One bright morning in the middle of May, Ian Carswell’s tipper lorry came sliding to a halt in a Tenbury car park. It was a smallish thing with raw grey sides and nothing distinctive about it, the sort of truck that carries topsoil or aggregate all over the country.
“Jump in,” said Carswell, leaning over and prodding open the passenger door. The cab smelled of lemon air-freshener and self-consciousness. He wouldn’t normally allow a passenger, and almost certainly wouldn’t be taking one now if the boss hadn’t told him to.
Carswell is a driver with 35 years’ experience working for Andersons, a large fallen-stock operator. Or rather, he is a knackerman, knackering being the old name for a role that, over the past 50 years, has been entirely modernised. His job and the way he conducts it are unrecognisable from the profession he originally came into. Now, there are forms, procedures, trucks, lifters, legislation. Since 2001, testing for BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease in cattle which in variant form can be transmissible to humans) has been mandatory on any animal over the age of 48 months, and new drivers coming to the role have to be fully licensed and certified. A business that was once a byword for the wrecked and smelly ends of animal life is now as antiseptic as modern biosecurity regulations can make it.
But in the essentials, knackering is as it always was. Carswell and his colleagues dispatch sick or injured animals on farms, and collect those that have died “naturally” (by injury, disease, sometimes old age) before transporting them back to their depot, where they are categorised and sometimes moved on to renderers, who extract materials for recycling. Their job is to deal with the animals that for one reason or another do not thrive: the sick or lame or old, the ones that never got close to being old, the cows condemned, the pigs with broken legs, the orphan lambs that took one look at life and quit, the ailing horses, the sickly ewes and surplus bullocks. These are the animals who will never leave home or face the long final journey to the abattoir. In their case, the executioner comes to them.
Andersons has 12 drivers covering the West Midlands. Every day, each one loops out from the centre in a ragged oval, stopping, picking up, moving on. As he drove, Carswell concentrated on his schedule, sitting with the steering wheel held in front of him like a man before a Sunday roast. He’s big, but the bulk is mainly muscle, and he’s both fit and agile, tall, round-faced, strong-shouldered. He wears a blue work shirt with “MT Andersons” across the top-left pocket, a pair of black wellies and a digital watch (consulted frequently), and around his neck hangs the remote control for the winch that hauls carcasses into the back of the tipper.
The day I went with Carswell on his rounds was a Tuesday, after a bank holiday weekend of thunderstorms, sudden downpours and shifts in temperature so sharp that the roads smoked. Animals don’t like these atmospheric leaps and plunges any more than humans do. Young lambs may not be able to tolerate the lurch from warm day to evening chill, and these murky, fevered days breed fly-strikes: flies lay their eggs in the sheep’s fleece, producing maggots that then feed off wounds and can, if left unchecked, prove fatal. And that’s without the hazards of cast sheep (pregnant ewes who have rolled over and can’t get up again), sheep with scrapie or scab or liver fluke. The deaths go on all the time, quietly, unobserved, in the corners of fields and byres.
Like farming itself, knackering is governed by the seasons. Despite all of agriculture’s efforts to even out seasonal peaks and troughs, there are still more deaths in winter and spring, and even with stock indoors, cold and infection still kill off the weak or the soft. Spring brings the diseases of growth: too much too quickly, or not enough for too long. Summer can mean either drought or rain, and then it’s back into autumn – early frosts, gales and hail. And then, year-round, there are the plagues of economics: animals that may well be healthy but could only be raised at a loss.
Half the skill of the job, Carswell said, is the daily mental route-mapping and the joining-up of one job (dead cow, tricky access) with another (live sow, no further information) into a seamless and economical day’s driving. In the course of a working day, he might travel between 100 and 300 miles, but the day I was with him he never had to switch on the GPS. He’s been driving this area for so long that he knows every road, lane, track and short-cut within a 100-mile radius.
This morning, he had 15 jobs listed before the office opened. Some had been phoned in over the weekend and then emailed through to him the previous night, while others had come direct to his phone from individual farmers who know he does this run.
As we drove, Carswell talked. The trouble with bank holidays, he said, is that there’s always a backlog. Some farmers will phone in stock when they discover it, but others will wait until the Tuesday. Sometimes they don’t even discover a dead animal until several days later. Sometimes, animals expire in plain view, but often a beast that knows it’s going to die will do so in private – limp into the undergrowth, find a corner by the hawthorn, vanish into the scrub. Some farmers prefer to stack up a few dead before calling the knackerman, and some, already overstretched, might not even notice an animal is gone.
