In September 2016 I went to Scotland to meet Louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore. Along with photographer Will Eckersley, we spent a day with Louise living the 'ethical carnivore lifestyle' - going lobstering in North Berwick. As a vegan, this was a really challenging piece for me to write and I loved how much it tested some of my views, and changed some others. I also fell in love with lobsters. My version of the article is below, or read the shorter Munchies' edit here.
Meet the 'Ethical Carnivore' Who Spent a Year Only Eating Animals That She Killed Herself
Louise Gray runs back to the car as her aunt shouts at her from the driver’s seat.
“Quickly before the bar comes down!”
We pass under the £3 toll booth bar for Seacliff beach, four miles east out of North Berwick, Scotland. Down we drive onto a dirt track, where the road forks off in two directions into the wood. We clamber out of the car, an ungainly collection of thermos, coats and camera equipment, and her aunt leaves us there. Through the trees and we’re down to the beach.
Dark sand stretches out to the coastline, near to which a white pickup truck perches on flattened rock.
We’re running a little late, and Gray stalks across the sand at a speed I can barely keep up with, let alone in wellies. After working as Environmental Correspondent for The Telegraph for four years, Gray moved from London to Edinburgh. She set herself the challenge of putting that dinner party idiom to the test: She wanted to find out where her meat came from, so she decided to only eat animals she’d killed for a year. The Ethical Carnivore, which publishes this month, follows Gray across 18 months of examining what it means (and if it is even possible) to eat meat ethically.
“There’s no justification or easy way” Gray tells me. “You don’t get out of it by saying you did it yourself or that you did it ethically. People who disagree with taking an animal’s life, there’s no way I’d ever argue against that. I accept that as their view. I accept that I do it. I think I have to. Otherwise the whole book falls down. It’s not a philosophical treatise. It’s just my personal journey, and people can take their own judgment from it.”
Through an informal network of family, distant cousins and local community, Gray retraced lost roots back into the landscape. Now, she suggests Will Eckersley, our photographer, and I sample an ethical carnivore’s life for a day. Reaching the other side of the beach, Gray’s cousin, Jack Dale, and his crew wait for us at Seacliff, one of Scotland’s smallest harbours, hidden between two folds of rock, once carved straight out of the stone. We climb into the boat as our lobsterman, Sam Lowe, reverses us out into the Forth and Firth, the estuary that borders the North Sea.
The belly of the boat is small, covered in rubber decking, and it feels like we’re on a film set. I’m not kidding. That sharp realistion that you're suddenly in a world away from soy flat whites, tube train delays of two minutes and Uber driver ratings comes into sharp focus. The Real World roams on, as it tends to do, without you, and it’s been rolling on all this time.
There isn’t room to not get involved. Amongst buckets of fish heads and radio equipment, sandwiches and flasks of green tea, Lowe drags up pulling pots full of flapping fish and crabs. Carefully, he pulls out the lobsters for Gray to measure from eye to tail to check if they are big enough to keep. It’s a strict process, resulting in a £1000 fine if they get it wrong and take back one too small to sell to a restaurant. My hands shake as I stretch a small pincer open to enable the bands to hold the lobster claws in place. Their claws tied together, we then place them in a bucket at the back of the boat and sail around to another set of pots.
After reeling six or seven now lobsters now resolved to clicking on top of each other in a bucket next to us, Sam decides to take us up to Bass Rock. We sail out over a mile offshore to the volcanic rock that’s become a colony for gannets. The rock might look sizeable back on land at North Berwick, but up-close, it’s massive. Described by David Attenborough as “a wildlife wonder of the world”, it looms over our tiny boat as all four of us gaze upwards. The gannets have taken over the island, meaning humans are rarely allowed to step foot on it.
On our way back, beneath thousands of gannets whirring above us in the sky, Louise explains to me how she believes harvesting animals is a great way to be in touch with the creatures you're dealing with. Having no reason to ever be out at sea, or this close to animals, I find it hard to disagree with her.
Back on land, we arrive at the Lobster Shack, a tiny hut that serves freshly caught langoustine, mussels, and mackerel to visitors during the summer months, with owner Stirling Stewart on hand to help Gray “dispatch” of our lunch.
