Monday, April 5, 2010

ethics of self-sufficent foraging.

I am a biologist and I believe in ecologically sustainable foraging. I believe in providing a quick clean death to something I'm prepared to eat. I'm not of the ilk who will buy mutton in a supermarket, but not deal with the fairly grim process of turning it from sheep into mutton. I still believe that as a small farmer you can do this better and more ethically than at mass produced poultry farms or feedlots and trucking to vast abbatoirs. Anyway - tomorrow we go out muttonbirding. I must say my first reaction to this was not one of unmixed joy. The idea of taking a large chick out of the nest and killing it is not one that appeals to the side of me that wants to protect the young. Yes, they're fluffy. Cute if you don't smell them.

I thought about it a lot and I think the decider was someone posting that muttonbirding should be stopped because they'd seen so many of the adults washed up dead of starvation. Dying of starvation is what various crusading animal protectors have inflicted on deer in the UK and been happy to do to elephants in South Africa. It might be nature's way, but it is really predicated by the fact that there are a lot of humans out there, and either natural food sources or space just isn't available. And it is a horrible way to die. If my choice is to starve slowly and desperately or eat reasonably well and live a contented life and then get killed quickly and cleanly... Please kill me. Muttonbirds might be cute and appeal to the protect baby animals side of us, but in reality it makes a lot more sense with anything (be it muttonbirds or fish) to protect the breeding adults (and maybe protect their food supply from overfishing) - where natural mortality rates are fairly low, and take some of the group where natural mortality rates are high (in some fish, 99.9999% - that's why you can go from boom to disaster to boom with some fish species). The shearwaters numbers and the health of colonies are monitored, the process is policed and licenced. I have been a scientist and I know this much, if my fellow biologists believed they had evidence to show that this was endangering this species, they'd stop it, tradition or no.

Anyway. That's my stance. I gather from the islanders taking us out there that it is something of a rite of passage, and bit of an honour to be invited. Some of them have a tradition of doing this that goes back millenia.

Of course I am curious as to what they'll taste like too. But I could have found that out without doing it myself. But I would rather do it myself and I know it will be done as quickly and cleanly as I can.


  1. Anyway. That's my stance. I gather from the islanders taking us out there that it is something of a rite of passage, and bit of an honour to be invited. Some of them have a tradition of doing this that goes back millenia.

    Are they descended from the native Tasmanians? Or do you mean a tradition of getting chicks from the nests, which they transferred to MuttonBirds when they immigrated?

  2. Dying of starvation is what various crusading animal protectors have inflicted on deer in the UK and been happy to do to elephants in South Africa.

    Those "protectors" of wildlife seem to forget that the natural cycle of things requires predation on many levels, and Humans are one of those predators.

    I grew up hunting, and at times, that was the only meat we got as a family when things were tight.
    Here in the US, many areas have healthy populations of animals that had all but disappeared, or even had been missing from those areas for decades all due to the management of hunters. There were no turkeys in my hometown growing up. Hadn't been from back in the 1800's. Now large healthy birds wander the land I was born on. The tree hugger protectionists would like to mess up the system. They cause more damage than what they claim to prevent.
    Foxes in the UK are a good example. Trap the city foxes and release them in the countryside, and they tend to starve, or get killed by a farmer protecting his chickens, as they associate humans with food sources.

  3. Sigh. Just lost one comment. I'll try again.

    Being invited is a notable thing indeed. Congratulations. But... I'll let you discover the 'flavour' of muttonbird for yourself. And I'll say only this: if you can ever devise a means of cooking them that renders them palatable, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

  4. Ori, some of the people I am starting to consider friends have native tasmanian blood.

  5. JP I'm a food forager - a predator if you like. I've never really seen the point of hunting for fun and not to eat. I'm an author - which means 'earn fairly little'. We could not afford to live in Australia without our foraging and garden. Food is 3-5 times more expensive here than back South Africa. Simple as that. I must be honest I actively detest town people who buy cellophane wrapped food telling country people who grow or raise or hunt that food for them, what they should do and how. When theat is your livlihood, your food for your family I'll feel your opinion is honest, fair and valuable. Until then you're a virgin telling a hooker about sex.