The first pickup on Carswell’s round was a couple of ewes. We pulled into the yard, and though I couldn’t spot anything, Carswell saw them immediately, sagging from a disused wooden trailer and covered with a feed sack. No farmer around, no one in the yard. He lowered the back of the tipper, pulled the winch from its hook, looped it round one of the ewes’ forelegs and pressed the button on the remote. He signed the form and left it tucked into the handlebars of a derelict quad bike. And then we were out of there, fast enough that the smell of rotting sheep in the back of the tipper didn’t hit us until we stopped to let another car pass.
“We’re in and out like the SAS,” Carswell said. “Most farmers don’t even know we’ve been.”
A call came in from a farmer named Lloyd. “I’ve got a ram here been fighting, and he’s not won.”
“Right,” said Carswell, tapping the job in. “Be there in half an hour.”
A couple more farms – three sheep, one with its neck gnawed out by a fox or a dog. Another had been lying for several days and had blown up like a rubber glove. The stink of death drifted over the yard. No one in sight, and the weekend’s rain lying dark in the tracks.
Carswell’s truck swaggered down the ruts to another small farm, a scramble of old brick outbuildings. Even from a distance, it gave an impression of love and cheap repairs, with a garden out the front roped with yellow roses. This time, both farmers were there – a mother and daughter, blond and vigorous.
“Morning!” said the mother as Carswell pulled himself down. They know him well – every farmer gets to know the slaughterman (and it is generally a job done by men) a little too well for comfort. “One of my tiddlers today.” She nodded at the two lambs, all fluff and knuckles, that Carswell was lifting into the back.
They offered tea and would clearly have been happy to chat, but Carswell did the forms, passed them over and jumped back into the cab. “Sorry,” he called through the window, restarting the engine. “Busy morning.”
Some drivers, he explained as he turned back up the track, will stop. Farmers may not see anyone else but family or leave the farm for days on end, so the arrival of a familiar face is at least a chance to exchange a few practicalities, complain about the weather, share fragments of a day. Carswell rarely lingers. “I don’t like stopping. I like keeping going, and I like getting the job done,” he said.
If he did stop, he might be there for ever. In addition to being physically one of the most dangerous jobs in Britain – on a par with deep-sea trawling for the sheer reckless nihilism of its safety record – farm work has a reputation for doing as much damage to its workers emotionally as it does physically.
The next farm we went to was tucked around the back of an industrial unit. There are a lot of places like this – farms where the diversification has overwhelmed the original business. Past the false trail of new buildings (Tiny Toes Nursery, Beechcroft Leisure & Beauty) was a track sagged with use and a set of buildings designed not to make an impression.
When we arrived at the address on the callout, there was no sign of the farmer or the dead animal. As Carswell parked, Lloyd, a small, weary man in overalls with a face lined like foolscap appeared round the back of a shed pushing a dead tup in a wheelbarrow.
“Fighting,” he said, bringing the barrow to a stop. “Picked a scrap and got his neck broke.”
Carswell took the handles of the barrow. As it passed, Lloyd watched. How have things been? I asked.
“Difficult,” said Lloyd. “We were just picking ourselves up again when the snow came. Hit us right in the middle of lambing.”
Carswell handed him the forms. Lloyd looked sightlessly for a moment at the ticked boxes (“Ram, under 48 months”) and put his signature beneath.
“You see us looking cheerful for Andersons,” he said to me. “But I tell you, half the time we’re smiling through the tears.”
“Not your fault,” said Carswell.
“Maybe,” said Lloyd, “but the point is to get the bloody things to market and get them sold. After that they can die all they like.”
“Poor man,” said Carswell as we passed the enterprise park. His view of sheep (“Keel over if you so much as look at them the wrong way”) is not a minority one. Among those who manage the less hardy lowland sheep breeds, the general view is that a sheep’s main aim once in the world is to get out of it as fast as possible. They fight or they get scab or bluetongue or rinderpest or they overheat or they eat the wrong grass or they find the one rusty nail in a clean field or they get stressed by horses or do gs or a change in the weather, or they eat yew or they get infected cuts after shearing or they abort their own lambs or they’ve got too much of one mineral but not enough of another. As a farming friend puts it: “If a sheep could, it’d die twice.”
Still, it seems to make no difference to the British passion for sheep. The UK’s ovine population stands at 15 million, and aside from the hold they have over the land’s identity, they remain one of the few ways of making a living from hilly areas.