The chosen lobster is placed on a blue chopping board and we step out onto the shack benches so Gray can kill it. Stewart produces a huge, sharp knife from the Shack, and I watch as Gray’s posture changes ever so subtly. While the rest of the day she’ll be slightly scatty, a whir of activity and lost car keys, now Gray is quiet and still. Taller than before, she squares up to the lobster, feet now hip-width apart and adjacent to the table.
Listening back to the recording from the day, I can hear the lobster crunch as Gray cuts right the way through the middle. Utensils shaking on the top of the wooden bench, and then a “phew” as it eventually stops moving.
They wipe the guts away and pull the claws off. I can hear knife scrapes and the running of water, the buzz of the strip light back in the Lobster Shack. Under the grill, the lobster flesh crackles, changing colour from midnight blue to peach, before becoming a rose red. Gray points out that the claws move as the meat contracts from being heated. Eckersley’s camera clicks on as Stewart explains how the Lobster Shack has managed to change the perception of the crustacean locally:
“We’re bringing lobster to the masses. It was always perceived as a very up-market, expensive product. But it’s one of those dishes, you don’t need to do a lot to it.”
The clatter of pans, the shake of the chip pan. We eat with our hands.
Grilled lobster with garlic butter and East Lothian double dip chips. Gray and Eckersley have eaten most of it before I can even try some.
I’ve never had lobster before, but it tastes exactly as I expected it to. It’s rich. Incredibly rich. Sweet, melt in the mouth - a taste that finds its way to cliches. A flavour that’s so tricky to pinpoint that is difficult to know when you’ve actually had enough of it. I can only manage a little of what Stewart describes as his favourite bit - the knuckle, which is just how you’d want that coral red tone of their cooked shells to taste.
“I think for our generation in particular - it’s one thing where you have to reconnect, you can’t do it through a screen,” Gray tells me between shreds of lobster. “And meat eating and eating food is a way to reconnect. And eating meat that you’ve sourced is the ultimate experience. I don’t want to encourage people to have to go and do it. I don’t agree that we should only eat meat we kill ourselves, because I think loads of people are really sensitive and couldn’t do it. And also, it’s taken me so long, and time and effort and money to do this. And that’s why I’ve done the book- so you don’t have to do it.”
Less than a minute’s walk from the Lobster Shack, we find Maggie Sheddan waiting to show us around the Lobster Hatchery. Based in shipping containers, the Hatchery releases thousands of juvenile lobsters out into the Firth of Forth every year.
Sheddan explains to us, that in the wild a lobster hen will lay between 8,000 to 10,000 eggs, with a 0.01 per cent chance of survival:
“If the Hatchery gets them, if we get 100 out of 1,000, we’re really happy with that. They’re here for 12-18 days, and they’ve got more chance here than if they were just alive in the sea”.
Inside the Hatchery, huge white containers line each side, full of minuscule creatures I first mistake for Sea Monkeys. In fact, they’re tiny lobsters, split into age group, and then making their way up to what Sheddan calls their own apartments in the lobster high rises stacked at the back of the container, where they’ll live until they’re old enough to be released.
Baby lobsters look exactly like their adult counterparts, just scaled down to barely the length of a little finger nail. Tiny pincers and all. Sheddan talks us through the process, describing “Big Mama”: A berried hen they recently re-released with barnacles on her, she was that old, and “looking fabulous” with black eggs turning into the orangey red colour that show they’re about to hatch.
Lobsters are absolutely beautiful up close. Not in a restaurant fish tank, not on a plate, but one held firm in my right hand, its tale, full of tiny lobster eggs, gently resting in my left. It’s only when I finally see the bottom side of a berried hen that I understand where they get their curious name from: Beneath the electric blue lightning shell, hundreds of tiny black eggs nestled into their mother's armour-like shell.
They're heavy, and unwieldy, their pincers and tails writhing in slow-motion from a creature that looks entirely from another time.
By ranching them, the Lobster Hatchery increases their rate of survival, whilst providing the community with more understanding over what they are eating. I’ve never understood the idea of appreciating an animal you’re about to cook, but stood in that shipping container on the edge of the Firth and Forth, I finally do. If we’re going to take these lives, we do need that gravitas and that appreciation. We need that close up.
