Despite the quantities of beef, chicken and lamb consumed by this nation’s inhabitants I still detect some squeamishness around the subject of eating nature. Traditional quarry species, like rabbit and hare, don’t evoke much response but mention eating something else and the reaction can be rather different.
It’s an interesting subject and one that raises questions about how we view animals and define food. This was brought home to me the other weekend through a conversation I had with Donald S. Murray; the ‘S.’ is important because Donald was raised in the small community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis, a community with a long tradition of eating nature. Donald has written and spoken widely on the men of Lewis who, every year, take a harvest of fully-grown gannet chicks from Sulasgeir, a remote rock that lies far out into the Atlantic. The young gannets are known as ‘guga’ and 2,000 are harvested annually by a team of 10 men. They are butchered on the island, the feathers plucked, then the skins singed with fire to remove the stubble before being quartered, salted and pickled for the table.
Donald’s description of the meat, in terms of its texture, taste and smell, left me wondering how anyone could stomach it, but it did serve to underline how important this oily bounty was to the remote communities living on our western fringes. Such was its value that the men of these communities braved difficult seas and treacherous rocky outcrops to harvest the guga. That the hunt has continued has led some to question its validity, arguing that the tradition – for that is what it now is – has little place in a world of freezers, supermarkets and microwave meals. But I’d argue differently. Here is a community in touch with its food, a community actually involved in the harvesting and with some of its men folk risking their lives in the process. The gannet chicks may have had a short life but it has been a natural one; the guga hunters look after the colony, removing plastic rubbish collected by the birds, and maintain a sustainable harvest. The gannets are unquestionably ‘nature’ and the better for it. Maybe it is how we view domesticated stock that is the more unpalatable question?