In many areas of Britain, the more beautiful the land, the harder it is to farm. The Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia – all ravishing, all for sale at roughly half the price an acre of prime arable land. Lettings agents see farms in these areas as a commodity – 25% extra on the price of a weekend rental for the privilege of a piece of green. Convert the mill, add an en suite to the cart shed, and you could work that strip of sky until it made more than the animals you had on it. If anything, the actual business of farming is a disadvantage.
Over the past few decades, the public’s demands on what this land is, and is worth, have increased, while the number of people who tend it has not so much decreased as plummeted. At the end of the second world war, close to 1 million people were employed in agriculture. Now, despite the doubling of the UK’s population, it’s about a fifth of that. Though farming was still important to the UK’s image of itself, until lockdown last year, the stock of farming itself had been falling consistently, and many farms were struggling to survive. In the public mind, farming had become like the police. Once the sort of profession that the middle classes respected without really understanding, now it had become the sort of profession that everyone disrespected without really understanding, either.
Carswell is in his late 50s now, and has been doing this job for 35 years. He has a couple of kids, a dog, a house that’s been paid for, and enough put away that he has no need to keep working. He does it, he says, “Because I love it. I enjoy my job and I get paid to do it. If they let me, I’d work Christmas.”
What does he love about it? “The driving.” And apart from the driving? “The driving.” He inclines his head. “And the planning. Working it all out. What route, how the jobs all join up, being out here. Being my own boss.”
And the killing? “I do it because I have to do it. I don’t particularly like it, but it’s there.”
There are, Carswell explained, two ways of doing his job. He is a licensed slaughterman, which means he uses a captive bolt gun pressed directly against the crown of the animal’s head, which fires a bolt straight into the brain, killing it instantly. But when dealing with an animal out in the wild or terrified of humans or crazy with pain, the firm has a group of trained riflemen who shoot from a distance. If they can, they clear the area beforehand, since nothing makes an animal seem more alive than the moment of its death. Deer scatter. Cows buck. Pigs have hard skulls. And horses, it is generally conceded, are worst of all. Nobody likes doing horses, because the owners get upset and want to stay and hold the collar, and the slaughterman gets nervous, and sod’s law dictates that after 30 jobs that all went without a hitch, it will be at that exact moment that the horse puts its head up or pulls away or just looks at them with one infinite brown eye before ripping its halter and running for the hills.
The riflemen need a gun licence and specialist training, and though some of the Andersons staff are slaughtermen and riflemen, Carswell doesn’t use a rifle and doesn’t want to. In 2001, the highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus swept across the UK, prompting a lockdown on farms and leading to the slaughter of more than 6 million animals. During the crisis Carswell still picked up the regular jobs. Even in the midst of the worst epidemic for a generation, Andersons still had to deal with the ordinary work of agricultural life and death. All that changed for him was that every job was a single stop (pickup and return to depot) to avoid cross-contamination. At points he was lifting whole herds from farms – places where vets from Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, formerly Maff, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) had been in and shot them all.
So what qualities do you need for this job? I asked.
“Patience. Patience, definitely.” Patience in dealing with farmers, themselves a rare breed. Patience in knowing the habits of each one, and how they’re likely to behave when their animals die. There are those who show nothing on the outside but then take their anger out on the knackerman, those who neglect their own stock, those who take each small loss as a heartbreak.
And experience. Experience in reading an animal’s physiognomy and anticipating how it will behave – ears forward, eyes hot with fear, or the ones which look docile but then rear or strike the bolt gun from his hand. Animals – cows in particular – will read people, and even when Carswell parks the tipper where they can’t see it, they will sense the morbidity on him.
“You get that dead smell, and they don’t like it. Doesn’t matter what you do, how much you disinfect, they can always smell it on you.”
And animal behaviour is changing – or rather, animals are the same, but the farming practices around them have altered, which means the way animals respond has also changed. Mechanisation and falling incomes have meant smaller workforces and bigger herds and flocks, indoor parlours, calves separated from their mothers and brought up with artificial weaners, sows raised in farrowing pens. At least the majority of dairy cows are usually in close proximity to humans twice a day – the milkers need to be attached or new cows shown where to go – but beef cattle may not be used to handling, and what contact they do have may either be painful (injections, castration) or frightening (into pens, up and down lorry ramps). No animal would cheerfully submit to the bewilderment of human processes – to having its teeth groped or its neck needled or a hand rammed up its bottom. Small wonder, then, that the final human interaction is no longer met with docility, but crazed, rodeoing panic.