When the berried hens are released, the Hatchery makes a small notch in their tale, called V notching, so the fishermen that pull up any berried hens will put them back in the sea. Gray explains: “It’s not regulated, or under a European law, it’s led by the local fishermen, because it’s their patch, and they want to protect the lobster numbers.”
Sheddan adds: “We’re not saying don’t eat them. Just take what you need. They’re giving us jobs, we’re employed, we’re providing education, and it’s all from lobsters and making people aware of them.”
The next day, Gray is back at her home in Edinburgh, dealing with a steadily mounting press build-up to publication. We talk about the food she’s most looking forward to cooking now her experiment has ended (rabbit and fish) and the meat she’ll be unlikely to eat again (red stag deer). She shows me the freezer she had to buy to accommodate the big influxes of meat she’d get a few times a year, but also explains that a lot of it is dispersed up and down the country - the riches are shared out between friends and family, with her Dad and boyfriend’s freezers stocked to the brim too.
I ask Gray if, aside from the freezer and the pair of waders she’s acquired, the book had changed anything else about her day to day life:
“It’s changed how I see meat, and it’s changed it in a really positive sense in the way that it’s changed how I see food. Because I’ve begun this incredible journey of connection of understanding where my food is from. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started it, because it’s must easier to go on in happy ignorance, but I have a real passion for explaining things to people, and try to see and understand the world- and it’s made me better at it.”
Gray mentions more than once that she's written The Ethical Carnivore so other people don't have to do these things, but the nature of what she's discussing seems to go against every instinct to sit still. I ask how people living in cities could react to a book like this, or how consumers that don’t have the same connections or resources can still make a move towards being an ethical carnivore.
“There’re Open Farm Sunday in every June. Farmers and gamekeepers often aren’t that good at talking about what they do- they take it for granted and sometimes [are] a little cautious of sharing it. But I think that’s changing. Then I’d say trying to cook or find some meat you can connect with- either through a good butcher or a box scheme or a farmers’ market. I know that’s expensive, but it can be a treat, and you’re supporting people who are maintaining a countryside and rearing animals properly. They need us to do that.”
The Ethical Carnivore certainly gives people whose worlds would rarely collide a common ground. I have to ask: “From all our your research - do you feel like we’re at a point where we should start telling people how to eat?”
“No. It doesn’t work. It’s like telling people who to go out with. And I’ve learnt that in the last five or six years, because of climate change. You’re being told the most terrifying statistics you can possibly imagine, but it doesn’t work. People will only ever do anything because they want to. It never works to be told. It needs to be led by the consumer.”
That's the irony of discussing food, it is a deeply personal matter whose effects ripple out to everything we touch. The Ethical Carnivore made me re-examine everything I read and that struck a chord with me in books that philosophise meat eating, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Questions I never thought I’d have to ask myself again. And therein, I suspect, lies the problem. Louise’s book is a continuation of Foer’s work, because it re-examines all those difficult ideas we’ve each tried to put to rest.
The Ethical Carnivore is first and always about eating meat and the problems it conjures, but through Gray’s personal journey a larger picture emerges. Taking the industry as a whole, as the book does, there are certainly the abhorrent, awful scenes of a reality of factory farming most readers will expect to find. But it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. People like Lowe, Dale, Sheddan and Gray manage to blur that line. After all, we will always want to eat meat. But providing people with meat that’s been raised responsibly is vital in the battle to getting people to eat less meat, and better meat.
Supermarkets have a great knack of referring to ‘our farmers’ as a homogenous mass. But the countryside is more than a green wash. I end up travelling back a ludicrously long way from Edinburgh to London, and as we reach the Lake District, the clouds shift from a wash of grey to bright spotlights on the land. I realise I spent barely a day living Gray’s ethical carnivore life, and I’m already looking at the landscape differently. Animal livelihood, welfare and rights aren’t something you just get to opt in and out of. Even for people that don’t eat meat. These people may not feed you, but they’ll feed the people you care for, the people you love.
It may never be ethical. But if we’re going to continue to eat meat (and we are), there are still choices we can make in who cares for and then kills that animal. Whether you agree with eating animals in any form or not, isn’t it better to champion the kinder outlooks, the sustainable methods, the caring attitudes? Isn’t it better to enable people with generations of knowledge, trials and understanding with that responsibility?