen deer I was okay with captive bolt shooting steers and cutting the throats of a few of New Zealand’s 60 million sheep.

In fact I began to take great pride in being a humane executioner. Could I perform the task so quickly and cleanly that death was instant and painless: or as far as I could tell, instant and painless. Most of my mates doing the same job felt the same way. Anyone who screwed up and left an animal bleeding and alive was roundly roasted. And they had little sympathy for us University types with our flash degrees. We may have had years of scholarly reading but here life and death was determined by the keenness of a knife’s blade.

Our meat plant in Fielding killed 9000 lambs per day along three chains. That’s 3000 per chain in seven hours, or 428 lambs in an hour, or seven each minute, or one every 13 seconds. And God help anyone who was slower than that. Normal workers were paid by the number processed. One lamb in 20 seconds was costing them money. Knives would soon beat a rhythm on anything metal alerting the killer to his tardy ways. I did that job for three weeks. The mathematicians among you will have worked out that I killed 45,000 lambs in that time. Actually it was just a little over 46,000. We worked a Saturday morning in the middle week. Again I remember lamb number one – a plump Romney Cross destined for London’s Smithfield Meat Market. Lamb number 46,000 meant only that it was time to move on to some less bloody occupation. Jane now lives across the road from Smithfield Meat Market. It’s become a very trendy part of town; nightclubs, bars and great English pubs. On her way to work though, if she looks closely, I suspect she too will find several year 2010 versions of my first Romney lamb.

Shooting cattle requires just as much care to ensure a clean kill. At Fielding we killed 500 cattle a day; about one each minute. The steer I remember best however, was one I killed in Perth, Scotland. I’d spent three years building Europe’s most modern meat plant. It came time for the first animal to be killed. The beast was donated by a local farmer, James Stewart. The owners of our company arrived from London and the construction workers gathered to see the plant’s first death. I was a touch nervous as I aimed the captive bolt between the animal’s Aberdeen Angus eyes. Bang and thankfully the beast dropped and lay still – a clean kill.

But factory killing can’t compare to the search and hunt for wild goats. I was not allowed to use a multi shot magazine or telescopic sights. Each bullet had to be hand fed, each shot had to count. Miss and your prey would quickly disappear into the safety of the area’s dense bush. The easiest way to hunt was to climb to the top of the dark greywacke cliffs that surrounded my home and walk along the tops searching downhill for an unsuspecting herd. I’m not the best shot in the world and have the added disadvantage of shooting left handed. To be sure of my bullet finding its mark I needed to get closer than 50 meters from the target. When goats are frightened, but unsure where the danger is coming from, they inevitably run uphill. Stay hidden and they will dash towards you making it an easy task to collect animal number two. After a few months I got pretty good at avoiding a long heavy carry by having the week’s two goats die close to each other. It took another half hour to skin and gut the animals. Then it was time to grill thin slices of goat heart over an open fire or take a short nap in the warm afternoon sun. On a good day there was time to do both before lugging the carcasses home.

There is something special about sitting high in the New Zealand hills looking down on a thousand acres of rough green pasture and dark native bush. The wide Hangaroa River is always present, brown with silt in winter and crystal clear in summer. There is a size and peace about all this that no city can match. Cities have other qualities; other fine features. But for me the peace of a fire on a deserted hillside on a warm afternoon is a privilege without peer. Without question a perfect place to spend one’s youth.