Certain jobs, Carswell hates. Racehorses in particular – if a horse isn’t winning, the owner or trainer might insist it is killed rather than sold on. Animals that have somehow escaped on to motorways, railway lines, down embankments, into ponds or canals or rivers. Some are the victims of barn or stable fires. Some rip themselves to shreds on barbed-wire fences, are burned or shocked by electricity cables or impale themselves on railings. None of them are easy, and in the case of animals that are insured, the owner will often make Carswell wait around for the vet to arrive, because it needs that official signature before a claim can be made. He does not like standing around beside an animal in distress waiting for a piece of paper.
It was early afternoon now. The transponder crackled and then went silent again. Five minutes later, we pulled into another farmyard. The animal to be slaughtered was a newborn calf, a Friesian. He had been born the evening before and was standing now, still lovely and precarious, in an improvised pen near the edge of the shed. He was speckled with glossy black splodges and his ears were pricked and trusting. There was absolutely nothing wrong with him. But this farm was under a government bovine tuberculosis (bTB) restriction, which meant that until the herd was tested, found to be clear and the restriction lifted, none of these bull calves could be sold on the open market. A dairy herd needs only cows, and most farms can’t afford to rear animals for free.
If the wider public are aware of bovine TB, they probably don’t think of it in the context of cattle, but as something to do with badgers. Most of the sound and nearly all of the fury surrounding the disease has concentrated around the efficacy, or lack of it, of culling badgers, considered to be one of the main transmitters of the disease, but also a UK protected species. Few have noticed the numbers of cows – healthy and diseased – that have been slaughtered because of bTB. In truth, bTB has been bad for both species. Since the cull policy was introduced in 2012, more than 100,000 badgers have been killed; since 2005, more than 500,000 cattle have. BTB has been present in Britain for 50 years, and despite all the containment efforts, it’s showing no signs of going away.
Rob the farmer stood by the tipper. In theory, he could probably have done this job himself. Like most farmers, he has a licence and a shotgun and the legal right to shoot any animal in distress. But the vast majority of farmers don’t do it. They might be rearing the livestock for meat and understand that the animals’ ultimate destination is an abattoir, but that doesn’t mean they like killing. No farmer really wants to see the knackerman, and no one wants to pay the £95 it costs to dispose of a cow or the £17 for a sheep. It’s the same as with an old dog: they could do it themselves, but they can’t.
While the bTB restriction remained in force on the farm, Rob’s cattle could only be sold to other farms in a similar situation, thus giving him even less opportunity to justify keeping bull calves. Got to be done, he said, like he must have said a thousand times before, just can’t make it work financially, it’s a reasonable rule and all. But it was clear from the angle of his body and the set of his face that even though all of this was true, it didn’t make it easier.
Carswell led the calf out into the yard. With the smoothness of routine, he pressed the bolt gun to the front of the calf’s head and pulled the trigger. Unnoticed by us, the other cows had come up and were standing in line, watching. The calf was out in the open and they were separated from him by a thin strand of electric wire. Their heads were down and their ears were flicking back and forward. Beneath their soft lashes their gaze moved from us to the calf, lying there on the strawless yard, and to us again.
“I don’t have a problem killing an animal in distress,” Carswell said, as he drove off. “I really don’t. The quicker it’s done, the better. I don’t want to see things in pain. The times I have a problem, it’s killing healthy animals.
“There’s a lot of TB round here,” he said, nodding at Shropshire through the windscreen. “Big chunk of my work. One TB job, I had to shoot 140 infected pedigree cattle in an afternoon. There were so many I couldn’t do it all myself – we had to bring in a couple of extra guys to help.” Any farm that has over a certain number of reactors (cattle potentially infected with bTB) has its whole herd condemned. “That, I hated. I really hated. That farmer had spent his whole lifetime building up this pedigree herd, getting the bloodstock just right. He had a couple of reactors and next thing someone from the ministry tells him he has to get rid of the lot. They all went in a day. One single day: the whole lot, every cow. He was distraught. Just distraught.”
In the past, a dead animal had a use, and thus a financial value. There are still older farmers who remember the days when the knackers paid them, not the other way round. Bone was fertiliser, meat was food, fat was candles, fleece was wool and hide was leather. Now, most of those uses have gone. The cost of shearing a sheep often exceeds the price for the wool, and dead sheep rot so quickly that they’re all just dumped and rendered. Horses aren’t used much. Their hides are too thin for leather and most have had so many injections (antibiotics, steroids, anti-inflammatories) that they cannot even be classified as pet food.