  6. Dirk - I'm going to try cooking some tonight. I'm quite good at disguising flavours but the smell is... clinging. And strong.

  7. Dave, if they are native tasmanians, then how do we know the tradition dates back millennia? Did they find archeological evidence?

  8. Another good thing about licensing the mutton bird harvest is that it stops incidental poachers/foragers.

    And since poachers will use the quickest and easiest way to gather a muttonbird chick (by either using a barbed hook or a shovel to tear open the burrow, both of which effectively destroys the rookery for future use), it's probably a good thing.

    Although that being said, most of the rookeries were destroyed by grazing sheep and cattle, and introduced vermin such as rats and cats. [Why yes, I consider your cute and cuddly cat to be vermin responsible for destroying a lot of the native wildlife.]

    And I agree with Flintheart, but as you like fish a lot more than me, you'll probably cope a lot better.

  9. In the early 20th century residents of the northern tier of counties in Texas and the western tier of counties in Oklahoma agitated to form a new state called "Texlahoma". The reason?

    Better roads. In those outlying areas the roads either sucked or were nonexistent. If you see a modern reference to Texlahoma the author will seem to say that the people wanted better roads for their cars. Not so. If you didn't live within 20 miles of a railroad stop any food you didn't grow or hunt was terribly expensive. If you did take a trip in to town you bought big sacks and barrels of flour, sugar, salt and other such dry goods. You didn't waste space in your wagon for tinned pears and such.

    The other side of that was that better roads meant you could sell _your_ excess. You could actually start farming to get extra cash by raising more then enough for your own family.

    People have forgotten how much the price and availability of the foods we take for granted relies on our highways and our trucks. People didn't eat hog jowls,opossum, gar fish, wild onions and such because they were hicks...they ate it so they wouldn't starve.

  10. Ori - the bit of reading I have done and my shonky memory - yes there are middens, and curiously the Tasmanians had gone from eating scalefish, to not doing so. The islands are a little odd, as they were one of the few places in Australia that really were terra nullius. The sealers who were a piratical to outright evil bunch who settled here first kidnapped native australian women from both Victoria and Tasmania. I believe the muttonbird was part of the diet in both.

  11. Quilly, precisely. And I am afraid, as our food comes in by small ship to a small population on a 10 hour trip, or by very small plane (the biggest is 16 seater) it IS expensive. The island has no abbatoir and no dairy. About 90% (guess) of the veg for sale came from the mainland. It's quite a big island - 3 times the size of Barbados - which has a population of IIRC around 300 000 - and we're 7-8 hundred people, with a lot of wild food and is, with a bit of 'food-eating-your-food' proofing, quite fertile. But unless you have a large income just buying food is out of question. It's one of the reason why the west was mostly cattle ranching and here is too -- that excess produce can be moved to market alive and doesn't go bad on the way.

    But just like those so-called hicks you can live largely off local food, you just have to either grow it, hunt it, catch it or gather it. And it is varied and very good, if you have the background (or are willing to learn) to use it. I have the background and I sure as hell am willing to learn.

  12. Mind you, Ian, you could probably achieve more in conservation terms by simply stopping sale and limiting transportation per vehicle to 25 birds per per person in that vehicle (which has the effect of localising predation). I'm a little iffy about licencing as the answer to everything. Firstly the admin tends to cost a lot, and secondly the collection of said licences and paying for admin becomes a reason in itself for the licence. And as anyting but very raw data collection they're extremely iffy.

    Making things totally illegal (or worse purely commercial) tend to not stop abuse at all, but just push the worst inviduals and worst methods to the fore.