It used to be that when dead animals were incinerated, the resulting black ash was mixed with bitumen and used as road surfacing. Tallow became candles, and horns and hooves were made into containers or utensils or boiled down for glue. The BSE outbreak in the 1990s changed all that. New regulations outlawed the old “dead pits” where farmers would dump carcasses. Every animal had to be collected and taken off the farm. Small abattoirs were closed down or issued with such an onerous list of improvements that they went out of business. Fallen-stock operators either fell in line with the new testing regulations, or went solo below the radar, or stopped trading. And, most importantly, the finances reversed. Where once a dead horse or bull at least had the value the knacker would pay, now it’s another cost.
At the moment it’s Andersons’ biggest outgoing – £100 a tonne to the renderers: more than fuel or maintenance or the charges Defra makes for inspections. The renderers in their turn are taking what they describe as “commercial waste”, cooking it up and making it into biodiesel or protein. It is, in theory, entirely possible that we could one day run cars off dead chickens.
By mid-afternoon, every time we stopped at a junction or paused to let another car pass, the sweet morbid reek of those dead sheep came surging forward, thick enough to seem almost visible. In the wing mirrors, I could see the drivers behind us closing up their windows and a man driving the school bus recoiled, squinting with displeasure. Over the years, Carswell has developed his own customised circuit of anonymous country lanes, a private system of ring roads round every built-up area that allows him to keep the smell a safe 25 yards behind him. Once in a while, he’ll get a pickup like this and be unable to avoid going through the centre. “That’s embarrassing – I’m stuck in the middle of Tenbury or something and all the schoolkids are choking and pointing and waving their arms in front of their faces.”
It’s other people’s reactions that bother Carswell, not his own. He’s been at this job so long that death is just the smell of work to him. Oddly enough, the thing that really makes him gag is poultry. Over the past few years, consumption of white meat has rapidly risen. In December 2012, 65.5 million “broilers” (chickens raised for eating) were slaughtered in the UK; by the same month in 2019, that had risen to 104.5 million. Break that down into parts, and in the first part of 2020, when lockdown began, more than 20 million chickens were being slaughtered every seven days.
Andersons now have several lorries just doing day-in, day-out pick-ups from poultry farms. “This time of year, because it’s getting warm again, their fans pack in, the freezers go down, so they have mass killings. A couple of years ago we had four lorries just doing disasters off chicken farms. We were taking stuff off the renderers: they were passing it back to us because they couldn’t cope with the volume.”
By the end of the day, we had covered much of the West Midlands. Some of the places we had been to were huge corporate successes doing clever things with glamping or polytunnels. In others, it takes a genuine effort to work out which is the farmhouse and which the barn.
It may yet be that last year marked a point of change. Farmers, uniquely sensitised to mass contagions, managed somehow to be among the most affected by lockdown, and the least. They had, after all, been rehearsing for this for a very long time – since farming began, almost. It is an industry inured to chronic volatility, to the gamble of ordinary life, to markets dropping or rising with neither notice nor explanation, to lifting every stone in search of other sources of income, to turning at speed. Like many other professions that prove useful in a pandemic – medicine, transport, electrics – the social value of farming has begun, very slowly, to shift.
Covid-19 and lockdown gave farmers a new set of troubles and a new lease of life: they could no longer sell produce to restaurants, but suddenly everyone was discussing flour again. Farmers, that tiny, endangered corner of the UK workforce, began to appear less as obstacles to environmental progress than workers providing an essential service we had only just recognised.
It was past 5pm and the loop was taking us back towards the border. At the depot, Carswell drove the tipper into the big shed at the back, sorted the carcasses into different categories and sluiced the whole lot out. Lined against the wall were a stack of biosecure plastic boxes used for storing the stock that couldn’t be picked up immediately. In one area there was a line of fresh samples, and in a separate bay, a neat pile of cow hides, a sack of salt beside them. The hides would be taken by tanners to be turned into shoes or car seats, the bTB samples sent to Defra to condemn or not to condemn.
Driving back after Carswell had dropped me off, I thought of the depot at the end. Ranged across the wet concrete floor below the white lights were the cows and calves that Carswell and the other drivers had picked up, the calves splayed around the cows. If I hadn’t thought it would be seen as sentimental, I would have gone and touched them, said goodbye. I wish I had.
Names and dates have been changed. This is an edited extract from Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land by Bella Bathurst, published by Profile on 29 April and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk